Secrets of the Dress

Diane Shewchuk, Curator

One of the perks of the job is being able to examine objects up close. In preparation for the exhibition Well-Dressed in Victorian Albany: 19th Century Fashion from the Albany Institute Collection, I was able to study each garment’s construction so I could figure out what silhouette I needed to achieve when the dress was placed on a mannequin. Dressmakers used many tricks of the trade to make sure the bodice fit snuggly, the skirt draped beautifully, and that closures were hidden behind trims. Some of these tricks were familiar, some were novel, while others were simply brilliant. They all made me appreciate the talents of the designers, drapers, and seamstresses who were responsible for the dresses. Here are two examples.

Fawn Colored Day Dress, labeled Milton S. Price / Syracuse, N.Y., 1882-83 Gift of Elsie Gray Townsend, 1947.43.2A-B

Fawn Colored Day Dress

While selecting garments for the exhibition, I came upon a dress made around 1882-1883 that looked ok on the hanger – meaning it wasn’t missing any buttons, didn’t have holes in it, or perspiration stains under the arms, and was sturdy enough to be put on a mannequin without damaging it. Not being a big fan of brown as a dress color, I ignored it at first, but then took it out and started to look at it. I draped the tailored bodice on a mannequin and suddenly it came to life. It was so well constructed that I wished I could show it inside out, but I couldn’t. I took a few photographs and called the color “fawn.”

The inside of the lined bodice was beautifully finished by hand and machine with binding on all edges of the seams and encasing the boning. Retailer Milton Price’s label was stitched to the waist tape that hooked together at the center front anchoring the dress to the body so it didn’t shift.

Inside of bodice

There was an added wide band at the front that secured with four hooks and eyes bringing both sides of the bodice closer together making it easier to fasten the twenty-two self-covered buttons that ran up the front.

The parts of the bodice that extended below the waist hang properly on the skirt because round fabric covered weights are sewn into the points on the back and behind the vertical pleats.

Weights sewn into bodice

Green Bodice with Black Skirt

In the Mix-and-Match Separates blog post I discussed a brown and plaid outfit by Ernest Raudnitz. The skirt of that outfit is constructed in the same way as another skirt in our collection from the mid-1890s. Both are made of a silk novelty-weave and are fully lined.

Green Bodice and Black Skirt by an unknown maker, c.1895, U1969.28.AB

One of the most striking things about these skirts is that they are flat in the front with deep vertical flutes at the back. The hem undulates in and out creating a shape that didn’t change when the woman walked.


How was this done? Simple. Short fabric tapes were stitched to each flute about 8 inches from the hem.


Every garment in our collection has a story to tell and sometimes, it’s hidden in the seams or left in the pockets. I’ll share more about our historic clothing over the next few months.


Photographs of dresses by  Michael Fredericks

Photographs of details by the author

Published April 3, 2020