Over the last few weeks I have been preparing a mannequin for the display of a muslin dress in our exhibition East of India – Forgotten trade with Australia, opening on 1 June. The dress is on loan from The National Trust and is reputed to have belonged to Anna Josepha King, wife of Philip Gidley King, the third governor of New South Wales from 1800 to 1806.
The preparation of this dress is a real treat for me as a textile conservator because it is one of the oldest provenanced costumes in Australia. Having the opportunity to get so close to an object like this makes history come alive for me.
The dress is made of fine cream muslin, decorated with silver plate embroidery in a sprig and spot pattern. The running border around the bottom of the skirt is decorated in a vine pattern with a scalloped edge also in silver plate. The dress has the typical simplicity of the Empire style, with high waist, narrow bodice back and short puffed sleeves. The skirt falls straight at the front and gathers into the waist at the back where it drapes a little longer to the floor. It is tiny in size, more likely to fit a young girl of today.
The silver embroidery has tarnished grey, but the dress itself is in remarkably good condition. Being able to inspect at close range, I can see that the muslin has been torn and beautifully repaired under one of the arms and in an area on the skirt. This makes me wonder how and when the damage occurred, too vigorous a spin around the ballroom? The front has a vertical stain spotting down from the waist to the hem, perhaps a spill from a wine glass many years ago.
To build the mannequin I have shaped and padded a pre-prepared wire form to match the dress size and fashionable Empire Silhouette. Fortunately the dress was lent to us with an undergarment made specifically for it by conservators at the National Gallery of Victoria, where it was last displayed in 2010. Using the undergarment for the many fittings has reduced the need to over handle the fragile muslin dress.
The dress was probably made by a colonial seamstress with fabric imported from India, but not a lot more is known about it. Reading up on Anna helps me to imagine the person she may have been. Anna was 35 when she arrived in Sydney in April 1800 and became the first wife of a governor to live in the colony. It sounds like she was a strong and interesting woman.
There are many more beautiful textiles and other objects from this period to be seen in the East of India – Forgotten trade with Australia exhibition. I encourage you to come to the maritime museum and have a look!