c. 1910s (refurbished). One-piece evening dress influenced by Orientalism, with a cream rayon foundation overlaid by black chiffon and net, closing in front, with short sleeves, heavily embroidered panels, and an ankle-length skirt. « less
The dress is difficult to date accurately given its current damaged state. However, it has a label reading “Gownthrift, 34 West 47th Street, New York”, an establishment advertising itself at minimum during 1919-1920 with the promise “Your Gowns Rejuvenated by Alma d’Harcourt”. Key design characteristics of fashions from 1914-1920 are now present in the dress, such as its waistline placement, skirt length, and fullness. There is no way to know how much of the original garment remains or what its date might have been, especially as some elements are known to be missing from its current incarnation, such as half of the sash and at least some embroidered panels matching those still extant. However, the bodice has elements pointing to a potential original date as early as the 1890s, with its very defined and highly structured six-panel bodice back and plentiful boning, aspects which grow less common by 1904.
The unlined cream silk satin bodice foundation is fitted and made of ten pieces: two front panels, two side-front panels with one dart and curved seam to the front each, and a six-panel back with a center-back seam. All the seams in back and the darts in front are boned, for a total of nine pieces of boning. A waist-stay ribbon adds security to the fit. The bodice has a center-front opening with nine hooks and a low square neckline in front and in back, with remnants of white silk chiffon and net extending past the neckline, and which appear to have once overlaid the entire bodice. Short white silk chiffon sleeves are sewn to the white chiffon remaining at the shoulders and are constructed with one seam under the arm. The skirt is likely a replacement of the original, made of a rayon satin rather than of silk like the bodice, and without a white chiffon overlay. It has six gored panels, 87.6 cm / 34.5 in. long, which are fitted smoothly to the waist seam. The bodice opening continues briefly into the skirt, where it is closed with two snaps.
The bodice overlay is doubled, with black silk chiffon beneath black net. The chiffon is less full than the net, which may have been added during the alteration as it is somewhat awkwardly gathered to the exterior of the waist, while the chiffon has a correctly finished waist seam. Both layers have two panels in front and two in back, gathered at the shoulder seams and sewn at the sides. They drape from the shoulders toward the center waists of both front and back, forming a V framing the foundation bodice beneath. The chiffon layer has unfinished cap sleeves covering the top of the white sleeve beneath. The skirt overlay is one width of black silk chiffon, 203.2 cm / 80 in. wide and 85.1 cm / 33.5 in. long, gathered to the waist seam and sewn together at the center back. It has a short opening at the seam with two snaps.
The overall draped look of the dress and its striking decorative elements are best understood in the context of Orientalism, a pastiche design aesthetic drawn from Western re-interpretations of Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African cultures. The stiff panels decorating the bodice and skirt are vaguely reminiscent of a pharaonic collar and girdle though their actual embroideries are more generic. The collar or plastron piece is a rayon satin that matches the foundation skirt, indicating that it is likely not original to the dress, and its surface is directly embroidered with a variety of stitches, braids, and cords using cream silk threads and tapes, and silver (tarnished) threads and tapes. Two bands of woven and knotted silk ending in fringe with silver cord- and thread-wrapped elements are added to the bottom edge of the panel and hang to the waist. The left shoulder of the panel is frayed where it was once sewn, presumably to a matching element for the back as there is no evidence of stitching on the dress itself, and the right shoulder has three hooks for which there are currently no eyes or places where eyes had clearly once been. It is currently tacked to the dress. A second, narrow panel is attached to an incomplete black satin sash and hangs from beneath the plastron almost to the hem. Its materials, at least, are likely original to the dress as they match the foundation bodice, namely a cream silk satin covered with white chiffon. A heavily embroidered white net is layered over this; the net is now very damaged from the weight of the embroidery, but its cream silk ribbons and cords still maintain the shape of the various motifs and traceries. The panel ends with a fringe matching that of the plastron.
The sleeves and exposed areas of the silk bodice foundation have remnants of the same embroidered net remaining, though all of these are badly damaged, especially the back bodice where very little remains. All decorated areas have the same embroidery treatment, indicating the work was done at the same time even if onto pre-existing or repurposed dress elements, and all of embroidery done onto the net has been too heavy for it. Only the plastron embroidery is relatively stable.
Finally, the waist is covered with sections of black silk satin, now incomplete. What remains is pleated and tied into bows and streamers, finished with black seed-beaded tassels and faceted round beads. Machine-sewn and hand-sewn.