Monday, July 15, 2013

1910's White Lawn "Graduation" Dress

This dress is the smallest of the entire display. It also lacks a display card, so all that I know about it comes from the museum docent. I was told this white lawn dress was worn to a high school graduation. This gown, even for an adolescent, is incredibly tiny; it measures B 28", W 26", Hip 32".

This description correlates with the style of gown: these white cotton, batiste, or lawn dresses, often embroidered or decorated with lace or crochet, were typically worn in the warm summer months. This style of dress, known as a lingerie dress, were the ultimate of frilly Edwardian femininity. A frothy vision in white lace, this style of dress allowed a woman to escape some of the heavy layers worn under other garments. Worn to tea, lawn parties, picnics, and graduations, these dresses allowed women to keep cool and fashionable. Called lingerie dresses due to their resemblance of the fantastically lacy undergarments of the Edwardian period, they were very popular in their time.

These flounces cleverly accentuate a petite bust.
Do you see that? At the bottom of the photo...?
Perhaps the worst offender of this whole display!!! Dirty, ill-fitting, an downright ugly shoes!! Yard sales sell tons of shoes with vintage-esque shapes or colors...why choose this?!
Because of its unusually small measurements (I thought I was woefully under-endowed, but a 28" bust is incredible!) this dress is going to be displayed on a dress form carved down to the right measurements. This itty-bitty summer frock at one point was squeezed onto a modern mannequin--this caused (naturally) plenty of tears to an otherwise stable fabric. Unlike silks, cottons tend to last longer--they are more stable and resilient, and this is why often, a silk bodice or skirt will be in tatters while the cotton lining is strong and intact.

Poor and sloppy repair to a tear along the back button placket.
If you notice, the lace insertion has a clover pattern, possibly a nod to the Irish heritage of Kearny.
There must have been some insane pressure applied to the back of this dress, for it to have acquired all of these tears on an otherwise stable fabric.
This dress needed some proper undergarments. On the mannequin, it had a camisole and a long skirt slip, both of which were too modern, rather dirty, and didn't give the right shape to the dress. I made a proper petticoat which will be dual purpose: it will support the dress and give it the proper shape, and it will also protect the hem of the dress from sweeping up against the dirty floor.

I was able to coax the bendable arms and fingers to "hold" the dress, reducing the often static quality of dress forms.
After 3 attempts at carving down the dress form to this teeny proportions, I realized it was impossible to a degree because of the brackets holding in the arms--so I cut my losses and just pinned down the opening to help keep the dress secure. Note that all of the original buttons are missing. From here, you can also kind of see the S-curved shape from corsets of that era.
I think the bust of this dress has been stretched out from that awful mannequin, and that's why there's so much awkward fullness above the waist.
The petticoat really does help hold out the skirt of the dress and also helps highlight the lovely lace insertion!
The final display--I switched the position of these two garments, as the band uniform was becoming faded from the sun from that window. I am working on fixing those blinds to properly cover the window.

Overall, I think this display has exponentially improved, and the full glory of this lovely gown can now truly be admired!


  1. Those shoes... Not only are they very un-1910-ish, they are also sinfully hideous.
    The dress is beautiful, and it looks very nice with a proper petticoat under it! I like how you posed the form, too.
    How on earth was the bust only 28 inches, though? I guess the owner of the dress was somewhat pear shaped. Dresses with unusual measurements are kind of exciting and interesting.

    1. As the dress was for a girl graduating highschool, we can put the crazy measurements into context. The girl wearing this dress was probably 16-18 years old. And she probably went through puberty much later than girls today do, which could explain a bust that hadn't developed as quickly. My boobs really only started growing a few years after I started going through puberty. And, just like you said, she could have been pear-shaped...These dresses are very exciting indeed, because even with corsets and bust improvers, they remind us that not everyone had the "perfect" or "fashionable" shape at the time (;

  2. Those
    It's amazing how much better a dress looks when you just switch out the dress form! I cringe every time I see one of those overly made-up 1980s mannequins wearing a historical gown. Weird arm positions, that unattractive hip jut that so many have....gaaa! I'm so glad you rescued this dress. The before and after photos belong in a museum science textbook illustrating how to properly support garments (and how not to!).

  3. What a beautiful dress! I want it... oh... old lady shoes. Ugh.

    I really really want that beautiful dress! Sigh! Maybe one day I will be good enough and patient enough for all those little details!

  4. Such an improvement! Also, the dress might have been worn for an 8th grade graduation instead of a high school graduation (unless the dress' provenance is reliably recorded). That would explain the tiny measurements, not that I haven't seen itty bitty 16 to 18-year olds walking around even today. Often, girls were taken out of school at 8th grade so they could have several years of "home education" learning how to run a household from their mother, before they married in their late teens. I've seen several 8th grade graduation photos (the students are obviously not older than 14) where the girls are dressed in white like this, and it seems that people made a bigger deal of the 8th grade graduation than we do because in some communities that was the end of most girls' formal education. Perhaps the person who first recorded the provenance of the dress as a "graduation" dress simply assumed that it was a high school graduation dress, not knowing about earlier customs.

    Lucy Maud Montgomery talks about this custom in the "Anne" books; Anne goes on to high school because she wants to become a teacher, but her best friend Diana doesn't, and leaves school after graduating from 8th grade.