If I were not such a dedicated and serious professional, that title would have been “OMG weddings!!” First, a confession: the idea for this post came from the Smithsonian’s Facebook page; they posted this wedding gown to go with the build-up to the (OMG!) Royal Wedding. Other museums and collections have likewise seized upon the theme (for more on the V&A’s take, see below). I love weddings, royal or otherwise, and I’m more than happy to jump on the bandwagon.

Mary Emma Magruder (1844-1927) married Thomas Worthington Waters (1850-1929) on November 21st,1871 in what is now Olney. The two-piece silk gown consists of a lace-trimmed bodice with a high-necked Bertha collar, and a long, full skirt with a five foot pleated rectangular train. Although rather plain at first glance, its construction and materials are high quality, and the style is pretty trendy for a rural town in 1871. The gown was donated in the early 1950s by the granddaughter of the bride, Emma Waters Muncaster, who gave us lots of information to go with it. The bride’s father was a prominent local physician; the gown is made of 20 yards of silk; the groom gave Mary Emma “a very handsome set of seed pearl brooch and earrings, mounted on mother-of-pearl, shaped to give the significance of Faith, Hope and Love.” The gown was worn again, by a granddaughter, at the couple’s 50th anniversary party.

MCHS has a lot of wedding-related artifacts in our collections, from gowns to gifts. We’ve done several exhibits (and a few pieces have been on this blog already, like this 1870s gown). Whenever we do an exhibit, the subject of gown preservation arises. I’m a big proponent of doing whatever you want or need to do with your own gown – carefully save it, for sentiment or for the next generation; give it to your kids for dress-up clothes; dye it blue and wear it again; sell it on eBay. If you choose the preservation route, it’s heartbreaking when something goes wrong. Knowledge of preservation techniques has changed over time; if your gown is wrapped in blue tissue – thought to be a good idea in the mid 20th century – please take it out! One lender told me that the drycleaners returned her 1968 wedding gown in a sealed box and told her never to open it again. (We did, anyway. The gown was okay, and we were not felled by noxious preserving fumes.) Hopefully what we do today will not turn out, decades down the line, to be equally dubious.

How you treat a textile means a great deal to its survival, but many will deteriorate despite your best efforts. Some materials suffer from “inherent vice;” like newsprint, the ingredients just aren’t going to play nicely together. In the late 19th century, high-quality silks were infused with metallic salts during the manufacturing process, creating an attractive weight and sheen – but these salts, over time, destroy the fabric. The resulting damage, called “shattering,” often looks like someone has taken a knife to the garment. Sadly this, the oldest wedding gown in our collections, has fallen a victim.

The dress doesn’t look too bad in this photo, and it was apparently in fairly good condition when it was donated. However, despite being carefully and appropriately stored along with the rest of our wedding gowns, this one has not fared well. The cream-colored silk has split and shattered; in many places, large pieces have fallen off, revealing the lining underneath. We placed the gown on a padded dressform in 2009, in order to photograph it and record the visual information as best we can – but due to its fragility, it cannot be exhibited for any length of time. Some of our other 1870s and 1880s textiles have similar issues, but Mary Emma’s dress is the worst.

What should we do in a case like this? Because the donor provided us with lots of information, we know that this gown is an interesting piece of county history. But what can we do with it? Although it can’t be exhibited, it can still be studied. The style and the evidently high cost of the gown tell us about the lifestyles and incomes of the families involved, as do comparisons with other Montgomery County gowns and textiles from various eras. Researchers interested in wedding fashions in general (not specific to the County) could use it as well. Exhibition is only one aspect of our collecting rationale.

Back to the Victoria & Albert Museum – and the loudest (or highest-pitch) “OMG!” inducer – the V&A has set up a publically-accessible database of wedding fashions and clothing, to which anyone can contribute their own photos and information. The project predates Royal Wedding Fever (it goes with an upcoming exhibit), but they’ve taken the opportunity to promote their site. As a textile researcher and wedding fashion afficionado, I can vouch for how useful (not to mention totally awesome) this project is, and I encourage you to add your own or your ancestors’ stories. After all – as the history given to us by Emma Waters Muncaster shows – preservation of information is just as important as preservation of the artifacts themselves; without the stories, a wedding gown is just pretty dress.

Detail: damage to skirt.

Edited: to fix glaring error in post title. And a poorly constructed sentence.

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