Child's hand-embroidered Regency dress, c.1810
Occasionally in the life of a collector along comes a dress with such commanding presence that she cannot walk away from it. This museum quality child's dress is one of those special pieces. It was clearly a showpiece when first worn by a little princess two centuries ago.
The small size of the bodice shows the dress was made for a very young child, perhaps one or two years old. The dress was too long to walk in. The baby would have been carried by her mother. Like a christening dress, this treasure of embroidery art is intentionally on the long side. The extra length would show off the virtuosic embroidery above the hem.
This dress from a New England estate has not been on the market before. It was snapped up many years ago at an estate sale by an savvy collector who lovingly packed it away. She told me how thrilled she had been on first seeing it. Sadly, she has had to part with it. When she showed me the dress, which captivates and enchants the viewer, my reaction echoed hers.
Why does this 200-year-old baby's dress stand out? The garment maker was obviously a masterful embroiderer, as can be seen in the refinement and delicacy of the floral motifs—stems, leaves, tendrils and buds. An accomplished artist, however, like Salvador Dali in the 1930s, can break the rules.
We see the embroider's whimsical aesthetic decisions: not to fill in all the embroidery on the skirt front; and to change the embroidery color on the sleeves—brown and tan in front and with blue dots added in back. Since the quality of the needlework is of the highest order, these unusual aesthetic choices proceeded not from lack of skill but rather from the whimsical artistry of the embroiderer. This quality, which transcends time, makes the dress alive with character.
The dress is fashioned from lightweight cotton broadcloth. The color, probably white when new, is now a pale beige that only comes from the palette of that master artist, time. The fullness of the empire bodice can be adjusted with drawstrings. I pinned the back of the dress to the mannequin, causing the bodice to appear pointed, because I did not wish to pull on the delicate drawstrings.
The peerless embroidery is executed in wool floss. The Persian-style Tree of Life design on the skirt front is borrowed from the Indian palampores exported to Europe in the 18th century. The dress is completely hand sewn with tiny, even stitches.
An auction several years ago reminds us that museums place a high value on historic children's clothing. At the Stair Galleries auction, a lovely child's dress was estimated at $500-$700. It was hammered down for $4,600—going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The condition is very good. The dress, which is structurally sound, has several small surface problems: a few small holes (1/8" to 1/4"); a small (1/4") brown stain on the back; and a few mends on the edges of the embroidery. These are minor flaws for such an important piece.
It measures: 20" chest, 17" empire waist, 5 1/4" from the shoulder to the waist, and 42 1/2" from the shoulder to the hem.