A Tale of Two Dresses

An infant’s dress in our costume collection has a curious connection to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.


Whilst working with volunteers in the costume store we came across a dress that looked particularly interesting; so we started to do some research.

It is a printed cotton dress that dates from the 1790s. The print is a simple monochrome design made using the roller printing method patented by Thomas Bell in 1783.

There are three blue threads woven into the selvedges (1) of the cotton, this firmly dates the dress between 1774 and 1811. There was an Act of Parliament in force between these dates which mandated that all-cotton goods produced in Britain must have three blue threads woven into the selvedge to distinguish it from foreign cotton which was subject to a higher duty.

When reading What Clothes Reveal, the Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America, by Linda Baumgarten, we discovered that the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation have a dress that is almost exactly the same as our dress. It has been made using the same printed cotton fabric; it has blue threads in its selvedge; and has very similar dimensions. We contacted Linda, who is Curator of Textiles & Costumes for Colonial Williamsburg, regarding our matching dresses. We think that the dresses were probably made in the same household and split up at some point in their history, possibly in a sale or auction.

There is one final clue that needs further investigation - our dress has some markings on the bottom edge of its side pieces as these have been made using the end of a roll of fabric. They may give us more clues about where the fabric was woven and where it was intended to be sold. Was this fabric originally intended for export to the colonies? Were the offcuts sold domestically and made into two infant’s dresses?

An amazing survival of two little dresses originally from the same household and now on two separate continents!

(1) A selvedge is an edge produced on woven fabric during manufacture that prevents it from unravelling

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