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Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Friday, October 31, 2014

Textile Conservation of First Lady Angelica Van Buren's dresses

There is so little known about this intriguing First Lady. We discussed at length the mystery of Angelica Van Buren's wedding gown in our post on August 1, 2012. The dress, which is the subject of that post, is said to be her wedding gown. If you want to read about the connection (or lack of) between that dress and the dress she wears in her official white House portrait, visit our blog post here.

Textile conservator Gwen Spicer built custom padding for the long-term storage of this historic garment
This stunning bodice is truly eye-popping. The color is still
amazingly vibrant, this dress must have been a show-stopper.

In that post, the information we discovered about Angelica portrayed her as a warm gentle spirit who wholeheartedly accepted her role as First Lady, despite her young age and despite the fact that she did not have to take on this responsibility. At 21 years old, she agrees to serve as first lady at the request of her widowed father-in-law, President Martin Van Buren.

Angelica is young and beautiful. She brings a fresh look to the White House, and although she will be fiercely criticized by Van Buren's foes as being aristocratic-like, she is nonetheless the daughter of a hugely successful southern plantation owner. She is wealthy in her own right and has a clear style befitting a woman of her upbringing and social status.

This style became very clear to us at SAC when we were asked to re-house several dress sets belonging to Angelica. Each of the components of these dresses were beautifully made, the colors (especially the purple dress) were wonderful. And even though they have faded in the 170 or so years since she wore them, you could easily imagine Angelica making her official entrance as hostess of a White House dinner, with all heads turning to see this fashionable young lady.

Art conservation, historic garments, textile, storage support, museum storage, Van Buren
The matching bodice to the bodice pictured above and skirt of the exact pattern/color. Here you can more
clearly see the white dots in the fabric, these are not as prominently visible in the other purple pieces.
Here you can also see the shattered silk under the armpits.

The components of the dress sets are in fair to poor condition, with the most compromised parts being the parts soiled from perspiration. In these areas the silk was shattering and much of the fabric here was vulnerable to loss.

The dress sets are referred to as such because each consists of pieces that would be put together as a set to make a dress. Each of the components we treated clearly went with another piece. The purple skirt matched the purple bodices and the black bodice, the pink silk skirt matches the the pink silk bodices, and could easily be paired with the black velvet bodice. The only bodice that does not seem to have perfect match is the purple bodice with the ribbons at the sleeve. Its matching skirt may no longer exist.  Also, it seems to be of a different era than the other dress components, perhaps that is why it just does  not "go" with them. But interestingly, it bears a very strong resemblance to the wedding dress (pictured below).

Textile conservation, museum storage, art conservator, Gwen Spicer, Spicer Art Conservation, Angelica Van Buren

Textile conservation, museum storage of historic garments, art conservator, Van Buren
This particular bodice did not have a skirt which accompanied it. However, it seemed to "go" with the
 black velvet bodice pictured below. The "pink" bows at the sleeve had a matching bow that had been
detached from any of the pieces.  Perhaps it was meant to be placed at the front of this bodices.

The dresses were only to be re-housed for storage. Each dress component received a padded support to reduce the folds and therefore crushing of the dress. The dress sets were placed into acid free boxes with slings to reduce handling while examining or moving the dress components from their storage boxes.

The dresses in this "set" were labeled as such because many had interchangeable parts. The pink bodice with poof sleeves (below) is the same fabric/color as the bodice to the left. Each could be worn with the pink skirt, in the same color/fabric.

Spicer Art Conservation, Van Buren dresses, textile conservator, historic garments, 1840s
Here three of the bodices are grouped to be stored together.  
Previous repairs in art conservation, textile conservation, damage to silk, 1830's dress
An up-close photo of the sleeve of the purple bodice. Here you can clearly see previous
repairs,the staining from perspiration, and most importantly the detail of the fabric.

The exact date that these dresses were made or worn is not known for sure. Angelica serves as First Lady from 1839 to 1841 and then spends several years at the Van Buren estate in Kinderhook, New York, which is the location of the National Historic Site. When one looks at the style of the dresses and compares them to standard fashion "plates" of the 1830's they are clearly lacking the "leg-of-mutton" sleeve of the early 1830's, but certainly take on the late 1830's look as indicated below.
This is a wonderful image from the Museum of Costume. Notice the model with her back to us shows
that infamous "leg-of-mutton" sleeve, while the model who faces us shows a gown silhouette that
could easily be in keeping with the dress components from the Van Buren NHS.

The 1840's fashion standards may be more clearly met with these dresses. As Susan Jarrett writes on the history of Fashion and Dress section of the website www.maggiemayfashions.com: "By the mid 1840s, the shape of the skirt took on a bell shape and stiff crinolines along with multiple layers of petticoats became necessary to aid in lifting the circumference of the skirt. Double flounced skirts became quite popular. Bodices of the late Romantic period typically had basque waists (or elongated waistlines which ended in a point at the front). Necklines were round, V-shaped, and wide for both day and evening wear." This description seems to best fit the dress sets above. But below is an 1855 painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter with some similar necklines to what we see in the wedding dress or purple bodice with bows. Hmmm…the mystery continues.


Keep in mind that Angelica's dresses are at about 170 years old. They were clearly cared for, and are a glimpse into a relatively unknown life of the 8th First Lady of the United States. While the dresses will need to undergo full conservation treatment in the future, they are now being housed and stored in a way which will not hasten that treatment. Their padded supports and archival storage materials will allow for their safe keeping. 
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Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

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