We do not think much about the objects that surround our daily lives. We use objects, we see them, and we share them without any exploration into the origin and significance of such items. Yet objects tell our stories every day. We use the way we dress to express ourselves and share something with others, we decorate our homes to portray a certain aesthetic, and we even buy cars to make meaning out of material objects. It is hard to understand the significance of our material objects in expressing our society’s culture and our own lives because we are living in the present. It is the examination of objects from history that allows us to make these connections. The preservation of an object of someone long gone can tell a story like no other about the person. More importantly, the information that the item shares goes beyond a eulogy, a person, or the memories remembered by loved ones. Instead, we create a window into the everyday life of one person via the object they used regularly. Through preserved objects, there is no singular focus on the extraordinary events of one person, but rather on who they were for each mundane moment of their life. This unique aspect of preserved objects is what allows us to delve deep into the mind and life of one Midwestern Quaker woman and her dress.
The plum Quaker dress from the Kansas State University Historic Textile Museum tells a story about the life of a woman and her family as they lived in Kansas and Missouri. The story is influenced by many factors, including the entirety of Quaker history, multiple civil rights movements, the treatment of women in the nineteenth century, and the simple construction and material of the dress. The piece of clothing gives us an insight into critical events, and its creation reflects critical cultural moments for one family and even for all people in the United States. One of the most interesting ideas this dress presents is the way in which women rebelled each day against the conservatism and restrictions put upon them. I will discuss how the construction of the dress, its owner’s history, and historical events at the time encourage the idea of rebellion in the Quaker women of the time period.
A dress is different from any other object of clothing because of its seemingly simple features. Dresses have skirts that are attached to the bodice. They often have sleeves and clasps or zippers for ease of wear. These basic descriptors allude to a dress as a simple object, but dresses are far more complex because of nuances in style, the various shapes, and the multitude of colors and cloth used. While dresses of today lose parts of their complex history through mass factory manufacture, those like the plum Quaker dress have a unique story due to being hand-sewn and individualized in great detail for the owner.
The Quaker dress has an empire waist, with the seam of the waistline ending just below the bust. The skirt tapers out in an A-line shape, forming a triangle with the narrowest part at the waist. The length of the skirt is approximately 39.1 inches while the height of the bodice is only 10.2 inches, showing that the dress would come about to the ankles on a woman who is about 5 feet, or 60 inches, tall. On a woman any taller, the dress would have an inappropriate skirt length, as skirts shorter than the ankles were not acceptable in America until WWI (“Vintage Fashion”). These measurements make it clear that the woman wearing this dress would have a very small frame. Netscape Home & Living says that today the average white woman has a 41-inch bust, 34-inch waist, and 43-inch hip. These measurements indicate our dress owner was well below today’s average, as the bust measures 16 inches and the waist 27.3 inches. Such below-average measurements, especially in the bust, indicate that the wearer may have been young or early in puberty because of the short height and small, girlish frame.
The structure of the sleeves is one of the most interesting aspects of the dress. The sleeve length is 29.5 inches from the shoulder and 25 inches from the topmost seam. The length across the sleeve at this seam is only 3.5 inches, which creates a tightness and restriction of movement that would have caused the wearer to be unable to lift their arms past their shoulders. The sleeve then billows out into a large swath of cloth 8 inches across where the upper arm and elbow would be. This is a staggering 5 inches of extra cloth in the elbows to create a style element reminiscent of medieval fashion. It then narrows again to about 3 inches at the wrist. The sleeve seems to be closest to two descriptions of popular 1830s styles, the elephant sleeve and the gigot, or leg-of-mutton, sleeve. The gigot sleeve had an expansive puff on the sleeve from shoulder to elbow while tapering at the wrist (“Gigot Sleeves”), while the elephant sleeve is tapered at the shoulder and expands at the wrist (Torfason). The sleeve on the plum dress seems a combination of both styles. In talking about plain style, Connerley says, “Quakers were understood as both plain and genteel. So a vast consuming public interpreted the bonnet instead as a cover to a lovely and conservative woman” (146). The dress too encourages this view of Quaker women, as restrictive sleeves would keep their bodies enclosed and composed and the medieval billowing could show a genteel sort of quality.