Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

The Little Black Dress, Mid-Century Style!

Here’s a fun historical snippet, found and transcribed by the Sewing Academy’s Heidi Hollister:

from The Philosophy of Housekeeping

Joseph Bardwell Lyman, 1869

If a lady can have but one silk dress in a series of years, she will find a black silk will be of more use to her than any other color. Black is becoming to every complexion, and a black silk may be worn at a wedding, a party, a funeral, or to church. It is nowhere out of taste except in the kitchen. It may be made gay with bright trimmings, or severe with those of the same color. It can be worn with hat and wrappings of every hue and is never out of fashion.

If the silk is figured, let the figure be small, the same on both sides, with no up or down to it; so that when worn at the bottom it can be turned upside-down, and when soiled outside, it can be turned inside out. Be careful, too, that the figure is well woven in, and no long threads left on the surface. These will catch in everything, and be soon worn off or frayed out so that no care or skill can restore a new appearance to the dress. If the silk be plain, let it be of excellent quality, not stiff and inflexible, but soft and pliable,  and, when pulled in bias folds, easily returned to its former shape.

And, some notes from Liz:

Remember, notes from mid-century often use “hat” and “bonnet” interchangeably; in this case, given the 1859 reference, do imagine any number of fashionable bonnets as “hats”.

The accessories mentioned might include a fine silk waist (shaped, stabilized with buckram and boning; you might see these called Swiss Waist, or Medici belts), a plain silk belt in a gorgeous color (construction notes and diagrams are in The Dressmaker’s Guide!), silk neck bows, pretty silk ribbon wristlets, or gorgeously-trimmed silk accessory jackets. As the note mentions, any accessory might also be done in good black silk for fashion or solemnity, as desired.

You might be wondering about black being suited for all complexions, as we all know at least one person who ends up looking four days “expired” when wearing black. However, black dresses at mid-century will be worn with a white collar, which buffers the complexion. The addition of colored accessories and favorable bonnet trims lends even more buffering. Black can be appropriately worn by anyone at mid-century.

The process of “turning” a dress works for silks and wools, but not for printed cottons. To “turn” the skirt, it is taken off the waist of the bodice, and de-constructed to flat panels of fabric. The former hem edge is turned to be the top of the skirts; the former waist edge is finished with a faced hem. (This explains why gauged and pleated skirts have all the excess from the balancing process left intact inside!) The skirts are then re-balanced, and re-set to the waist.

A second turning process is possible when the skirts are not only turned top to bottom, but right to wrong: the skirts (or entire dress) are deconstructed, sponged clean, pressed and freshened, and re-constructed, placing the identical-but-formerly-“wrong” side out. Of course, it only works with plain cloth (non-printed) or that with a woven-in motif that’s attractive and identical on both sides.

Such silks (and fine wools) are not often going to be found in a local chain shop, but on-line purchasing and patience can bring a lovely yardage for a reasonable price, to construct a dress you’ll use over and over through the years.

Granted, a mid-century Little Black Dress may have six to ten yards of fabric involved, but the concept of a “best” dress that can be accessorized to suit many social needs is not new. Could there by a LBD in your historical future?

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About The Sewing Academy
With a focus on the 1840-1865 era, The Sewing Academy is your home on the (internet) range for resources to help you meet your living history goals!

Elizabeth Stewart Clark has been absorbed by the mid-19th century for over 20 years. She makes her home in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, four children (from wee to not-so-wee), far too many musical instruments, and five amusing hens.

Email Elizabeth Or call 208-523-3673 (10am to 8pm Mountain time zone, Monday through Saturday)
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