April 16, 2015

Cutter Family Clothing Archive: 18th Century Red Silk Brocade Frock

Becky's friend Becca comes from a family which has been in the Boston area for many generations. Last year her mom was downsizing out of her house in Cambridge and Becca was helping her clear out the attic. She asked us if we would like to take on the duty of storing and caring for some articles of antique clothing she came across. Even though they are not actually useful for anything practical, we agreed with enthusiasm to assume stewardship of these beautiful pieces of history. I'll be posting pictures and thoughts on the items over the next few months.

The most interesting piece is a dress in red silk brocade. Partly because it is a fantastic garment, and partly because it has a little documentation with it and some latter day alterations to puzzle out. The photo card at the top of the post was in the box with the dress, with notes indicating it was worn by Miss Thankful Hubbard of Boston, 1759 (1748 crossed out).

Needless to say photography was not invented in 1759 yet, so when was this picture taken?

There is no date on the letterpressed card, which asks that the dress be returned to Mrs. C.A. Cutter, Northampton MA. The handwriting of C.A. Cutter's address is very nice, so might date to the late 19th or early 20th century?

Possibly this dress was put on a model for the photo shoot. In ink at the bottom of the card, the owner is listed as M.G. Cutter, West Roxbury MA. The lower ink addition is also the source of the 18th century date listed previously.

There was a note on the box saying the gown had been altered for Aunt Gertrude.

The marriage of a Miss Thankful Hubbard was recorded in 1770 to a Dr. Thomas Leonard. Several sources indicate a Thankful Hubbard was a daughter of Thomas Hubbard, a treasurer of Harvard College who was born in 1702 and died in 1773 (succeeded in his role at Harvard by one John Hancock). Apparently a portrait was painted of her in 1758 by John Singleton Copley, a well known painter of the time, with the bill made out to a Thomas Fairweather. A few early 20th century books list the location of the painting as unknown.

Here is a source which indicates this Thankful Hubbard was born in 1745. If that is so, she married when she was 25 and her husband Thomas Leonard drowned himself in England less than one year later. A year and a half after his death, she also died, in Boston, 1772. Her father Thomas Hubbard died the next year, 1773. Must have been a tragic couple years for their families. This source indicates Thankful and Thomas Leonard had a child, John Leonard, who would have only been an infant when his mother died. Maybe he was raised by his mother's sister. If that were true, it is possible the belongings of Thankful Hubbard would have gone with him.

Thomas Fayerweather (Surely the same guy who paid for the painting by Copley) was the husband of Thankful's sister Sarah, and Becca is descended from Fayerweathers, so it is possible the gown came to be in her mother's attic in that way. Or perhaps was acquired by a later Fayerweather in pursuit of antique clothing or family heirlooms. Of course I have nothing to go on besides the note, which I have no evidence is accurate anyway.

This theory calls into question the date of 1759 on the card with the dress however, since the Thankful Hubbard listed above would have been only 14 years of age in 1759. This dress looks expensive and fancy. If it was costly, Thankful would be from a family with means, which is consistent with what is documented about her father. In pre-revolution Boston, would a prominent family dress their 14 year old daughter in such a frock? I don't know, maybe. It is made for a woman with a small frame and a tight corset, and if the dates are accurate Copley painted her picture when she was 13... maybe she wore this dress for her portrait in 1758! Or maybe one of these dates is wrong by a couple years.

There is a chapter of DAR in Austin TX named after a Thankful Hubbard. If anyone has more info on Thankful Hubbard of Boston, please post a comment!

The Dress
The gown has been heavily altered. Judging from inspection of the fabrics, seams, and finishing, the original dress looks to be like it appears in the photograph at the top of this post. The alterations seem to have used the overskirt section of the original dress to make a similar but mostly new garment. I think the original would have looked about like this.

Original Version
These sections are put together with well done hand stitching and the dress is fairly complicated in trimming and construction. I wonder what dye was used on the silk. I'm sure it has faded in the last couple hundred years, but this color looks more like cochineal than madder.


Lining looks to be linen, no boning.

Probably a corset or boned undergarment would have gone under it? Both sides have hooks and eyes that engage a separate center panel.

These rosettes on the center front of the bodice are elegant.

The scrunched up ribbon trim and lace are very nice, seen here on the sleeve cuffs. Beautifully applied.

Generally the edges of the fabric are not specially finished to prevent fraying, which was less of an issue for infrequently hand laundered garments made from tightly woven cloth. There are plenty of mended spots.

Inside an armscye

The edges are crisp and carefully put together.

The three quarter length sleeves with big cuffs are so cute. Ah, someone did a real nice job setting in those sleeves.

I took out my three volume set of the incomparable Patterns of Fashion series, by Janet Arnold to take a look at what era this dress style fit best with.

At my present skill level, these books are more useful as references than pattern books, but I like to imagine someday I could whip up one of the designs carefully documented within. They are excellent books and I highly recommend them to anyone interested in pattern making and historical fashion.

Looking at this guide to style by year, I'd say the gown is post 1690

but pre 1790, when sleeve lengths plunged to the wrists and the distinctive regency styles would soon come in.

The center piece, called a "stomacher" in the book, looks fairly similar in trim and shape to this one from 1750-1775 (lower right):

And the lines of the bodice are similar to this gown from 1720-1740:

While the sleeve looks more like this piece from 1775-1785:

Based on this, the gown does seem to fit well in the 1740-1780 range. So the 1758 date could be real. Possibly it was made earlier than that and altered to fit Miss Hubbard.

Reworked Version
The reworked version was also executed skillfully and is quite well done, if less ornate than the original. The long seams are machine sewn, with plenty of handworked details. Fabric from the original skirt or overskirt was split up into two skirts and combined with new crimson red velvet.

A new bodice was made up, attached to one of the skirt sections (on left in above pic).

This bodice is fully finished, lined, and boned, so probably no corset would go under it.

Possibly 1950's era? The white fabric is still pretty white. I should see if I can get a peek at the boning and see what it is made from. Man, I wish the stuff I sew looked this good.

Hemline of one of the skirts.

Some of the skirt fabric was used to make cuffs for the sleeves in a similar style to the original. Nice pleats and edges where the inner and outer layers come together.

The hem is well worn, so it has spent a considerable time brushing against the floor either in it's original or reworked form.

One would guess it was rehemmed when the new skirt was made up, so likely the wear was put on after it's rework. But the hem detail does differ between the new and old sections, so it could be the original hem on the brocade.

An amazing and interesting piece of fashion history. It is really cool to touch and appreciate an object made with skill and care hundreds of years ago, and to think about the numerous people who would have worn it since then.

It's a good thing I can't possibly fit in it, or I'd be tempted to wear it! Hmm, if I go on a diet I wonder if I can get my waist size down to match a 14 year old girl in a corset from the 1700s...?


SJ Kurtz said...

Whoa. I will pass this post around to the fashion historian in the circle, and who knows where this will end up?

In the meantime, Thank You so much for this, and your stewardship!

Phyllis said...

On the corset question: Yes there is no boning in the older garment because was a corset worn seperately, in those days as underwear women wore a long shapeless smock made of linen next to their bodies (the "chemise") and their corest was worn on top of that. In many old paintings the white garment we see peeking out at the bust is the chemise. There also would have been a stomacher as you noted. The stomacher is worn over the corset as a center front piece, it attaches to the gown with ties, although I think I saw hooks in your gown, which is a later addition as I don't believe hooks and eyes were in use yet in the 18th century. The mending and wear patterns are also common. In those days clothing was very very expensive and was never discarded; old clothese were handed down from the gentry to other family members or to their servents,and clothes were always taken apart and re-fashioned for other adults or more often children.