Caress the detail, the divine detail

“Caress the detail, the divine detail”

Vladimir Nabokov

A couple of weeks ago I was showing a friend the sights in Peterborough, including our vintage shop, which is stuffed with cut price treasures, when we discovered this bodice.

My first thought was that it was an original late Victorian bodice which had been reworked for the theatre or some such, but Carolyn felt it was in fact intact, we couldn’t agree, so the only sensible thing to do was to to buy the thing and investigate further (plus it fits me a treat so if needed could be but into service in some way?)

Anyway, here it is;


it was a while before I could find the time to have a good look at it (and even longer to find the time to write this up) but here we are!

You would think with a name like “Holmes” I would be faster on the uptake of mysteries…


The main fabric is black silk taffeta, it is trimmed with velvet ribbon. It has purple satin with black lace overlay at the front and cuffs, this was the bit I felt had been added later. You can just about see round the cuffs and collar it has a silk chiffon gathered trim.


This is the bodice inside out, it is lined with a cream striped cotton, as you would expect for a garment of this period. The lining and outer fabric are seamed together and the raw edges hand finished, again right for the period.


It has a patch on the wearers left inside front, made of the same fabric as the bodice. This is in fact a hand stitched 5cm square pocket with the opening lining up with that of the bodice, perhaps for a pocket watch? it would have sat just above the bust.


Here cuffs on the right side, and inside out…


They are Hand stitched and with the raw edges of the chiffon covered with a brown cotton tape which would have matched the boning casing.


The sleeve head, inside and out, it is hand stitched and finished


The stitching on the sleeve head is quite tidy, as is that of many of the seams


the collar, which has some patches of wear allowing me a closer look at the purple satin and the lace


Fibres from the frayed collar show both fabrics to be natural, the collar does not appear to have been be added on later.


the stitching on the lapels all looks to be of the same age and completed at the same time by the same hand.


Stitches throughout are made with a black cotton thread.


Some of the stitching is quite messy, its possible it may have been done by a different hand or perhaps was rushed in order to finish, it feels like a home made garment though it is made with some skill, with areas of more rushed work, such as theses lines of tacking which are holding the top two lines of black velvet cotton trim onto the hem.


The whole bodice used to have brown cotton boning casing on the front, back and side seams, which matches that on the hem and cuffs, but the boning has been removed and only one casing remains, this may have been done to allow it to be worn much later for fancy dress.


It looks like they may have decided to add another two lines of trim after the first, or that they ran out of time and had to tack this on in a hurry, but it looks to have been done at around the same time.


Trims were often removed for a garment to be undated or to updated another garment, so it may also have been to allow to to be easily removed.


The bodice is in good condition, with some signs of  wear and a couple of very small holes on the elbow of one sleeve as shown.


To be extra extra sure about the construction date I unpicked a small area on the front to have a look inside but I could not find anything which would prove it to have modern alterations, it all matches.


To conclude; ether, it was made and changed by the same person around the same time by fully deconstructing and then reconstructing it, perhaps to add the purple to move from full to half mourning?

Or it has always had the purple lace front? Perhaps it was made to be half mourning and they had to rush the last bit to have it ready in time?

Or it was made for a very early Victorian production by a costume designer using original fabrics and thread on a short time scale

I don’t know, all I know is that I lose!

About lholmes4keats

I have worked with Museums across the UK for the last ten years making costumes for exhibitions on everything from The Titanic to Tyrannosaurs. I have Run workshops and lectures on costume both nationally and internationally, my work has featured in exhibitions, films and theatre productions both nationally and internationally. In 2011 I curated The Needle is always at hand, an exhibition of dress based on Fanny Brawne's life while she lived at Keats House.
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