Steely Seamstress

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Bath Fashion Museum 2019: Collection Stories and Little and Large

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I recently visited the Bath Fashion Museum for what is now turning out to be my annual appointment. Each year the musuem launches a new exhibition and of course there is the main section of the Museum featuring the “History of Fashion through 100 Objects”. This year the Collection Stories exhibit focuses on their collection of nineteenth century clothing and accessories. Here are some of the highlights of the exhibition.

Seventeenth century gloves

Seventeenth century gloves

Hats and Bonnets

The collection displays straw poke bonnets from the mid-nineteenth century. When they were worn the bonnets were tied with silk ribbons and there were often colourful silk trimmings added to the crown or the rim.

The poke bonnet came into fashion at the beginning of the 19th century. With its wide, rounded front brim which typically juts out beyond the wearer’s face, it complemented the fashionable hairstyles of the day where hair was worn up at the back with loops or ringlets at the sides. The name may refer to the way the brim “pokes” out or may be a reference to how the wearer’s hair can be contained within the bonnet.


Straw bonnet, 1840s

Straw bonnet, 1840s

The most desirable straw came from Tuscany. In fact, this article claims that there are still fifteen Florentine companies manufacturing straw hats to this day. In these hats each braid is plaited into the next so that the fabric of the bonnet appears continuous.

However, towards the end of the 18th century the French Revolution slowed imports, so most of the straw hats were manufacture in Britain. The initial plaiting of the straw was carried out as a cottage industry. The plaited braids were then sewn together. The hats were made up by milliners in cities and towns.

Some of the hats on display had the original label still visible. One of them showed that the hat was made by “Mrs Prout’s Straw and Tuscan Establishment, Totnes”. Just thought I’d add that labels in clothes, by contrast, were not seen until the 1870s

Lace and Whitework

In the early 19th century, collars and cuffs were separate items of dress. They would have been carefully tacked onto dresses and then removed when the dress was washed. The 1820s and 30s saw a fashion for large collars almost like small capes.

The collar below on the right features whitework, rather than lace. The white embroidery on white fabric was quicker to produce than lace and therefore not as costly; it was used almost as a lace substitute in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Lace collars

On the right, triple layered cream embroidered net pelerine collar with pendant squared ends, about 1827

Wedding Dresses

This dress made for the wedding of Emily Poor on June 30th 1900 and it was made by a New York dressmaker, O’Donovan. It came to the Museum complete with matching accessories and many items of the bride’s trousseau, including underclothes and nightwear. The dress is made of silk satin, with a separate bodice. There is a high collar and cuffs made from needle lace.

Wedding Dress, 1900

Wedding Dress, 1900


Bride's trousseau, 1900

Bride’s trousseau, 1900

Little and Large

This section of the display featured fashion dolls, also called “poupée de la mode” or moppets from the eighteenth century. These were dolls that replicated the fashions of the time, allowing the buying to view a particular outfit before it was made up into a full-sized dress.

I found a good description of their use in The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grisson, which I read recently:

I have been assured that these moppets are wearing the very latest in London fashion. I am having both of these copied for you by an excellent dressmaker here in Williamsburg, and I will bring the finished product to you in the spring. It is my heart’s desire to see you wear them in Philadelphia. I am hopeful that you approve of the fabric and colour selection.”

The moppets were wooden dolls with painted faces, and their human hair was done up in elaborate curls. Their dresses were of a gossamer fabric: one was an empire style in blue, the body and train trimmed in elegant silver embroidery; the other, similar in style was a pale cream trimmed with white embroidery and ivory ribbons.”

This doll was donated by Mrs Mary Taylor and had belonged to one of her aunts, whose father had been rector of Bath Abbey.

This doll was donated by Mrs Mary Taylor and had belonged to one of her aunts, whose father had been rector of Bath Abbey.

Wax was a popular material in Britain for making dolls in the mid to late 19th century. Many makers were from Italian families who had settled in Britain and adapted the tradition for creating figures for the “presepe” (nativity scenes). The clothes the dolls were dressed in, were often made in Paris.

Fashion doll, circa 1880s. Princess line silk bodice and skirt, 1880s

Fashion doll, circa 1880s. Princess line silk bodice and skirt, 1880s

Fashionable accessories completed the look: the doll below in plum coloured satin came with earrings and pearl necklace, ribbons in her hair, shoes that perfectly matched her dress and all the layers of underwear that helped to form the fashionable outline.

Good quality dolls of this type with realistic body shapes designed to show off the latest fashions were popular from the 1860s to the 1880s. They would have been expensive to buy. The various parts – including the porcelain head, arms and legs and kid leather body were often made in Germany and assembled by French doll makers such as Jumeau or Gaultier.

Fashion dolls, circa 1870s. Plum coloured satin dress trimmed with ecru lace.

Fashion dolls, circa 1870s. Plum coloured satin dress trimmed with ecru lace.

When the doll was given to the Musuem in 1968, she was so precious and fragile that she travelled in a box and was met by Museum staff from Bath Spa train station.

More "mauve measles"

More “mauve measles”


Plums and purples were a very popular colour in the 1860s – 70s. The first synthetic purple dyestuff, was discovered in 1856 by William Henry Perkin. William made his discovery whilst experimenting in a makeshift home laboratory. He named his product Mauveine. It was made from aniline, an oily liquid found in coal tar. Unlike previous natural dyes, the new aniline dye was colour fast and could be produced in industrial quantities. It was a huge commercial success and became so popular that the craze for purple was called “the mauve measles” by Punch magazine:

One of the first symptoms by which the malady declares itself consists in the eruption of  a measly rash of ribbons, about the head and neck of the person who has caught it“ [1]

Men’s Hats and Waistcoats

During the 19th century, men who were members of the aristocracy, the armed forces or the Cabinet could attend the royal court by invitation, either to be presented themselves to the king or queen or to attend the presentations of wives and daughters.

There was a strict dress code for such occasions. Men attending court wore either their military uniform or a court suit. This included a coat with tails, waistcoat, knee breeches, cream silk stockings, lace cuffs, cravat, a bicorn hat and a sword.

The dress code was based on eighteenth century fashions and had remained unchanged for during most of the 19th century. Precise descriptions of the dress code were published by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. [2]

The waistcoat below was part of such an ensemble. It is embroidered with flowers and leaves and has points at the front as stipulated by the codes of formal court dress.

Court Dress Waistcoat

Court Dress Waistcoat

[1] “The Mauve Measles”, Punch, Saturday, August 20, 1851, p. 81

[2] Dress and Insignia worn at His Majesty’s Court, 1921

Author: steelyseamstress

Sewing a new wardrobe

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