Frankie’s Party Dress

pattern detail

The following is a children’s short story about a new dress made for fictional character, Frankie (Frances), when she was 3 and a half years old. It takes place in the middle of the 19th century, and focuses mainly on one aspect of the dress’ biography (Kopytoff 66)—the making and initial wearing.

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Sketch of paisley dress from around 1850, back view. By Pam Johnston

Mother is going to make me a new dress! This morning, Mother tied the ribbons of her bonnet beneath her chin, made sure my little straw hat was secure, and took my hand to walk across town to Mr. Whitely’s General Store. Mrs. Whitely had informed mother that some new fabrics had just arrived at the shop from Britain.

Yesterday, my flat, black ankle-boots got muddy squishing in the rain-softened road, but today my boots, eyelet-trimmed drawers and white stockings stayed clean. The dirt road was firmly packed, the sun glowed bright and the breeze was fresh this late-summer morning. Soon it would be September, and Aunt Martha, Uncle Peter and Cousin Sarah would be moving West. I would miss my cousin Sarah, one of the only girls close to my age whom I had known and loved for as long as I could remember.

A brass bell tinkled as Mother swung the door open at Mr. Whitely’s. The leather soles of my boots made a stiff padding sound on the general store’s hardwood floors. Mother was wearing a low heeled boot which announced her presence with staccatoed steps (Severa 1995, 103). Mrs. Whitely greeted us warmly and immediately set to pulling the newest fabrics from their neat stack on the shelf.

She smiled from behind the counter as she spread brightly coloured cotton calicos from Lancashire and fine worsted wool plaids and prints from West Yorkshire for us to see (Parry, 44; Even standing on my tip-toes, I could not see the top of the counter, so mother hoisted me up on a bent knee as we perused some fabrics made especially for little girls and boys my age.

They were printed with patterns of tiny dots, triangles, stars, toy boats and balls (Severa 1995, 108). While mother rubbed the material between her fingers and thumb, and stretched out lengths to examine the patterns and quality, my eyes wandered to other fabrics still stacked on the shelf behind the counter. One pattern seemed to jump out at me.

pattern detail

Detail of paisley pattern on worsted wool cloth. Photo by Pam Johnston. Dress from the Fashion Research Collection at Ryerson. Accession #2014.07.196.

It looked very familiar. Its pattern was bit like the swirling tear-drop shapes I had seen so often on the shawls many ladies in town wore. Mother, Aunt Martha, Mrs. Whitely, Mrs. Field, the banker’s wife, and the grander ladies all wore those big shawls folded in a triangle shape, draped around their shoulders. They seem to think these shawls are very special (Hiner 81-2), though I overheard Mother telling Aunt Martha that Mrs. Field’s shawl is even more special because it is made from soft goat hair, comes all the way from India, and cost Mr. Field a lot of money.

Even though Mother’s was not as special as Mrs. Field’s, I loved to lean on Mother’s shoulder when she wore that shawl. It felt so soft! Sometimes I would gently pull the fringes through my fingers, or pick up a corner in my hand. The fabric was smooth like silk, but slightly downy too, and hung heavily on my hand. I thought Mother looked so pretty enveloped in the intricately woven patterns of red, burgundy and blue swirls and sprigs.

I had seen those same swirly sprigs and curled teardrops, in various sizes, on fabrics that covered cushioned chairs and dressed windows at Aunt Martha’s house, and our neighbour Rosa’s (Rossbach 10-11). Dresses made up in calicoes or worsted wools, block- or roller printed since well before I was born in 1849, were decorated with those same motifs (Johnston 104).

Boteh or pine cone motif, typical of Kashmir shawls, printed on wool by Swaislands of Crayford in Kent, 1845-1850.

Boteh or pine cone motif, typical of Kashmir shawls, printed on wool by Swaislands of Crayford in Kent, 1845-1850. From the V&A Collections. Accession # T.849-1974.


American wool and silk paisley patterned dress, ca. 1875.

American wool and silk paisley patterned dress, ca. 1875. From the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession # 2009.300.124.

Despite its familiarity, somehow I knew the pattern was special, as if those who wore it were particularly respectable or rich or knowledgeable about the world (Hiner 82, 86). Though the fabric was not designed especially for little girls, I wanted to be like the grown ladies, and to be seen as special and smart.

I turned to Mother and whispered in her ear that I would like to see the fabric with the red and pink swirly branches on it. Mother searched the shelf with her eyes until she found the fabric and, when she did, a smile spread from her lips to her eyes. She seemed to approve, and accordingly asked Mrs. Whitely for a closer look.

The fabric was creamy white, like freshly shorn sheep, with alternating dense and sparse bands of pattern printed in stripes. A purple-red colour dominated the fabric, but as I looked closely, I saw that dusty rose, marigold, periwinkle blue, maroon, olive green and bright red interlaced the purple-red outlines. The motifs in one band looked like fans of leaves and grasses crawling up over each other in waves, while the other band depicted heads of grain and cut flowers reaching upwards and outwards, vine-like.

Mother unrolled a few feet of cloth as I reached my fingers out to touch it. It was thin and smooth with a slight nap that was at the same time mildly scratchy.

“This is a fine worsted wool,” Mrs. Whitely informed us. “It should be good to keep little Frankie warm in the fall. And if you line it with cotton muslin, it will feel as comfortable as can be.”

Mother agreed. She and Mrs. Whitely discussed the dress Mother was envisioning and Mrs. Whitely offered some pattern-making and construction advice. She then cut two and a half yards each of the Paisley wool and cotton muslin and a length of narrow cord, and found five small metal hooks for closure at the back. Mother had some cream coloured thread left at home from a dress she had made for me at the beginning of the summer, so, having all we needed, Mother paid Mrs. Whitely, and took my hand as we strode out the tinkling door of Mr. Whitely’s General Store.

Hooks and eyes stitched on the back opening of the dress. Photo by Pam Johnston. Dress from Ryerson's Fashion Research Collection.

Hooks and eyes stitched on the back opening of the dress. Photo by Pam Johnston. Dress from Ryerson’s Fashion Research Collection. Accession #2014.07.196.



For the next week and a half, Mother put to practice the skills she had learned from Grandmother and other ladies in town to make my dress. She spread the fabric over our long dining room table and, using a pattern she copied from a dress Aunt Martha had made for Cousin Sarah (Rose 84), she carefully cut the skirt, bodice, sleeves and bias strips for trim. Though she was not the most expert of seamstresses, Mother showed me how she threaded her needle and sewed with evenly spaced running- and whip stitches, carefully and swiftly bringing her needle in and out of the layered fabric to create seams. She showed me how to press and tack box pleats into the sleeve and skirt pieces, and told me it was very important not to leave any edges unturned—except, of course the selvedge on the back facing, for it was already finished and would not unravel.

Selvedge on back opening of dress. Photo by Pam Johnston. Dress from Ryerson's Fashion Research Collection.

Selvedge on back opening of dress. Photo by Pam Johnston. Dress from Ryerson’s Fashion Research Collection. Accession #2014.07.196.

By Friday morning the dress was complete and it was time for the final fitting. It would be made just in time to wear to Aunt Martha, Uncle Peter and Cousin Sarah’s farewell party on Saturday night. Mother slipped the dress over my head, over my cotton bodice, drawers, and starched petticoats, closed the back with hooks and hand-stitched eyes, and spun me around to look in the mirror. I squealed with delight, jumping and spinning to experience a transformed me in this new dress.

I loved how the skirt puffed out over my petticoats, ending at just the right spot below my knees, and how it swished around my thighs when I spun. I could run and jump freely in the full skirt; the cotton lining felt soft on my neck and arms; the puffed sleeves made me feel like a butterfly with wings; and the high belted waist and pleated bodice made me feel like I belonged among the other girls my age (Severa 1995, 128). Then mother surprised me with another part of the outfit she had kept secret. She came from behind me and wrapped a matching collared cape, trimmed with black velvet ribbon, around my shoulders. Oh, how perfect!

Girl's paisley dress and cape with black trim. Photo given by Ingrid Mida.

Girl’s paisley dress and cape with black trim. Photo given by Ingrid Mida. Accession #2014.07.196.

After what seemed like only moments of dancing and spinning in my new outfit, Mother told me that was enough, and made me change back into my everyday clothes. Reluctantly I came to understand that this dress would be for special occasions and Sunday best only. The good news was there was a special occasion tomorrow night. I would wear my new dress for the first time among family and friends. I would be transformed into a lovely flowering, butterfly-winged creature, frolicking about with cousins and friends.

Sketch of Frankie wearing her new dress, by Pam Johnston.

Sketch of Frankie wearing her new dress, by Pam Johnston.

Frankie’s mother saved the dress and cape to give Frankie when she was married. Frankie then dressed her first daughter in the dress, and it continued to be passed down from generation to generation until it was finally recognized as an important piece of material culture history by the late Alan Suddon, a former fine arts librarian at the Toronto Reference Library, who added it to his collection (Sloan). When Mr. Suddon passed on, Professor Emeritus Katherine Cleaver acquired and donated the collection to Ryerson’s Fashion Research Collection, where the dress currently resides, though the cape has been misplaced (Sloan).

Works Consulted

Buck, Anne. Clothes and the Child: a handbook of children’s dress in England, 1500-1900. New York, NY: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1996. Print.

Buxton, Alexandra. Discovering 19th Century Fashion: A look at the changes in fashion through the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Dress Collection. Cambridge, UK: Hobsons Publishing, 1989. Print.

Hiner, Susan. Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Print.

Johnston, Lucy. Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail. London, UK: V & A Publishing, 2009. Print.

Koptytoff, Igor. “The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process”. The Social Life of Things. By Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge University Press, 1986. Print.

Parry, Linda. The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: British Textiles from 1850 to 1900. [London, UK]: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1993. Print.

Rose, Clare. Children’s Clothes Since 1750. New York, NY: Drama Book Publishers, 1989. Print.

Rossbach, Ed. The Art of Paisley. Scarborough, ON: Van Nostrand Reinhold Ltd., 1980. Print.

Severa, Joan L. Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashion, 1840-1900. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1995. Print.

                          . My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2005. Print.

Sloan, Will. “A stitch from time”. Ryerson University: News & Events. 12 December, 2014. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.

Wass, Ann Buermann and Michelle Webb Fandrich. Clothing through American History: The Federal Era through Antebellum, 1786-1860. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010. Print.




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