Long Life & Happiness to All its Residents #36

Becky Weiser

Wednesday Dec 16th, 2020

Our “Victorian Holidays” is a little different this year at the Hagen History Center due to the pandemic.  What once was a joyful time of admiring the beauty of the Watson-Curtze mansion in person has become a virtual tour.  It is available on our website, so if you have not seen the tour yet please check it out, the building is beautiful! 

In honor of the Holiday Season, four new “ladies” have made an appearance in the mansion.  We have an extensive clothing collection and I would LOVE to exhibit all the beautiful gowns.  There is a small problem, however; the modern woman is not shaped like the women in the past, and most of our mannequins are made for the average size of a woman today. 

The donation records that this dress is a wedding dress from 1880, made of brown taffeta, and was given to the Historical Society in 1984 by Fran Dunfee. This dress is confusing because the style of this gown is hardly fashionable for 1880. Compare it to the right example:
The bodice and skirt shapes are wrong for the period as well as the sleeves. The lack of ornamentation on the skirt makes me believe that the dress did not belong to an upper-class woman but to one of more moderate means. Compare it to the one pictured at right.
Do not be alarmed that this wedding dress is not white. Queen Victoria began the tradition of wearing white in 1840 when she married Prince Albert. Yet, many brides still just wore the best dress they owned to get married in. I honestly believed the dress to be made in the 1850s based on its style until I noticed the machine stitching throughout then read the donation records.

Alright “Gone with the Wind” fans, what era is this gown from?  This exquisite dress with full skirt, pagoda sleeves and plain neckline is from the Civil War era and was donated by Mrs. E. R. Behrend in 1947.  We do not know if it was worn by Mrs. Behrend’s mother or grandmother, or for what occasion.  It is in near perfect condition. 

The skirt gained it shape by wearing a series of undergarments that the modern woman has never experienced. One is the cage crinoline that would be worn with sometimes multiple layers of petticoats on top to give a smooth look to the overskirt.

Let’s do a comparison study of our last two “ladies”.  Do you think these dresses are from the same era or different?  Look carefully at the neckline, waist and skirt shape.  If you deduced that they are very similar and of the same era, you are correct!  These dresses are both from around 1900-1905.  They both have high collars, straight sleeves (impossible to tell with the black and brown dress I know), fitted waistlines (no “muffin top” on these girls) and relatively straight skirts.  The brown dress was owned by Miss Rose Whitney of Erie who was a public-school teacher. 

I think it is terrific that these dresses have had such a long life and our aim is to maintain them for a LONG time.  I just wish I knew more about the owners and the lives they led here in Erie County. I can imagine the fabulous balls, parties, or joyous weddings these dresses participated in.  Wishing you joy as we prepare for the Holiday Season in these uncertain times.  Please stay safe and healthy.