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.