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Making Maryellen's Magic Dress

A 200-year old magic frock
inspires a modern bride 
  Maryellen's Dress 
It is a magic dress . It hangs now, as it has for decades, in a wooden display case tucked into a dark corner on the second floor of the Portsmouth Historical Society . Few visitors even noticed it last week as they made their way through the museum's traditional Twilight Tour at the peak of the summer heat wave. The dense air hovering in the unlit hallway reached 100 degrees. Yet the white frock with its delicate hand-made French knots appeared light and cool. Although nearly 200 years old, the dress still radiates a youthful energy.

"It's magic for me, at least," says Maryellen Burke. "From the moment I saw it four or five years ago, I wanted it for my wedding dress."

There was, at that time, no groom. But a lot can happen in four years. Today Maryellen is president of the historical society, and this weekend she marries me, your humble history writer. Our reception is on the museum grounds under the spreading birch tree, and the ancient white muslin dress with the empire waist, as always, is on display.

Scott Jillson, Portsmouth's own fashion designer, studied the dress as the model for Maryellen's wedding gown. It took six fittings, he says, from the creation of a cutout muslin pattern to the fitting of the sleeves and the neckline. The French knots, too labor intensive to recreate, were replaced by an eyelet cotton fabric that Maryellen located in Woburn, Massachusetts.

"I usually get the fabric myself, "Jillson says. "Most people get the wrong thing. But I trusted Maryellen. She knew what she wanted."

Designer Scott Jillson

"It's not an easy business doing weddings," Scott says. Our short phone conversation is interrupted by at least 20 callers. One is from a Yankee magazine reporter who is featuring Jillson's couture silk lampshades in an upcoming issue of the magazine.

"Where was I?" he picks up. "Oh, weddings, they're such an emotional time. Making the bride's mother happy can be very stressful."

It's not often that a modern woman gets a custom made dress, Jillson says. That's what makes weddings special. It's all about doing things right, the way people used to when the town was flush with dressmakers.

"Today it's one-size fits all, It's all easy-fit Gap clothes," Jillson says.

But the vintage wedding, he notes, is back in vogue, and he has created hundreds of gowns in all styles. But most wedding gowns are made of silk and drawn from fashions in the early 20th century.

"A lot of women are wearing their grandmother's dresses," he says. "But a cotton dress from the early 1800s was something very different. It had me imagining what it was like back then. The style is so romantic and the dress so petite."

"What's interesting to me," says Susan Kinstead, house manager at the museum, "is why we have so many of these incredible dresses here. It's all about the Colonial Revival that happened around the time the museum opened in 1920. It's all about taking your incredibly impractical butter churn out of the attic. It was a way of getting in touch with the past. The Portsmouth women who donated these dresses were putting their history in the 'community house' as a way of showing their heritage to the whole town. That heritage is what we're preserving."

Maryellen's dress looks like it came straight from the pages of a Jane Austen novel. I was surprised how contemporary it really is. The historical society has an exceptional collection of rare women's dresses, dozens of them, that I usually pass by in favor of swords and cannon balls and model ships. Most of the dresses have tight waists and heavy skirts and date

from 1830s through the 1880s. But around the War of 1812, it turns out, women in Portsmouth were adopting the very natural look that hit French fashion after the "common people" overthrew the aristocracy. For a brief period then women wore simpler, sexier clothes made of softer comfortable fabrics with short sleeves, supported beneath by only a light chemise.

"The rapid change in 19th century fashion that followed was all about the emerging middle class," Maryellen explained to me one day as we stopped by the tuxedo shop in the mall.

"The new-money-people, manufacturers and traders, began to see the aristocracy as morally and intellectually bankrupt. The untitled middle class invented ways to legitimize itself as morally superior. Fashions shifted. Women's clothes especially became super-moral. The gauzy free look vanished, the waist dropped and clothes got tighter."

"That's fascinating, dear," I said, studying a range of tuxedoes that, to me, looked exactly the same, give or take a button. Thank goodness Iím a guy. Clothes have never been my strong suit.


"That's when dresses got richer and heavier," Maryellen continued. "They were made of silks and then velvets, and they needed layers of crinoline underneath to hold them up. It was uncomfortable, even dangerous when walking. There were the whalebone corsets and the hoop skirts. Women could barely get through the doorway during the worst of it. The bustle came in before the Civil War and then came back again at the end of the 19th century."

"Did you know they have a giant lobster on display at the Woodman Institute?" I said, but only to be annoying. Maryellen has a doctorate in Victorian literature, and I only have a Master's Degree in Spiderman.

But I was listening. The dress thing definitely explains a lot about the way our society evolved. It's the philosophical mortar that fills around the stark battles and dates that make up male history. If I understand correctly, the Revolution smashed the idea of leadership by a divine line of kings and queens. Something had to take its place. At first, there was a burst of freedom, during the era of Maryellen's dress. Lacking a genetic claim to power, the newly rich decided to become morally superior, or at least to act and dress that way. Clothes, and thinking, got stiffer. The human body burst through in the 1920s, again in the 1960s, and now people generally go around naked.

And there's more.

The fashions on display in the museum read like a map of the world. That's because wealthy women in Portsmouth kept pace with international fashion. That's how it goes in a bustling seaport where the men travel to every corner of the globe on trading missions. Even as John Paul Jones was leaving his rented room at the historical society building for war in England in 1777, he promised a local woman he'd pick her up a pair of the latest gloves in France. It was the men who brought the fashions home.

Early 1800s Styles

Susan Kinstead offers the example of Edmund Quincy Roberts, one of Portsmouth's most famous traders and politicians. He married into the Langdon family (who once owned the 1758 museum building) and we have a three-dimensional wax portrait of him made in London around 1804.

While on that same trip to London, Roberts wrote to tell his sister Sarah that he was sending her a dress "a-la-militaire", a French design then all the rage with British women. The white chambray muslin was loose, high-waisted, he explained, with very short sleeves. It could be raised with an attached loop to expose oneís silk stockings, if desired.

"Colored shoes," Roberts warned his sister in the letter accompanying the dress, "with the exception of satin, are entirely out of fashion, as I hope they are with you, having no fancy for them. I hope you will be pleased with the handsome stylish manner in which the dress is made, as it came from one of the most fashionable establishments in London."

The dress as Roberts describes it, exactly matches the magic little dress in the dark display case at the museum. It's a dress so simple, compared to its descendants, that it was misclassified for years as a woman's nightgown. It seemed, somehow, too simple, too private, too liberated for one of the oldest dresses in the collection.

The past, after all, is supposed to be uptight, not full of joy and magic. But there it is, beaming and youthful, in defiance of the Puritans who came before and the Victorians who followed. It's a party dress, and I can tell you for a fact that it looks real good with a matching pair of white Reeboks on a dancefloor full of balloons.

READ ALSOWeb Guide for the Anti-bride


Copyright © 2002 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved..
Article and original photos by J. Dennis Robinson.

 

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