Day Dress, early 1860s

1983.31.1a-b; pattern available at link
The tag on the hanger and the electronic records tell of this dress's difficult road to dating: the wide sleeves, the fringe, and the little peplum play havoc with some of the traditional standards.
  • Fringe, as well as the simple construction of the skirt, points to 1860 or earlier.
  • Wide, long coat sleeves point to the early 1860s.
  • A peplum points toward 1870
Earlier cataloguers argued that it could have been remade late in the 1860s, but then pointed out that it made no sense for the sleeves not to be reduced to be fashionable if so. Personally, I feel that the conclusion of remodeling is often jumped to too quickly in order to reconcile dress elements that seem not to match, and unless there's a clear row of pinholes where a seam was changed, a very different type of thread, or unmatching fabrics, I tend to avoid it. In this case, I didn't see these things - and the peplum, the supposed late addition, was clearly cut in one with the side-back pieces.

Well, I still haven't come upon an image of narrow peplums (pepla?) in the early 1860s to support my diagnosis - if you have some, please do share - but what clinches it for me is that the bodice actually ends in two points and has triple darts. The double-pointed bodice is a fairly limited style, date-wise, and would have been altered even more quickly than the sleeves. And as the rest of the dress appears to be as it was originally made, I allowed that to steer my instinct.

The actual construction techniques are completely normal, nothing much to discuss. The buttons, though, I found interesting. I was under the impression that the kind of fabric-covered buttons we use today - cloth wrapped around a solid form, with a backing and shank fixed on the bottom via some sort of machine - were a much more modern invention, but that's what these are. With metal, obviously, rather than the plastic such buttons are made of today. I'll have to do some research into the button industry.


  1. Thanks for the patterning work! I'd definitely say '61-'64. That broad coat sleeve was, as you say, at its height '60-'63. I'm not worried about the fringe; it hung on in a modest way in the '60s, always that short, low-profile version rather than the elaborate version of the '50s. The skirt is innocent of gores, but I've seen other dresses that were obviously post-'61 that still had straight skirts. The peplum isn't a huge problem. They came in and out of fashion repeatedly, and I know for sure they had a resurgence in '64 including a narrow variety.

    The buttons - there were indeed metal-backed buttons in this era. John Zaharias and his wife, who sell under the name The Button Baron, have a 19th-century machine that they use to make custom covered buttons and love to proselytize about them!

    That said, people were still making buttons the old-fashioned way, by simply wrapping fabric around a core.

    1. Thanks for the confirmation, and the fashion plate! (When I can't find at least one visual source I just get antsy.)

      I've got another 1860s pattern ( that I never posted to the CCWC because it's technically after the period, if you want to take a look at it. (And there's one more to come that I haven't written up yet, also a bit after the period.)


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