Beaded evening dress, mid 1920s, KSUM 1983.1.2488

Front or back

Now that we have been at our 1920s inventorying project for over a month, we have discovered a number of interesting trends and encountered unexpected problems. We have realized, for instance, that the most popular colors for dresses besides black and white were pale green and a pinky-orangey shade which an earlier museum employee frequently described as “shrimp” as in “evening dress of shrimp georgette.” (If our museum had a café I would push to offer a dish called shrimp georgette because it frankly sounds delicious.) We have also realized how difficult it is to distinguish the front from the back of 1920s dresses.

Determining which is the front of a dress is surprisingly common difficulty. In fact we have an earlier blog post involving this very problem. For 19th-century dresses, the problem is uncommon because of the close fit of the bodice with darts as well as the trains and bustles in the skirt. However, the problem creeps in during the 1910s and 20s as the fit loosens and the bust is de-emphasized. In general, dresses from the 1910s are so intricately fastened with snaps and hooks and eyes (and more snaps) that there is a clear front and back. On the other hand the very complexity of the dresses often makes it difficult to figure out what parts are going to end up where, until it is on the form. This very problem crept in with this remarkable dress by Lucile.

Lucile 2004.28.4 frontback
Silk taffeta and tulle evening dress, Lucile, ca. 1918, KSUM 2004.28.4.

After some confusion we positioned the waist stay so that it fastened in the front. The sash wraps around the bodice and fastens with hooks and eyes at the hip. The skirt is completely asymmetrical with layers of silver lace on one hip and a fold that makes it slant to one side. The dress is in fragile condition but in far better shape than any of our other pieces by the designer. After we photographed the dress, we discovered another dress by Lucile which had a very similar construction for the bodice. However, on the second dress, which was too fragile to mount on a dress form and photograph, the bodice unambiguously fastened in the back. After seeing this we concluded that the peach confection we had just photographed had been dressed backwards! Oops. The dress is so fragile we are loath to put it through the stress of being dressed again, but we really should correct our mistake. The picture here shows the dress on backwards, although I think the error is understandable.

As you get into the 1920s the problem becomes rampant. The cut of the dresses are so simplified that they become little more than 2 rectangles sewn together with openings for the neck and arms. The neck opening is generally either rounded or a V. Often the only difference between the front and the back is the depth of the neck opening. To make it more difficult to determine front and back, very few dresses have any tags or labels inside. We have a few tells we look for to help us figure things out: Where are the sweat stains in the underarms? Which side has the deeper neck opening? (although some dresses have deeper neckline at the back, so this one can be tricky) Is there shirring at the shoulders? (shirring is rows of gathering threads, which were generally done on the front of the dress), Is the skirt longer in the back? (the hemlines are often very irregular that it is not as simple as it seems).

Here are a few examples of some of our dresses seen from the front and the back. In an effort to maximize efficiency as we photograph all of the dresses from the 1920s, we usually only take pictures of the front. And as you can see from these examples, little information is gained by seeing the back. If anyone else knows how to figure these things out we would love to hear from you in the comments!

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