Reading The Dress

Nineteenth Century White Dress Nineteenth Century White Dress Nineteenth Century White Dress

The early history of the Peine family is shrouded in mystery and unknowns, leaving the matriarch, Anna Davin Peine, recorded with four different first names and no exact birthdate. All that is known is that she was born in the early 1800s in Germany and that she was the mother of four children. However, based on historical evidence as well as birth and death certificates, there is much that can be assumed about her life. The history of the Peine family, the culture in which they lived and raised their children, and the socio-political elements of their lives provided by the details surrounding a white muslin dress offer an inside look at the beginnings of an “everyday” American family.

Object Description

Once pure white, Anna’s dress has yellowed slightly through the years due to oxidation. However, when she wore the dress, it probably would not have stayed white for long. Women in the nineteenth century did not wash their clothing as often as women in the present. In addition, roads were not paved and the slight train of the dress would have dragged behind Anna, catching dirt and grass. There is a slight orange rust stain on the left breast of the dress about the size of a small pea.  Not a typical day outfit, Anna would have worn the dress at special occasions, such as an invitation to tea or a day in town. This dress would have been one of three in Anna’s wardrobe: one for church, one for daily wear, and one for special occasions.

A sartorial articulation of the French Revolution of 1800-1815, the muslin dress is much simpler than dresses that preceded it and those that followed. Muslin, which originates from East India, is a fabric made of spun cotton with a plain weave varying in weight, style, and dye. The name muslin comes from the name of port town, Maisolos (Riello). During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, muslin was traded by the East Indians to the ancient Greeks and Romans, contributing to the fashion of draping muslin gowns. This particular dress is crafted from thin, practically see-through white muslin. Empire-waisted gowns gained popularity during the height of Napoleonic Rule in France and were considered high fashion between 1810 and 1815 (Arnold). Afterward, more ornate outfits came back into popularity. Countries such as Germany, England, France, and the United States indulged in the female couture that arose due to the resurgence of Ancient Greek and Roman ideals and aesthetics.

The simple shift-like quality of the dress is a nod to the loose-fitting, draped togas of ancient Greco-Roman design when simplicity was the key to femininity. This apparent simplicity is the effect of a complex fashioning through time-consuming detail. For instance, along the hem runs a woven stripe where the weaving loom inserted a denser number of lines creating a stripe to separate the main bodice of the dress from its decorative seam. Almost hidden among the white expanse of the dress’s bottom is a hand-stitched whitewashed embroidery pattern. This pattern looks akin to holly berries and is almost not seen upon first inspection of the dress. The near-invisibility of this design indicates humbleness, thereby articulating the simplistic elegance of the dress.

Nineteenth Century White Dress Nineteenth Century White Dress Nineteenth Century White Dress

Nested Prairie Point 

Nineteenth Century White Dress

Overlapped Prairie Point

The empire waist paired with a low neckline creates a very feminine display of the wearer’s cleavage. There is little to no shaping underneath the empire waist—this higher cut creates a draping form for the bottom of the dress. The draping was meant to subtly hint at the female form without giving too much away or creating unrealistic waist and bust lines (Winterer). According to contemporary sizing, Anna’s gown is the equivalent to a size 10 child’s form with a waistline measuring only 28.5 inches. From armscye, or the armhole, to cuff, the sleeves measure 25 inches long. Measuring from the top of the neckline to the front hem, the gown is 45.5 inches and from the back of the neckline to the train, the gown measures 48.2 inches. While Anna would have most likely worn this gown from around the ages of ten to sixteen, today this dress would only fit a girl of about seven to eleven-years-old. The dress has a simple tie closure at the top of the back made of strands of cotton cording. Underneath the tie closure at the back is a row of cartridge pleats. Cartridge pleating is a “method of gathering large amounts of fabric to a small waistband or shoulder armscye without adding bulk to the seam” (Leed).

In the midst of a cultural, artistic, and fashionable shift from the traditionally formal Regency to the more loose and free-formed Neoclassicism, this gown embodies simplicity. Take for example the clothing Anna would have worn growing up. As a child and young woman, she would have been subjected to the body-binding shape of the corset with its bone or steel stays and constricting ties. However, in her teens at the height of the Neoclassical period, women’s fashion was more focused on free-flowing simplicity and femininity. According to Cybele Gontar, “at that time the fashion for high-waisted, diaphanous, Grecian-style dresses emphasized the natural female form and required undergarments with little to no reinforcement.” Gone were the painful corsets, instead women wore simple shifts or chemises under their dresses for shaping and modesty. In fact, some even say that “the early 19th century was the golden age of comfort in women’s apparel until present day” (Gannon). Simplicity and comfort reigned supreme with little to no gaudy decoration or ornamentation on ladies’ dresses, as clearly seen on Anna’s simple yet beautiful gown.

Prairie-point edging runs around the hems of the neckline, sleeves and train. This popular edging technique for quilters and dressmakers can be created through two different methods. One technique, called nesting, is created by folding a square of fabric in half diagonally then folding it diagonally again. This creates a squat triangle with an opening on the side into which another triangle can be inserted and tacked into the garment. The other technique is called overlapping. This method is created by folding a square of fabric in half and then bending the corners in and down to create a triangular shape. These triangles are then overlapped and taken onto the garment. The former technique was used to create the prairie point on Anna’s gown. In total, the dress features 526 hand-stitched triangles. The neckline has 119, the right sleeve has 41, the left sleeve has 44, and the hemline has 322.

Although the process seems simple, and the end result appears equally unassuming, the amount of time necessary to craft such an intricate piece of clothing would have numbered well over 50 hours of work. An outrageous span of time for one dress according to modern times, but to Anna and her family, this dress represented their social class, status, and wealth. Even in its apparent simplicity, Anna’s gown holds immense intricacies and insights into her life.   

Reading The Dress