Monday, December 24, 2007

Hand Laundry

American UnderdressAmerican Dress

Left: American Underdress, ca. 1827. White cotton and broderie anglaise trim. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Judith and Ira Sommer Gift, 2006 (2006.29.1); Right: American Dress, 1830–35. White cotton with white cotton lace trim. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Judith and Ira Sommer Gift, 2006 (2006.29.2).

The underdress shown at left is poised between a period of classicism, with its columnar silhouette, and eclectic romanticism, with its burgeoning skirt forms. Made of plain white cotton with an applied hem of broderie anglaise, the dress has been trimmed with fine self-piping along the seamlines of its bodice. Originally catalogued as a finished dress because of its fully constructed sleeves and the fineness of its detailed workmanship, it was more likely intended to be worn under another dress of some transparency.

The dress is sewn completely by hand, the horizontal tucks above the applied hem done painstakingly after the skirt’s front and back panels were sewn together. Such tucking was a common feature of undergarments in the period and served as a decorative means to shorten the length of a skirt without cutting away material. The tucks, by fortifying the lower perimeter of a petticoat or skirt, also reinforced the fullness of the garment’s flare, especially when starched.

The luxury such an undergarment embodies is as much in the nature of its maintenance as its construction: a substantial staff was required to press and launder linens and whites so easily sullied and wrinkled. As with the immaculately starched neckpieces of George “Beau” Brummell, this white cotton underdress was status masked as simplicity and seemingly self-effacing modesty.

The dress at right demonstrates the extraordinary decadal morphing of dress forms in the nineteenth century that begins in the late 1810s with the shift away from the essentially columnar, high-waisted shapes that characterized the Napoleonic period. By the 1820s the corseted waist shifted from the previous Empire line directly under the bust to a lower point at the mid-ribcage. Simultaneously, sleeves began to balloon into the gigot, or leg-of-mutton, puff together with a similar expansion of the skirt into a full bell shape.

As the volume of the skirt increased in the 1830s, the hemline retreated, ultimately to a point slightly above the ankles; promenade dresses in the 1770s were similarly revealing of the lower leg. This fashion, with its sudden emphasis on the feet and ankles, precipitated a range of increasingly decorative stocking designs. This relatively unornamented dress, its crochet lace inserts appearing only discreetly at the shoulder line, might therefore have been worn with hose, also white, embellished with similar lacelike openwork. A wide belt with a gilt buckle would have introduced further visual interest to the ensemble.

Comments (67)

  1. c willow Says:

    It depresses me how the american garments are so restricting and dull in comparision to some of the European designs. I appresiate the white however.

  2. Wilson C***** N******* Says:

    No more than once I have seen such a beautiful dress that would definetly match up with my hair and eyes!

  3. HELLO Says:

    it’ll be a nightmare if i wore these dress at a wedding

  4. giancinephile Says:

    I agree with C Willow- it is rather dull. It lacks opulence which people have been so amused with- in terms of the fashions of 19th century Europe.

    I often costumes in French films and I could say that the undergarments alone have so much detail, they are rich in detail. I couldn’t help but second the motion really because it looks like a stylized peasant dress.

  5. c willow Says:

    hola me llamo alex soy del df y yo digo que este vestido me da un poco de miedo se parece a la que usa una senora muerte ojala y lo lean

    los quiere


  6. Laurie Aron Says:

    There was not a lot of opulence in 1827 America. No aristocracy, for one thing, and robber barons had yet to be invented.

    But despite their alleged relative simplicity to European designs (of the time? Empire was quite a simple style.) these undergarments look very functional in supporting the total look of the fashion of the day, offering fullness, opacity or stiffening as needed.

    What I wonder is the relationship between such complicated undergarments and sexual relations. Did you take them all off in order to put on your nightdress like the French? Did they get easier to manage after marriage, and stay purposely complicated before?

  7. Gloria Guinness Says:

    Very pure and beautiful; the lack of color gives the complicated designs an ancient air that feels strangely refreshing too.

  8. C.Seifert Says:

    bella pe tutti

  9. Leslie Says:

    These bring out the Bronte and Dickens heroine in me. As a historical novelist, I adore them, and frankly, find the silhouette of the gown rather flattering to most women’s figures. The workmanship involved (which many women of that era could do without turning to a modiste to make it for them) is a lost art to all but couturiers’ houses these days.

  10. nyc Says:

    This dress must be uncomfortable!


  11. Sophia Burnham Says:

    It’s dresses like these that make me wish I had lived back in those days. Then I remember what’s under them!

  12. mara Says:

    I think that these dresses show the plainer simpler side of american fashion. They are made of cotton and cotton lace which is not to fancy but still amazingly beautiful. Overall, these dresses are fantastic, and a joy to lok at.

  13. Carolyn Says:

    These look like they would be very hard to walk in with all that fabric but you would sure look great.

  14. Jo Says:

    I don’t really like the design. The sleeves totally distract the rest of the dress!

  15. zita Says:

    now that’s cute I would totally wear that :)

  16. Amy Julia Says:

    Your comments on the “dullness” of the dresses surprise me! Fashions reflect the time and country from which they come. The fresh, simple fabric, but beautiful attention to small details strike me as a wonderful example of the American ideal of simplicity and hard work. They are beautifully constructed, and, as the caption points out, are meant to be a demonstration of the changing silhouette at the time, not necissarily another homage to the opulance and grandure of the courts of Europe. Although the simple fact that they are so delicate, and of such a pristine colour and condition, is proof of the status of the owner, but in a very “simple” and “American” way.

  17. Rachel Says:

    This is enough clothes for me! I don’t need to put another dress over this. Also, the handwork is amazing I don’t know why anyone would wan tto cover it up.

  18. keating Says:

    I feel sorry for this dress and feel sorry about life. I looks like you have to stick a blow dryer up the sleeves to keep it that shape.

  19. FAY Says:



  20. Ruth Says:

    Absolutely stunning! These two dresses find their beauty not in the ornamentation and embellishment so heavily used in the eighteenth century, but in the purity of line and manipulation of material. They recall lillies, simple in their form and effortlessly lovely.

  21. Lilly Speerstra Says:

    I think these’s things are very cute. Also they are very old and still look new’er then they are.Very cool.

  22. Silvia Helena Says:

    Lovely. This dress is fantastic because shows the romantism in early times! The design introduce the “delicate woman” like one of the most importants icons of the XIX century.

  23. Elizabeth Says:

    I recently learned this in fashion history and what was so interesting is that the Met exhibited these white cotton muslin dresses because Marie Antoinette was the very first woman to wear this silhouette and start the trend. At the time, it was the most expensive dress. Many women were appalled by the new look because of the fact that these dresses were so lightweight and transparent. But when the Neoclassical period occurred, women in France began to wear these dresses. The style became very popular since then. Dolly Madison was the first woman in the U.S. to start the white cotton dress look.

  24. annamatrona Says:

    beautiful and refreshing, i would wear this right now, maybe under a leather jacket!

  25. Andreas Says:

    Elegant but still fresh.

  26. max Says:


  27. Ron Knoth Says:

    I don’t think many people truly appreciate the romance of simplicity, the subtleity of the sensual, or the visceral pleasure the wearer of this dress must have achieved. It is not meant to be an obviuous or conspicous dress. The nod to the classic period, reminds us how the Age of Reason was drawing to a close, and with it a way of life and enlightenment. The absence of color is liberating. Granted, the dress may be serious, dour and almost grief stricken. I imagine a young woman with ringlets in her hair posing in a cemetary beside the grave of her sister. The dress is the physical embodiment of sorrow. The beautiful shoulder and sleeve detail is almost angelic. A concoction like whiped cream that reminds us that there are pleasures in clothing that that are whimsical and frivilous and ultimately joyful!

  28. claire Says:

    OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I am a total old- time geek, so i loved it! it’s like the best dress ever. I would soooooooooooooooooooooooooo wear it! i mean, who wouldn’t? It’s simple but beautiful. seriously, if you don’t like it…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

  29. Martha Kelly Says:

    For me, this was the most interesting, if not the most visually arresting, garment in the show. Many beautiful dresses survive, not so many under dresses. I have never seen one from this period. Perhaps it would have been helpful to exhibit a sheer dress of the 1820’s next to this garment so it’s purpose would have been clearer to everybody?

  30. Loel Guinness Says:

    Gloria would you agree that this piece has a sculptural quality that is reinforced by its absence of color? At the same time there seems as if it could be an inspiration to many Japanese designers today?

  31. Lynne Says:

    Inspires daydreams of languid afternoons in a canoe, shaded by willows draping into the lake.

  32. Kate Says:

    Someone remarked about how they thought it was sad that American garments are not as lavish and detailed as their European counterparts but those simple white dresses are beautiful in their own way. Seeing them one can imagine seeing a young girl walking through a park on a summer afternoon. They are beautiful because they are simple.

  33. JESSICA Says:

    OMG I LOVES THIS DRESS!!!! the leg of mutton thing is gross but SO COOOOOOOOOOL looking. it is hot, and i would totally wear this joint to prom. were cna i get it????????????

  34. Andra Says:

    From afar, this dress looks incredibly plain, until you step up and marvel at the hand tucking detail around the bodice. The drape, while simple, is incredibly fresh and elegant–American. One can imagine overlaying a transparent film of a dress to create a beautiful, soft, ethereal form. Elegance doesn’t have to be opulant. I love how this example reminds us of the reliance of the hand in draping fabric. It’s as beautiful as the multi-layered “Oyster” dress in the other gallery. Although, I can do without the mutton sleeves for sure.

  35. Lily Monir Matini, Esq. Says:

    too poofy and bubbley
    matronly at best

  36. Captain Archibald Diddlesworth, RN, K.O.B. Says:

    Americans should learn proper spelling and grammar.

  37. J.P Says:

    I don’t know if I even have a favorite.Every design in here is unique in its own
    special way.

  38. Jenna Says:

    The dresses were sooooo cool! and so were the shoes<3

  39. michael mcguire Says:


  40. Maria and Ed from Staten Island Says:

    It would be quite refreshing if the text were not written for those with a degree in English literature from Harvard. The curatorial staff should “write to express, not write to impress”.

    However, the exhibit itself was startingly beautiful.

  41. Sneha Bhasin Says:

    Alexander McQueen (1969)
    Oyster dress spring/summer 2003
    Ivory silk chiffon and silk organza

    -This dress was very appealing to me and I think it would be to any other female out there. I think it is very unique and the designs were amazing. I love how the top begins with a corset and then forms out to become very huge with each layer detached from every other layer of silk.

  42. anna Says:

    Waaayyy POOFY!!!!!!!!

  43. Maya Says:

    I really appreciated this dress and its simplicity. It was really nice how from far away the dress looks rather plain, but up close you can see all of the beautiful layers and kind of easy elegance it has.

  44. Katie F. Says:

    this dress shows that the children back in those times also dressed very elegant classy and sophisticated. The kids dressed very elegant and it was a sign of loyalty and class. the had a very tubular silhouette, it accentuate much of the children natural curves because they were yound adolescence. The dress was made with white cotton and white cotton lace trim. The painting by John Singer Sergent of the Wyndham sisters also has a relationship with this garment.

  45. Hailey Says:

    I really wouldn’t think this would be comfy to wear under my cothes all the time.

  46. Layla Says:

    I like this dress because it looks like somebody could wear it anytime without anything over it. It’s so simple, but pretty.

  47. Jennifer Smith Says:

    The draping and tucking of the fabric is very impressive on these underdresses. These garments are simplistic which is reminicant of the classic time period. I just can’t believe how much work went into taking care of the garment that you wore under your dress .

  48. Cindy Says:

    I love the simplicity of the under-dress and dress. But this must have been difficult to keep it so pristine looking. Early 19th gowns have always been my favourite era of design.

  49. JAMIROQUI Says:

    The concept of this Exhibition is unique and arguably appropriate. The idea of utilizing modern tools to allow for discussion as well as education is too arguably appropriate. I understand why the lighting deisgn is the way it is, to emphasize the architecture of fashion, but maybe too dark?!

  50. Devon Says:

    I found it hard to locate the crocheted inserts referred to. When one’s interest is piqued by such description, it is disappointing when one cannot really see the embellishment referred to. There did appear to be a strip of bobbin lace down the front of the bodice which is visible when viewed in the exhibition, but I am still unable to really seethe crocheted part. What a shame that one must simply “take it on faith” that they are there!

  51. Jennie Says:

    Doesn’t matter what era or age.. I love a beautiful white dress. There is something so pure and elegant about a simple white dress and I think the styles of these two dresses could definately still be worn today. Love them…

  52. Triple Rainbow Says:

    This dress is simple,but nice.

  53. mikole halsu Says:

    Stunning in its simplicity.

  54. Kelli Says:

    Most of the dresses at the exhibit are extravagant, therefore, i find the simplicity of these dresses to be somewhat refreshing and beautiful.

  55. Lily Says:

    so simple and look sooo comfortable. would love to wear this on a summers day.

  56. toasty fresh Says:

    I disagree with the commenters that called this dress “dull” or “uninteresting” compared to the opulent French and British designs of the same era. The very lack of color allows the beauty of the simple but striking designs to define the piece, as opposed to fancy brocade and beading. The American style also emphasises a more womanly asthetic, while French and British designs are more concentrated on showing off the wealth and status of the wearer. The different ideas behind each dress are what makes them different, and neither is “dull” compared to the other.

  57. french toast Says:

    these look like clothes from colonial times, but they’re nice :)

  58. l.mac Says:

    i think its interesting and pretty

  59. kenditto Says:

    It’s funny how American fashion hasn’t changed that much from the past. American style still favors cotton or the simplicity of a tee and jeans.

  60. Rachel/Rey-rey& Gigi/Gigila Says:

    omg, this outfits r hot!

  61. meimi1995529 Says:

    the style of the dress is cute but i really hate the puffiness of the sleeves

  62. ale pastina Says:

    i think this gallery is amazing…. there are clothes very stranges but interesting…. like the colonials clothes or french clothes of 1700…. i love new york and met\

  63. Mary Says:

    I love the poofy dress! It’s soooooooooooo fancy yet soooooooooooooooo simple! It has very tiny arm holes.

  64. Tala Says:

    big puffy white clouds…i could fly in this outfit!

  65. baby cakes!. Says:

    absolutelyyyyyy gorgeousssss.

    the colorr is my favveee (:

  66. kate Says:

    Utterly gorgeous, simplistic in style. This brings a newfound appreciation for the women, pre-Industrial Revolution, who handstitched every item worn, with delicate pleats.

  67. Eden Says:

    Kate you are right on! Blows one’s mind away thinking of the craftsmanship and utter creativity to construct such a simplistic yet ornate piece so perfect for the times… -Eden

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