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Discovery of an Empire Dress (circa 1800) in the Museum’s collection

The programs and activities of the Manitoba Museum are supported by over 200 volunteers. These dedicated individuals sometimes bring specialized knowledge that casts new light on items within the Museum’s collections. Lee-Ann Blase has volunteered for many years in the Department of Collections and Conservation. She applies her background in textiles and historic costumes to preparing condition reports and reviewing descriptions of the clothing in the History collection.

Lee-Ann

Volunteer Lee-Ann Blase examines a dress in the History Lab © Manitoba Museum

Recently, Lee-Ann was delighted to discover an embroidered cotton dress in pristine condition that dates back over 200 years to the era of the Napoleonic Wars. Imagine Josephine Bonaparte and her contemporaries portrayed in a diaphanous gown such as this, with its high empire-style waist, daringly deep neckline and short bloused bodice, and short puff sleeves.

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L to R: Empire dress, viewed from behind and front (H9-4-414) © Manitoba Museum

The A-line skirt is composed of four panels and finishes with a small train. Drawstrings at the neck and waistline tie at the back, creating tiny pleats in the bodice and skirt.

What makes this dress truly unique are the hundreds of delicate metallic leaf motifs hand-embroidered on the fine muslin. Each leaf is outlined using narrow silver metallic strips and has two metal spangles in the middle, held in place with small metal prongs.

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Close-up of metallic embroidery © Manitoba Museum

The richness of the embroidery suggests an outfit for evening wear. Imagine the gown sparkling with the reflection of numerous candles and lamps! Given its age, the dress would have been completely constructed by hand. The fine needlework skills may be the work of a professional dressmaker.

Unfortunately, we know virtually nothing of the original owner of the dress beyond the suggestion that she was a forebear of Lt. Col. Thomas Clarkson Scoble (1840-1900). Thomas Scoble was born in Kingsbridge, Devonshire, England to Rev. John and Mary Anne Stainburn Scoble. His father, John, was active in the British Abolitionist movement and immigrated with his family to Canada in 1853 to continue his work in this county. Thomas studied engineering at the University of Toronto, and combined careers in the military and engineering. He moved to Winnipeg in 1881 with his wife, Georgina Carruthers, where he was a devoted advocate of the Hudson Bay Railway. He also served as editor of the Nor’Wester and the managing editor of the Great West Publishing Co.  The complete story of how this delightful dress made its way to Manitoba may never be known, but it is certainly one of the many treasures in our collection.

Post submitted by Nancy Anderson, Collections Assistant (Human History)

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