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News from the Clothing Collection

By: Tessa Payer, Assistant Curator Passaic County Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs; and Hannah Rodums, Museum Attendants at the Wayne Museum and Passaic County Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs

Fashion has been on the mind in the Wayne Museum this year! In March, we debuted our second digital exhibit, “Dressing the Women of the Van Riper-Hopper House”, which connects some of the incredible pieces from our clothing collection with several women who lived and worked in the Van Riper-Hopper House. Many of our garments are too delicate to display in person, so we’re so excited to have found a format that ensures the long-term safety of our garments, but still shows them off to all of you! Check the exhibit out at

Onsite, we’ve been busy cataloging and have some exciting textile-related updates.

Surprises come in all shapes and sizes in our museum. Recently, while combing through one of our storage rooms, we were shocked to discover twenty garments and textiles hidden in a dresser drawer. A quick search through our records revealed no evidence of when they were donated—truly a surprise stash of clothing hiding in plain sight! Our collection now boasts fourteen “new” dresses, a quilt, a pair of gloves, a collar, a tablecloth, and a hat. Based on their design, the garments were made between 1900 and 1920, and showcase a wide variety of fashions for women and girls during this period. Given the amount of 19th-century pieces we have in our collection, we’re excited to expand our fashion timeline and research further into the 20th century.

A selection of clothing we discovered hidden away in a dresser drawer. The styles range from long, tube-like silhouettes to frilly frocks covered in lace.

Another surprise discovery came in the form of an 1840s gown, which we brought out of storage to photograph last week. A note packed with the dress claimed its fabric dates to the 1770s. This was a common occurrence throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. High quality fabrics were expensive, even after changes in textile production during the Industrial Revolution started to democratize some elements of fashion.[1] And just like today, trends were cyclical. A patterned silk popular in the 1760s might come back into fashion in the 1780s, then sit in a chest until the 1840s, when it was toted back out again. The popularity of colonial revival and costume balls around the turn of the century (1880s to 1910s) meant grandma’s dress might even get a fourth time out!

The eerie similarities between our made-over ca. 1770 dress (left), and a made-over ca. 1750 dress at Colonial Williamsburg (middle), tipped us off to the larger 18th and 19th century trend of upcycling garments, to extend the life of their expensive fabrics. These made-over dresses would originally have looked similar to the gown portrayed in a ca. 1750 portrait, at right.

Details of the alternations made to the dress, including the V-neckline, the addition of a panel to the back of the bodice, and odd seams hidden within the folds of the skirt. Click through the slideshow to view.

Using a nearly identical example from Colonial Williamsburg as reference, we’ve identified this textile as originally dating ca. 1750. Today, it survives as a ca. 1840s gown. The mystery lies in the periods of alterations in between and after. How did this dress go from a geometric 1750s silhouette (triangular bodice, square, wide-hipped skirt, and draped back) to the wide neckline, pointed waist, and domed skirt of the 1840s?[2] We can trace some of these through stitching in the gown. A wide placket sewn into the back suggests the dress was widened for a person with a larger chest. The left-hand side of the dress's skirt also sports a long, horizontal seam about 7" down from the waist, indicating an alteration here. The skirt may have been lengthened on this side; old folds just below the seam may have been the original pleats at the waist, before they were unpicked and a new fabric piece added in.[3] There is also evidence of old thread holes and sewn stitches within the bodice lining, and along the pieced part of the skirt. Other alterations include a possible pocket on the right-hand side of the skirt (two hemmed seams are joined together here, about 16" long); and the hem being let out along the front of the skirt (an old crease line runs around the entire skirt front).

Views of a ca. 1900 wrap dress in our collection.

Equally intriguing is our ca. 1900 wrap dress, which we had assumed for the longest time was a nightgown. Upon further inspection, we realized that its unique front closure and its sewn-in belt indicated the garment was not used for sleeping (as comfy as it looks). Also known as “wrappers”, wrap dresses are a style of loose-fitting dress, which many women wore around the house during the 19th century. Much like the sweatpants and T-shirts of our current moment, wrap dresses were worn for comfort, allowing a woman to forgo the foundational garments (such as crinolines, bustles, and corsets) which were needed when wearing more formal attire. Wrap dresses could be worn in the morning before getting dressed; for household chores; for relaxing amongst the family; and other household activities. Because of their casual purpose, wrap dresses weren’t worn out in public—though it appears they had become acceptable attire to wear around friends and guests by the close of the 19th century.

Another exciting unboxing was this beautiful bodice and skirt, ca. 1850s (see below). The 1850s, as you can learn in our new digital exhibit, brought along bold patterns (plaid! stripes! florals!) and bold trimmings.[4] Flounces, ruffles, fringe, tassels, bows, braids, cords- you name it, you could probably find it on an 1850s dress. Our bodice and skirt features small tassels, stripes, and contrasting striped bands. Worn together, the outfit gives the illusion that ruffles were all sewn consecutively on the same petticoat.

The illusion of layers upon layers of flounce on our ca. 1855 bodice and skirt (left, last two images) reminded us of a similar 1850s day gown from the McCord Stewart Museum (middle). Bright, bold patterns arranged in layered tiers marked high fashions of the 1850s, as seen in the ca. 1855 fashion plate at right.

Details of the ca. 1855 bodice and skirt. The fragile nature of the fabric has lent itself to shredding in many places, especially along the layered flounces.

Two-piece dresses also became more common in the 1850s, allowing women to pair the same skirt with a high-necked day bodice or a lower cut evening bodice. This garment, divided into bodice and petticoat, seems to fit this trend. However, it’s also posed a question to our staff. Did most 1850s bodices include such a long skirt, fitting over the petticoat? Fashion plates of such fluffy garments make it hard to see where the bodice ends and skirt begins. Is this a consequence of later alteration? With further study, we hope to clarify exactly what’s going on here.

[1] McCort, Emily. “Repurposing Fashion: A 19th Century Woman’s Guide to Thrift,” Maryland Center for History and Culture, 2019,

[2] Majer, Michele. “1750-1759,” Fashion History Timeline, July 28th, 2021, ; Franklin, Harper. “1840-1849,” Fashion History Timeline, March 26th, 2020,

[3] Thanks to Neal Hurst, Curator of Textiles and Historic Dress at Colonial Williamsburg, for his insight on these alterations.

[4] “All the Flounces! 1850s Skirt Styles,” Historical August 4th, 2016, ; Franklin, Harper. “1850-1859,” Fashion History Timeline. February 19th, 2020,