A Moment for Dress – A Block Printed Round Gown

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Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 54.633.

When you work with a collection for any length of time, (while this may sound hokey) the objects become like old friends. This round gown is one of mine. When I was working at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1999-2003, I was a Collections Care Specialist. My particular responsibility was to work on a photography documentation and condition survey project, but I also prepared incoming collections for storage (vacuuming, labeling, and building storage supports) and assisted in exhibition preparation.

I was working with their card catalog one day (the museum had cataloged their collections in a database, but referencing the cards still might yield additional information). Tiny black and white photos measuring 1″ x 1″ were mounted on the cards – this had been the only method of documenting the arrival of a garment in the collection through much of the twentieth century. I had been looking for something else, but as I was flipping through the cards, a tiny photo of this gown caught my eye.  I went right into storage to look for it, happily finding this rare survivor. I immediately placed it into the queue for this documentary photograph. Recently, I featured this gown in my article “Had on When She Went Away: Increasing the Usefulness of Garment Data in American Runaway Advertisements 1750-90 through Database Analysis” in the journal Textile History (May 2011).

SC45625The gown is a round gown, with an apron-like center front panel that ties up around the waist. The back is cut en forreau, or in one piece from neck to hem at the center back; the fullness is then pleated against the body. Block printed cottons were increasingly popular through the 18th century, and while the many colors used to print this textile indicate it was a better textile than much of the lesser sorts wore, nor does this textile rank with the most fashionable imported Indian painted chintzes. The gown was significantly larger than would fit our small-sized 18th century Kyoto mannequins, so she ended up on more busty 19th century mannequin. We were dressing quickly for documentation, not exhibition, so we made some compromises. But dressing any museum garment reveals a lot about the woman who wore it. Museum collections of older garments, worn by women with real bodies and not just runway models, are never all size 2.