American rural indigo cotton print dress, c.1795-1810
American rural clothing in good condition is very difficult to find. The garments were generally worn until they disintegrated, when they were cut up for rags and quilts. Collectors of early U.S. pieces highly value these garments for their rarity and historical documentation.
This transitional-style dress, hard to date accurately, may have been remade from an earlier garment. The open front bodice without bust darts is cut in the 18th century manner. The blue-ivory plaid bodice lining is identical to linings of 18th century New England dresses I've sold.
This dress was purchased from a private New England collection. According to oral provenance, the dress came from an Amherst, New Hampshire estate.
If the dress was remade, the bodice was shortened and the skirt made slimmer in the early 19th century style. The extra fabric from the skirt could have been used to make new long, loose sleeves. The dress is totally hand sewn and closes in front with a drawstring on the skirt.
In the truest historical sense, an antique garment altered 200 years ago is more authentic than an untouched example because that is what our thrifty ancestors did. Good fabric was recycled; nothing was wasted.
The indigo dyed fabric is most likely English. Indigo dyed textiles have been prized since antiquity for their permanent deep blue. The patterns, printed with resist techniques, have a distinctive look. (Designed areas are pre-treated to resist penetration by the dye.) The indigo plants and the dyeing technique came to Europe from India in the 16th century.
The indigo crop, which requires a warm climate, was established in the American Colonial South in 1740. Soon, large quantities of indigo and raw cotton were being shipped to England to be converted into printed fabric. Indigo was one of the most profitable Colonial exports.
After the Revolutionary War, Britain's ban on sharing textile knowledge with the Colonies was lifted. New England textile mills were then able to produce indigo prints. The technique was also widely used in Europe.
I have found similar print samples documented as either English or French (1790-1820). When our dress was made, America was still trading primarily with England. American mills were just getting started.
There is aesthetic irony in the fact that country garments from 200 years ago are rarer than high style dresses from the same period. Unlike the former, the latter—made from expensive imported fabrics—were preserved or recycled.
Elizabeth Dandrige, George Washington's sister-in-law, had a magnificent sack-back silk brocade gown, which she willed to her daughter-in-law to be cut up and used as furniture coverings.
The condition is almost excellent. There are a few small splits and some discoloration in the bodice lining; and one small hole in the skirt.
The bust measures 31" with the fronts just touching. The waist is adjustable, using the drawstring. The length is 49" from shoulder to hem.