The Dress with Two Lives

1840s Ladies and Dressmakers in the Hunter Region

Many objects from previous generations tightly conceal the identities and lives of the people who made and used them, but occasionally, they give away a few clues. We may never know who made or first wore this beautifully printed nineteenth century day dress from Newcastle. But a close look at its construction tells us the dress had two lives.

The well-constructed bodice and skirt reflect professional dressmaking, but variations in stitch type and quality suggest they were made by two seamstresses. Together, the coral and leaf print along with the garment’s style suggests that these were made between 1841 and 1846 – was it Miss M. Forster of West Maitland, who advertised her services in 1842, or Mrs Moore of Singleton who advertised in 1844? Or Mrs Heron of West Maitland at her new business of 1845?

The size indicates its first wearer was a petite figure, but the bodice waist and side seams have been let out and the sleeves and skirt have been shortened – alterations to fit a wider and shorter figure. The bodice seams show signs of stress, possibly caused by use on a body too large for the dress. The skirt’s two gathered flounces seem to have been added to update the style, when the dress was resized.

Perhaps it was not made in the Hunter Region at all but brought to the colony then passed on to be resized for a new owner. Certainly, it is evidence of the re-purposing that long existed before the availability of off-the-rack clothing.