Civil War Era Dress Returns After Conservation

Last year the museum debuted its exhibit “Guns and Gowns: 200 Years of Fashion and Firearms.” Our women’s fashion collection is expansive dating back to the late 1700s (you can see these dresses in the exhibit too).   While we have a lot of pieces representing fashion in the late 19th century and 20th century, pieces representing the rest of the 19th century are selective.   We do not have many dresses in this mid-19th century style with the hoop skirt.  When we came across the dress with the signature silhouette, plaid silk, and puffy sleeve design, we knew we wanted to find a way to exhibit it.  The dress was donated by Josephine Buchanan Lenfestey in the 1990s. Because of its condition it has not been
exhibited since its donation.  The decision was made to send this dress off for conservation to the Midwest Arts Conservation Center in Minneapolis.  Due to the amount of work the dress needed we were aware the dress wouldn’t be ready for the opening of the exhibit but were excited to add it to the exhibit when it was finished.  

Why Conserve the Dress?


This dress is a great representation of not only fashion, but historically what was happening at the moment in time the dress was made.  At this time the skirt’s size increased and was worn over voluminous petticoats, crinolines, or hoops.  Silhouettes became larger thanks to the influence of Victorian Era fashions from Europe.  Lace became more popular and higher in quality thanks to machines invented during the Industrial Revolution. Plaid was also a sign of wealth in Victorian Era fashion.  
The Civil War affected every part of life. Before the war, the fashion industry was thriving.  Queen Victoria was influencing style. The silk trade opened with Japan in 1853. The Industrial Revolution was making fabric production more efficient. Southern slave-produced cotton was sent to the North for processing in textile mills. But during the war, the fashion industry halted. The United States dedicated every piece of fabric to the war.  Based on its design it is believed this dress was made just before the Civil War broke out.  

The Dress Returns in Time to be Exhibited in “Guns and Gowns”


Like everything in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic effected our plans. The conservation of the dress was completed earlier this year.  The plan was to pick up the dress this past spring and have the dress installed in the exhibit for an exciting summer exhibit line-up.  Instead museum staff was forced to wait until September to make the trip to Minneapolis to pick up the dress.  When all is said and done, we’re happy to have the garment back in our hands, and it is now ready to make its debut in “Guns and Gowns.”  It will stay there until the end of the exhibit through February 2021. 

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