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Blue Polka Dot Evening Gown

Research Paper - Full Description

by: Shanna Parks

The dress, dated between 1909-1912, is made from silk charmeuse that has a blue polka dot pattern.  It has center front and center back panels of silk net with self-fabric appliqué work.

Background

Paul Lindsay donated this gown to the Costar collection in the Department of Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in September 2009 as part of a larger donation of beautiful dresses dating from the 1910s to the 1940s. The gown, the oldest one in the donation, belonged to his grandmother, Zeta Abbott Moody.  Mr. Lindsay included several photographs of his grandmother, two of which pictured her wearing the polka dot evening gown. The photographs were taken in 1912, but the dress was probably not new at the time the pictures were taken. He also provided some background information about Mrs. Moody's life and interests. During the 1910s the family was quite affluent and living in Cranford, New Jersey. Her husband, William F. Moody, joined his brother’s company, Moody’s Investors Service, in 1915, and soon became vice president.  They traveled a lot, both overseas and around the United States, especially during the 1920s. Mrs. Moody did a lot of painting, and wrote at least one play, Incidentally War, which was copyrighted in 1914. When the photographs were taken she was 38 years old, and had three children; the youngest, Pauline, age 6, is pictured with her, below, in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Zeta Abbott Moody with Daughter Pauline


 

Construction of the Gown

The outer dress fabric is silk charmeuse with a blue polka dot pattern; it has center front and center back panels of silk net with self-fabric appliqué work. The appliqués and seams are edged with soutache braid. The dress also has a yoke of cotton Alencon lace and bobinette. The dress has a boned under bodice and interior skirt made of cream lightweight silk taffeta. The under dress opens down center back (see Figure 8 below) with small hook and eyes, while the outer dress opens down center back at the yoke, along the top of the net panel and then down the left side back seam.

Figure 2: Front of Gown

The dress is constructed in a way that seems counterintuitive; it has very few real seams.  Mostly the sections of the outer dress have been overlapped and stitched through the under dress.  The only seam finishes -- flat felled seams -- are found on the boned bodice section of the dress.  The bones have been inserted into the seams and darts with no casing of their own.  The seams and darts are finished to the outside of the boned bodice so that the more finished side is towards the body.  The neckline of the boned bodice is square and fairly low, it has been finished with a one quarter inch machine hem.  The bottom edge of the bodice is bound with silk hem tape that looks very much like modern "hug snug."  The underskirt is stitched to the boned bodice by hand about one inch above the bottom edge.  Most of the underskirt has shattered, but the seams appear to have been flat-felled there as well. 

Bodice

The boned bodice offers some additional information about the history of this dress through alterations and additions.  The center back panels have been slashed and a petal shaped gore has been carefully added.  These gores increase the waist size of the dress by nearly three inches. The gores were added by machine and the fabric that was used matches the rest of the bodice.  This alteration was not continued to the outer dress; instead the silk net simply stretched to fit and was eventually deformed into its current shape.  The neckline was also clipped into at the corners, folded back an additional half inch, and hand-stitched in place; this alteration was not done as neatly and may have been done at a later time.  The other addition of the bodice is three bust pads, one at the center front and one on each side of the body to fill out the dress. These are made of cotton batting covered with cream silk satin.   These elements suggest that the dress was purchased from a shop already made and then altered to fit. 

Figure 3: Interior of Bodice

The overdress was constructed in layers.  The first of these is a layer of bobinette laid in at the neckline that becomes the flat-lining for the lace yoke.  After that a layer of bobinette is applied over the remaining bodice area but only connected at the shoulders and armscye; this layer ends with a small hem about three inches above the bottom of the boned bodice.  This bobinette section supports the layers of flanges applied to the bodice so they float around the body.  The flanges are applied by hand with a running stitch and the edges hidden by the flange above it is left raw.  The lace yoke, consisting of two three inch wide pieces of Alencon lace galloon, was added next.  The lace covers the raw edges of the flanges at the neckline edge.  As seen below in Figure 4, the lace pieces have been cut into and trimmed with a separate lace edging to form a round neckline.  At the center front the lace pieces form a V, which reveals the bobinette underneath; it is trimmed with eleven small soutache buttons. 

Figure 4: Front Neck Detail

Skirt

The sides of the skirt are simple and cut in one piece.  The front of this panel is on nearly straight grain with the back on bias.  There is a dart in the side seam position to add shaping into the waist.  Since this skirt shape is quite wide and the dress is made of twenty-two inch wide fabric, there are two places where it has been pieced and the pattern perfectly matched.  The shape of the train, as seen in Figure 5 below, and its length come partly from how the bias has dropped on the back edge of the skirt panel. 

Figure 5: Gown with Train

The side panels of the skirt attach to the bodice by hand two inches from the bottom edge of the boned bodice.  The seam allowance is covered by a bias piece of fabric that is pleated and stitched in place to look like a belt.  The center front and center back panels are made of a delicate silk net with large holes that is flat lined to silk organza.  This forms the background for the leaf shaped appliqués that are edged with soutache, as seen below in Figure 6.  The front panel has five motifs and the back probably had six, but this panel is badly damaged and only three remain.  These panels extend eight inches onto the bodice section of the dress to connect with the lace yoke.  The skirt is assembled by hand; the edges of the net have been folded under and stitched in place.  This seam is then covered by soutache braid applied in a vermicelli pattern.

Figure 6: Leaf Appliqués

Sleeves

The sleeves are based on a one-piece sleeve shape with the seam at the front muscle point.  They are tight fitting and elbow length, flat lined to cotton bobinette, and have a lace frill at the hem.   The outer fabric of the sleeve is cut in three pieces: two pieces of polka dot silk with a panel of silk net and organza connecting them.  The net panel is a smaller version of the center panels of the skirt; it is two inches wide and decorated by two simplified leaf motifs edged in soutache.  The seams connecting the net to the other sleeve sections are covered with soutache that continues around the hem of the sleeves.   The sleeves are set into the bodice with a machine stitch, trimmed to a quarter inch, and hand overcast.

Figure 7: Sleeve Detail

Justification for Dating

When looking at the date and occasion for this dress there are several major elements that influence the conclusion that it dates from around 1910 or 1911. The first important information is that Mrs. Moody wore this gown for a photograph in 1912.  However, the shape of the gown does not fit with the most current fashions for the year.   Since her circumstances are known, and the family was wealthy, this was probably a favorite dress worn for special occasions, and something striking enough to be worn for several years.  Using these assumptions, my research focused around 1909 to 1912.  

In seeking a more exact date and occasion, the train and skirt shape become the most important.  Norah Waugh talks in detail about skirt shape stating on page 234 in The Cut of Women's Clothes: "Although the fashionable skirt was much reduced in volume c. 1908 it was not until 1910 that the narrow skirt became general wear."  She goes on to say that "In fashionable tailored styles, afternoon and evening gowns, the skirt was trained until c. 1910."

For more everyday clothing, the reduction and eventual disappearance of the train can be traced through fashion plates starting at around 1906 with few remaining by 1909. The skirt shape in the polka dot gown is fairly slim with a single dart, with no pleats or gathers adding fullness at the center back.  By looking at pattern research, the date can be limited further.  Janet Arnold’s patterns in Patterns of Fashion 2 show fullness at the back of skirts in 1907 and 1908, but gowns from 1909-1911 have no added fullness or a small amount of ease across the back.  Jean Hunnisett’s patterns in Period Costume for Stage and Screen: Patterns for Women's Dress 1800-1909 stop a bit short of the date, but all of her skirt patterns from 1900-1909 feature gathers or pleats at the center back.  Costume in Detail, by Nancy Bradfield, shows the same trend, but also provides a sampling of train shapes.  In a gown from 1909-1910 the train in a traditional rounded shape, but gowns from 1911 show a thin, square train or a separate narrow panel of fabric that comes from the waist, according to Bradfield. 

 From this information, Mrs. Moody’s polka dot gown was probably purchased as a formal afternoon or evening gown in 1910 or 1911. 

Researching the bodice construction offers a similar answer, though I've found no information about flanged bodices like this one.  The under bodice construction is consistent with those described in both The Cut of Women’s Clothes and Costume in Detail.  Waugh says on page 234 that: "Most bodices still had a fitted lining.  With the straight line the princess cut…was now very frequent, as was also the semi-princess, which was a long panel center front and another center back but with bodice and skirt seamed at the side waist."

This describes the construction seen in the gowns' bodice and skirt almost exactly, it is a semi-princess cut gown with little or no blousing in the bodice.  Bradfield’s drawings show three examples of silk under bodices cut to sit slightly below the waist with skirt attached several inches up.  These bodices show how the high-waisted look was achieved while keeping the slender line of both bodice and skirt.  

Another important element when determining the date of a garment is the undergarments wore with them.  During the early 1900s, the corset went through several drastic changes.  In 1900, the S-curve corset was invented which would displace the Victorian spoon busk corset, which according to Elizabeth Ewing on page 9 of Dress and Undress:  A History of Women's Underwear, "came up high on the bust and had a curved front busk indented at the tightly laced-up waist.  The new design had a straight buck, began lower down on the bosom, which it released, and extended more deeply over the hips … This corset forced the bosom forward and thrust the hips back; thereby producing what became known as the ‘kangaroo stance’ as well as the ‘S’ line."

This corset shape stayed popular until around 1908 when the figure straightens and is focused on a slender figure.  Norah Waugh states on page 233 of The Cut of Women's Clothes, that “The new corset, which began just above the waist level, encased the limbs almost to the knees; it thickened the waist and subdued rounded contours.”   When looking at the polka dot gown and the photograph of it, the silhouette is straight, but with a waist that still appears pinched.  When looking at images of corsets, the new straight line caught on quickly, but it would take some time for women’s bodies to change shape after decades of tight lacing.  I believe the straight corset shape of 1910 or 1911 fits with both images and the gown.  Any discrepancy can be explained by the body shape of a woman who at probably tight-laced for twenty years previous to the new fashion. 

Figure 8: Polka Dot Pattern on Bodice

The blue polka dot fabric this gown is made of is an interesting print that deserves particular attention.   The polka dots are very closely spaced and form a regular repeat, not the half-drop repeat generally seen in most polka dotted textiles.  When the dress is first seen, the fabric is striking and seems quite unusual for the time period.  When looking for more information about the history of polka dots, I found there is very little known about its true origins.  The name, polka dot, is linked to the Bohemian folk dance, the polka, which became widely popular in the late 1830s.  The Polka craze started in Prague, spread to Paris by 1840, and to England and the United States by 1845  according to Susan Meller and her co-authors of Textile Designs:  Two Hundred Years of European and American Patterns for Printed Fabrics.  During this time many things were named for the Polka, but the term polka dot first appears in an article about current fashions in the September 21, 1866 issue of The New York Times.  Fashion plates and photographs indicate two periods where polka dots were extremely popular: the 1860s and the early 1900s. However, they are found throughout nineteenth and twentieth century fashion history. One historical example of a regular polka dot repeat was found in The Leader: Style Book 1911 Spring and Summer.

Damage

The gown is fragile and most of the underskirt has shattered.  All  photographs of the original were taken with the garment laid flat to avoid any additional stress on the materials, in particular of the silk taffeta used on the interior.  There is some discoloration of the fashion fabric and the train is heavily stained, as seen in Figure 5 above.

Figure 9: Fractured Silk Taffeta

On the Inside Back Closure

© Shanna Parks, 2011