Silk Dresses, Champagne and Confederation

Among the treasures collected by SMOC curator, Ivan Sayers, is an 1860s ribbed silk dress. This is the oldest of the cache that Ivan acquired at the Salvation Army thrift store in the 1960s—the foundation of a lifetime of collecting. While it is possible that this garment is British in origin; it could also have been made in Canada.

Fashion traveled as quickly as fast steamer carrying the mail could arrive. Instead of being hopelessly provincial, Canadian women of the period followed fashion and were serious readers of The Illustrated London News and the popular American publication, Godey’s Lady’s Magazine.

The latter had reasonably circulation in Canada, as many local libraries have ample copies of this publication, acquired from Canadian sources.

Fashionable silk textiles in the latest patterns and colours were also in wide circulation in British North America— to be federally united into the Dominion of Canada in 1867. 

King’s Museum in New Brunswick has a handsome example of a crazy quilt made from remnants of ballgowns by a local dressmaker of the period. She used the left-overs taffeta and embroidered silk from her efforts to supply the ladies of Charlottetown with suitable dresses for the many social events and balls organized to celebrate the pre-Confederation Charlottetown Conference of 1864.

The fathers of Canadian Confederation-- for all their dark suits and long beards-- traveled with crates of champagne.  Dresses were also excessive, often requiring more than15 metres of fabric, and the abundant scraps of fabric remaining could readily be recycled into something sensible such as a quilt.

Whatever is the exact origin of this elegant dress, we can be certain about its date. Our dress was very much to the taste popularized by the then Princess of Wales, Alexandra. A shy princess from the modest Danish court, Alexandra strove for a characteristic, but chic look. Dresses of this time generally had bodices buttoned to the neck, with sleeves curved to the arm and tight at the wrist, while skirts were gored and pyramidal in shaped. The desired dress- shape required stiff crinolines, or a cage-like hooped underskirt. The Princess also loved stripes. In its line and tailoring, our silk 1860s dress fits neatly within this style canon.  Its youthful and optimistic look makes it a wonderful example of women’s fashion in this dramatic period in Canada’s history.

Written by Denise Jacques