Roslyn Russell, Kylie Winkworth
© Commonwealth of Australia, 2010
ISBN 97 80977544363 (pbk)
Context and historic significance
For historical items, context may include the historical processes or themes that shaped an item, as well as related places, settings, functions and issues such as social and technological change.
For items of technology, context may include the way that the design of an item fits within the evolution and design of that class of items and the work that they performed.
Many items in history collections lack a recorded provenance or specific context. Exploring the broader historical context of that class of items can draw out the wider meanings and significance of the object.
Australian collections contain many items of historic costume that have no specific provenance or history. Exploring the historical context of the type of garment places it within the evolution of fashion, design and the social history of the period. This can tell us much about the social conditions in which it was worn, even if we lack detailed knowledge about the wearer.
Excerpt from the discussion of context in the significance assessment about this gown
Afternoon gown, c. 1878, Grossman House, Maitland
Photo: Kylie Winkworth Reproduced courtesy of National Trust of Australia (NSW)
In the 1870s and 1880s, the formal gowns of wealthy and upper-class women became increasingly elaborate. Complex arrangements of drapery and trimmings, the use of contrasting and toning fabrics and pattern on pattern were underpinned by a highly engineered arrangement of undergarments to support a dress's architecture.
The increasing availability of textiles and new technologies, such as the sewing machine, were just two of the factors driving the increasing elaboration and complexity of women's dress in the 1870s and 1880s. The jacquard looms and textile factories in Britain and France were producing beautiful brocades in styles reminiscent of the eighteenth century. In this costume, contrasting fabrics and elaborate drapery show off the expensive material and the wealth of the wearer. The development of the sewing machine facilitated an increasingly complex arrangement of frills, pleats and detail, with the labour saved from hand sewing displaced to create more detail and complexity in the trimming and arrangement of the skirt and bodice.
The social structures and etiquette were as elaborate as the physical arrangements for wearing the gown. Gowns such as this were worn to formal events in the afternoon and early evening. The tightly fitted bodice and heavy skirt and train meant that the wearer was always conscious of her form and bulk. Moving around while keeping the drapery in line took care. Sitting down was a complex manoeuvre that required a kind of three-point-turn to move beyond then reverse into the chair. This is not a costume made for walking in the street, though the train has a deep gauze frill that could be sacrificed and removed once it was soiled. A lady's maid and ownership of a carriage were integral parts of the infrastructure to support such a costume. This gown is a mobile canvas expressing the skill of the dressmaker and the wealth, taste, status and grace of the wearer.