The Story in a Dress

What clues can we find in the handmade stitches of an 1850s dress?

Suzanne Smith Arney Jul 9, 2021 - 6 min read

The Story in a Dress Primary Image

Dress. Maker unknown. Handsewn. Wool and silk. America. 1850–1860. The dress’s pagoda sleeves are edged in a ruched border and faced with the dress fabric. White undersleeves were often worn underneath sleeves of this type. All objects from the collection of Nancy Kirk. All photographs by Ali Buda.

Period fashions and fabrics today captivate all kinds of people: actors, costumers, restorers, teachers, and scholars, as well as people involved with historic homes and living-history sites. Fabric companies study them as source material, designers, for inspiration. An expert on all aspects of vintage clothing, quilts, and fabrics is Nancy Kirk, teacher, textile scholar, appraiser, collector, president of the Quilt Heritage Foundation, designer of contemporary and reproduction fabrics, and proprietor of The Kirk Collection in Omaha, Nebraska.


Dress (detail). Maker unknown. Handsewn. Wool and silk. America. 1850–1860. The alignment of the dress’s printed border indicates the care with which it was made.

Kirk reads fabrics the way Martha Stewart reads a guest list, recognizing old friends, attention-grabbers, and delicate darlings in need of support. Examining a dark print day dress that’s a bit frayed around the edges but still presentable in polite society, she quickly dates it to “the 1860s, maybe 1850s” and continues, “The fabric is wool and silk. It would be a casual dress in the East, but Sunday best further west. Since there’s no border tape [to protect the hem], I’d guess the owner lived in a town with paved streets. Either that or it’s an ‘at home’ dress.”


Dress. Maker unknown. Handsewn. Wool and silk. America. 1850–1860. The pretty pattern on this Civil War–era day dress features trompe l’oeil borders.

The fabric has a warm maroon background printed with two-tone green circles and tiny bouquets. A trompe l’oeil border edges the skirt at the hem, and another curves up the front from knee height to the waist, giving the impression of a split overskirt. The scallop-edged border print alternates brown and green plaids overlaid with floral wreaths and bouquets. Determining the direction of the fabric from a selvedge, Kirk concludes that the main fabric would have included the straight border. “The curved border would have been sold separately. The sleeve border is another design.” The dress was meticulously handstitched with great attention to quiet details. Piping surrounds the neckline and waist. The cartridge-pleated skirt has a deep, set-in pocket on the right side. The fitted bodice closes in front with ⅜-inch (1.0-cm) green buttons and handsewn buttonholes. The buttonholes could almost be machine made, their stitches are so small and uniform; only tiny knots where each thread begins reveal them to have been made by hand. The buttons may not be original; a second color of thread at each site suggests that they may be replacements or simply that they have been reattached. Pagoda sleeves are edged in a ruched border and faced with the dress fabric. A velvet button attached to each dropped shoulder raises the possibility that a small cape was fastened there to keep off chilly drafts. Like most other surviving dresses of the period, this one is completely lined. Underneath it, its owner would have worn a chemise and drawers, a corset, a crinoline, and one or more petticoats, as well as stockings and garters.


Dress (detail). Maker unknown. Handsewn. Wool and silk. America. 1850–1860. The seamstress used neat running stitches to flat-fell a vertical seam, then shortened the dress with a horizontal, interior tuck.

Yes, much can be read in this dress’s fabric and construction, but we will never know who sewed this dress with such care and tiny stitches, or who wore it. Nancy Kirk knows only that her late husband bought it for their antique fabrics business years ago.

I start to picture its owner. Her name is Mary or Anna, the two most popular women’s names at mid-century. She is newly married, slightly smaller than I am, and even though she’s rather quiet, she loves the feel of the fabric’s sway as she walks through her garden. It was well worth the months she spent sewing after dinner. She’ll put the dress away soon, and the daughter she’s expecting will find it in a trunk some morning, as she is about to leave home. . . .


Dress (detail). Maker unknown. Handsewn. Wool and silk. America. 1850–1860. Roses were a popular flower in a Victorian lady’s garden.

Suzanne Smith Arney is a freelance writer living in Omaha, Nebraska, who enjoys writing about artists and their work and the role of art in our everyday lives. In addition to those cited in her article, she thanks Sharon Sobel and Kimberly Wulfert for generously sharing their knowledge of antique fabrics and costume.