Dressed to impress:
1860s cdv photograph and green silk gown
Dating photographs at the recent Who Do You Think You Are? Live family history show, I was very lucky to see not only a fine mid-1860s carte de visite photograph of a fashionably-dressed young woman, but also a length of the actual fabric used to make her gown. The lady in the photo was Jean Follett’s great great aunt, Mary Calder (nee Jamieson) and the family have carefully preserved the very dress that she wore in the photograph almost 150 years ago. This extra length of material was found only recently, tucked away in an old suitcase. No doubt its safe storage away from the light had helped to preserve its vibrant emerald green colour. The fabric is a stiff silk with a very fine black stripe that isn’t evident in the photograph, but Jean confirmed that the surviving dress is also trimmed with black bows down the front of the skirt and that the pleated edging around the hem also incorporates a narrow band of black braiding – a very stylish and co-ordinated outfit!
Black and white Victorian photographs can demonstrate the style of garments, but they tell us very little of the colours worn by earlier generations. However we know that bold-coloured silks were very fashionable in the 1860s. This fashion plate from 1863 demonstrates some of the vivid hues then in vogue for ladies’ clothing materials, including an emerald green very close to the colour of our fabric. The taste for vibrant colours was inspired by the recent development of the first chemical (aniline) dyes. Mauvine – a strong purple shade – came into existence in 1856 and in the following years the spectrum of new colours commercially available for dress fabrics ranged from violets and blues to greens and reds.
The ancestor in the photograph may only have been a domestic servant but she was dressed to impress in her special portrait and was bang up to date with the latest 1860s fashions!