Prior to working at this museum, I had a vague idea of the different fabrics created from natural materials such as cotton. However, having a vague idea is well short of the knowledge needed working in a museum. I have had to do a lot of research to learn the differences between the 1800s fabrics, especially, those made from cotton. Cotton fabrics can be confusing because they can be silky rough, smooth or textured, thick or sheer, sturdy or luxurious. Cotton fabric is versatile, breathable, absorbent and durable. The round gown shown is made from one of the sheer cottons known as organdy.
Cotton Organdy is a semi-sheer fabric that is sheer, light and crisp. Unfortunately, it wrinkles easily. In the 1800s, because of its lightweight and sheerness, organdy was used for dresses and gowns such as the one in the photograph. A lye-based mix was used on the fabric to provide a permanent stiffness to the fabric.
Today, organdy is used primarily as an underlining in bridal gowns and historical reenactment period garb as well as an interfacing for fine garments.
The finely combed cotton is woven with a plain open weave and very fine, tightly twisted single yarns. Organdy is often confused with organza, which is a sheer crisp, plain weave fabric of man-made or silk fibers.
The crispness of the fabric today is due to a finish with starch and calendaring; running the fabric through hot rollers, Modern organdy can gain permanent crispness obtained with a spray finish, which is temporary, or a traditional lye-based chemical treatment.
This specific dress was worn by a member of the Washington Van Ness family and purchased at Christie's in New York by the donors, Mr. and Mrs. Horace Burr. The puffed sleeves (under the shawl) and lowered, wider waist are features of the post-Napoleonic (Empire) fashion when hoops and tighter corseting (think "Scarlett O'Hara') made their entrance into fashion. The mannequin is a size 2; but is too large for the dress to be fastened in the back.