Being a Dress Detective.

By Gemma Esvelt

In this week's blog, CS Ambassador Gemma Esvelt discusses her experience of being a 'dress detective' at Y Lanfa Powysland Museum.

During lockdown the museum I work at was closed so I took the opportunity to begin an inventory of cataloguing and photographing objects in storage. I started with the bay of textiles and was attracted to a deceptively simple and beautifully sewn brown silk bodice from the Llanidloes Museum collection currently stored at Y Lanfa in Welshpool.  Back in April, the Costume Society held a Reading Group with the artist, Sarah Casey and historian, Ingrid Mida about their work on John Ruskin’s clothing and using drawing as a creative approach to researching a garment [1]. I decided to sit down with this bodice [figure 1] and look at it closely, and for a day I became a ‘dress detective.’ I followed Mida and Kim’s method of a ‘slow approach to seeing’ with their three-step stages of observation, reflection and interpretation and embraced the Ruskinian idea of drawing as a means of ‘deciphering clues’ [2]. The accession records this bodice as; 

‘Brown jacket, part of wedding dress, worn by Anne Williams c.1820 ?, married at 18, from Llanidloes, eloped in St Harmons ?, disinherited by father.’ 

Figure 1:Brown Jacket Llanidloes Museum collection. © Y Lanfa Powysland Museum.

Figure 1:Brown Jacket Llanidloes Museum collection. © Y Lanfa Powysland Museum.

There are no labels or laundry marks.However, there is a letter tucked inside from the donor with a short explanation of the family story. I have always believed that clothing contains the embodied memory or lingering imprint of the wearer, and I was intrigued to see how much I could uncover from a close study of this garment. I am in no way an artist so my attempt at drawing pales in comparison to Sarah Casey’s emotive mapping of Ruskin’s clothing. But, by sketching the bodice it made me look at every minute detail; I noticed the echoes of buttons shifted and the ghostly imprints of stitches removed. The bodice is made of brown silk (I would describe it as chocolate) which has a slight raised striped pattern. From what I could see it is entirely hand-sewn. It is very fitted over the waist and closes with 10 brown (honey-coloured) buttons attached to a placard, which have a decorative rose detail. There are three darts reinforced with boning, which shapes the bust point. The silk has slightly shattered along the top of these darts and underneath the armpits, this could be from wear or decay due to age and storage.

There are two decorative ribbon panels, which run from shoulder to waist with black lace sewn onto a cream silk ribbon and a double layer of black and white lace slightly gathered underneath to give a frilled effect. The ribbon has only been loosely tacked on using a mixture of light brown and black thread. The bodice ends in a sharp point with double piping along the edge. The neck is high finished with a 2cm wide neckband trim and closes with a self-covered button and loop, which looks to be made with a blanket stitch. 


The sleeves are low-set, dropping below the natural shoulder line, with the seam edged in piping. The sleeve is cut from three pieces, with a triangular-shaped pattern piece where the bend of the elbow would be. The cuff is decorated with the same ribbon and lace as the front with six buttons, but these are decorative and serve no function. Turned inside out the top half of the sleeve is lined in cotton and the lower half has an extra layer of silk lining [figure 3]. Possibly the silk has been added to increase longevity due to friction, to hide an alteration or because it would have had a more pleasurable feeling against bare skin. I did have some selfish glee (as a fellow sewer) in seeing that the stitches at the shoulder and armpits are not very neat and are much messier in comparison to the rest of the garment. You can also see some discolouration and sweat patches on the cotton lining under the armpits show that it was worn more than once at the wedding. 

The back is cut into three pieces with topstitching on the curved seams. As highlighted on my sketch of the bodice there are very faint stitching holes in three sections along the back which I only discovered when drawing it. The stitches run in two parallel lines down the back seam and another set join the lace at the shoulder and travel down to the curved seams. It makes me wonder if there was once more ribbon lace decoration adorning the back. The inside is lined with pale cream polished cotton. The central back piece has three boning channels made from herringbone weave cotton tape. The central channel no longer has the boning inside but the two channels on either side still have boning. There are many reasons as to why the boning could be absent; it possibly snapped or could have been removed to be used in another garment. [figure 4]

Figure 4:View of inside the bodice. Llanidloes Museum collection. © Y Lanfa Powysland Museum.

Figure 4:View of inside the bodice. Llanidloes Museum collection. © Y Lanfa Powysland Museum.


The waist stay (or waist belt) is anchored with crisscross stitches which seem both decorative and functional. One end of the waist stay has been cut off and the other end is knotted tightly and you can just see a set of hooks and eyes. The curved seams at the back appear to have been cut with pinking shears and then neatly felled to stop fraying. The felled seams are stunning to see up close, and it reminds me how easy we have it today with overlockers. [figure  5] The side seams have boning and the brown silk seams are quite wide, at 3.5cm and neatly felled. One channel has become slightly frayed at the top which has allowed me to see a little bit of the boning to peep out and confirm it is baleen.  

Inside the front, there are three boning channels positioned over the darts. The central dart is deeper and extends beyond the boning. There is a short 4cm piece of boning positioned at an angle between the front and the first boning channel, with only the button side having boning inside. The button side of the bodice is where some interesting secrets start to appear. There is a placard for the buttons and an extra boning channel running parallel. The bottom six buttons are positioned central to the placard, but the top four buttons veer off on an angle. Next to the buttons, there are some very faint stitching marks. It appears that the buttons have been moved and the front of the bodice, over the stomach, has been eased by about 2cm. This evidence is also supported by the threads used to attach the buttons. The top four buttons are sewn individually with brown thread and the last six are attached with a thick black thread that cannot be found anywhere else on the bodice. Although the truth will never be known it makes me wonder if that the bodice was worn long enough to need letting out, after all, she was only 18 when married and may have continued to wear this bodice for years to come. The buttons also propose the idea that Anne was working class, as it is front closing and therefore easier to dress without help [ figure 5].

Figure 5: View of front. Llanidloes Museum collection. © Y Lanfa Powysland Museum.

Figure 5: View of front. Llanidloes Museum collection. © Y Lanfa Powysland Museum.

Overall, the bodice is in remarkably good condition. There are signs of wear from the sweat patches under the arms and discolouration around the back of the neck. There are little elements that add to the human story of this garment such as splotches of wax on the inside front point and on the back near the waist. There are two splashes of purple which have seeped through the lining just at the bust point. This made me imagine Anne possible sitting at a desk quickly writing a letter and spilling some ink or being near a candle that spurted wax. Dating this bodice has proven to be particularly difficult as it does not fit neatly into one category. The accession register records ‘1820?’, but the garment does not match the typical silhouette of that era. 1820 may refer to her birth year, with her being married at 18 years old, therefore dating the bodice to 1838 or 1839. 


In the 1830s the waist began to shift down from the ‘empire’ waist of the 1820s to a more natural waistline by the 1840s. Characteristic of the 1840s and through to the early 1860s is the pointed waist and figure-hugging shape.[2] However, 1830s necklines, even for daytime wear, tend to be quite low they then creep up again with a standing collar by the late 1840s. [3&4]. The sleeves and lace detail gave me a great deal of puzzlement. The sleeve may have been altered to adhere to a more fashionable silhouette with fabric added or removed. Also, the decorative lace details could have been added later and the shape is more indicative of the 1860s to 1870s.I asked fellow dress historians about this bodice and received a variety of different opinions, some said the 1840s with the short waist and pointy bodice, many said 1850 to 1860s as the sleeves looked like ‘coat sleeves’ and others also said 1870s just before the transition to bustles. Not much research has been done looking specifically at the clothes of the Welsh middle and working-class so it is difficult to pinpoint an exact era beyond roughly 1840s to 1870s.

It’s every curator’s dream to have provenance but, as this detective story highlights, there are problems with relying on accession information and family stories. This is one of the few garments in the collection that has any accession details at all which is initially why I wanted to look at it more closely. This close analysis has enabled me to notice details I would never have seen before. Drawing allowed me to respect the painstaking work that went into making it and understand its construction. But as Mida and Kim say in the Dress Detective, I walked away with more questions than answered. 


[1] Mida, Ingrid and Kim, Alexandra., 2015. The Dress Detective. Bloomsbury: London.
Mida, Ingrid and Casey, Sarah., 2020. Drawing as a Creative Approach to Researching Extant Garments: A Case Study Involving John Ruskin’s Clothing. Costume, 54.1. pp.202-221

[2] Nunn, Joan., 2000. Fashion in Costume, 1200-2000, New Amsterdam Books, p.117

[3] Bradfield, Nancy., 1995. Costume in Detail: Women’s Dress 1730-1930. Eric Dobby Publishing Ltd

[4]Edwards, Lydia., 2017. How to Read a Dress. Bloomsbury; London, see chapter 5

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