Reading The Dress
The Quaker dress is made of a combination of materials including silk, cotton, and lace. Its beauty is derived almost entirely from construction rather than added decoration, which makes sense because of the Quaker aversion to adornment (Jones Lapsansky 2). In looking inside the dress there are patches of an undyed cotton cloth, with a tan color and rough texture stark against the soft plum silk. There is a clear difference between the weights of the cotton and silk parts of the dress. When weighed against an average wool cardigan, the cotton sections were heavier, while the silk alone was extremely light to the point of fragility. The cotton pieces are most noticeable at the base of the dress, where they measure 7.8 incheshigh, and where structural integrity may have been weak. The extra cloth to hold the dress together encourages the idea that it was worn by multiple generations of women in a Quaker family. History would support the idea that the silk is imported rather than made in the U.S.A., as Federico describes how the United States was unsuited to silk production because of its sparse population (15). If the silk was purchased before the 1820s, as the donor history suggests, then the use of imported silk makes sense. After the revolution, the U.S. was desperate to begin trade with China directly because of the large sums of money that Britain was making from this practice (“Early American Trade With China”). The author notes, “During the late 1850s, the United States’ trade with China declined.” If the dress was worn and purchased prior to the 1820s, then it could have easily been acquired during the post-independence boom of trade rather than during the decline. A dress with long sleeves and skirt on average requires a minimum of five yards of cloth and to import such a large amount would have cost enormously (Saunders Maresh). Women tended to only wear silk to special occasions in the early 1800s, and the making of this dress would have been expensive because of the cost of international shipping alone (Dreissen). Silk was more available at this time to wealthy merchant elites and not just royalty, but the family would have had to be well above the middle class to afford it (Kurin). In lieu of discovering accurate pricing per yard, an example of the kind of wealthy people that were able to afford silk dresses can be used. The paintings below of Quakers who not only wore silk, but also could afford professional portraits, show the amount of wealth necessary to import silk for everyday use. Concerning the Pembertons, Jones Lapsansky says “Their family portraits are lavish and bold,” and continues with, “the couple is portrayed in gleaming silks in a manner reflecting the height of rococo fashion” (134).
The final unique element to this dress is the cochineal dye used to create the plum color. The cochineal insect originates in Central America, specifically Mexico, and creates a unique and concentrated red dye (Behan). While this insect is strongly associated with red dye in clothing, the mixture examples on the “Creating Cochineal Dye 2010” page show that purple can easily be created with an addition of baking soda to the insect bodies. Behan states that “by 1600, cochineal was second only to silver as the most valuable import from Mexico.” Due to the rare color, red clothing became associated with wealth, privilege, and power. This association is shown by the use of the red dye in Roman Catholic Cardinal robes (Behan). In fact, the peak of the cochineal industry was in the mid-1800s, and it only declined with new synthetic dyes. This time period coincides with the creation of the Quaker dress. The use of the cochineal purple would create a unique color and emphasize status, not only through the expensive nature of the insect-based dye, but also because purple as a color has long been associated with royalty. It would also be expressed well in the silk material, which is expensive again because of its ability to hold color (Kurin). The material and dye of this dress emphasize that its outer plainness is outdone by the expense of its creation.