Australian dress register ID:612
Owner:Merimbula Old School Museum
Date range:1875 - 1876
Place of origin:Brighton, Victoria, Australia
The dress is a well preserved example of Australian bespoke dressmaking during the late 19th century and is an increasingly rare example of a female day dress of the era. The style and careful disposition of the two patterned fabrics reflects the work of an accomplished dressmaker. Although evening and special occasion costumes are well represented in public collections around the nation, day dresses of the era have not survived to the same extent in moveable cultural heritage collections.
The Blundell Dress has historical significance for its association with a family which was well known for its contribution to the civic and religious activities of the Brighton area over two generations in the late 1800s.The dress was first worn by Jane Blundell and because of its large waist size may have been a maternity outfit. It was then used, unaltered, by her daughter Ethel Nina Blundell almost 20 years later in her role as hostess for her widowed father during important social occasions, functions and events. It allows us to reflect on the roles and responsibilities of women in the Victorian era, both within the family unit and in wider society.
The Blundell Dress has interpretative value on a number of levels. It has the ability to contribute to the overall themes of female dress history; Australian 19th century women's dress; fashion, social behaviour and norms in late 19th century Melbourne; and changing attitudes towards appropriate female dress. The discrete pocket, concealed within the opening under the right edge of the bustle, is indicative of the traditions and attitudes of the era which held that concealed pockets on women's clothing were more feminine and appropriate than those publicly visible.
Unlike the modern “throw away” habits of contemporary society, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was customary for clothing to be passed down in a family where the new owner would usually update it to reflect the latest styles. This dress is particularly interesting because there is no evidence of alterations yet it was worn by two generations of women almost 20 years apart. Author: Shirley Blazey, 2016.
This good example of a late nineteenth century day dress, made from two different patterns of russet brown silk brocade, features a lobster tail style bustle. The lack of boning combined with waist and hip measurements indicates it may have been made as a maternity dress. It is lined with beige leaf pattern cotton fabric.
The princess line fitted bodice of herringbone pattern brocade has a high round neck with small “mandarin” style collar and buttons down the front to below the waist where it forms an overskirt which is bordered with a band of coffee bean pattern brocade .The overskirt drops down to hem length at the back but from the centre front it is draped up to the back to a point below the waist level. Here it is sewn to the edge of the lobster tail style bustle which is also bordered by the coffee bean fabric.
There is a concealed pocket with the opening under the right edge of the bustle.
The buttons on the front of the dress have a decorative circlet of small blue flowers around a russet silk covered dome.
The long sleeves are set in and slightly full with a contrasting three pleat band of coffee bean fabric with an ornamental turn back from the pleats sewn just above the wrist.
The skirt section of the dress is in four 20 cm bands of alternate fabric patterns with the top and third band of coffee bean pattern slightly gathered and the second and fourth bands of herringbone forming pleated ruffles.
History and Provenance
Ethel Nina Blundell was a member of a socially prominent Brighton (Melbourne) family which played an important role in the history and development of that area. Her grandfather, James John Blundell Snr served as a Brighton Borough Councillor between 1862 and 1867 when the local government was still in its formative years, including holding the position of Mayor in 1864. He was involved in the foundation of the Brighton Volunteer Rifle Corps and was also a strong supporter of the Brighton Ladies Benevolent Society.
Births, deaths, marriages, children or family information
Ethel’s grandfather J.J.Blundell was Mayor of Brighton in 1864.
Her father J.J.Blundell jun., worked in the Victorian Government Crown Land Department for 60 years and was Deacon of Brighton Congregational Church.
Ethel’s grandparents James John Blundell Snr born Bristol, England c 1819 Died Brighton Vic Dec 1876
Rebecca Phillips born Bristol, England c 1817 Died Brighton Vic Mar 1894
Ethel’s parents James John Blundell Jnr born Bristol, England c 1839 Died Brighton Vic Nov 1924
Jane Burkitt born Dublin, Ireland 1845 Died Brighton Vic May 1878
Ethel Nina Blundell Spinster born Brighton Vic 1876 Died Brighton Vic 1949
Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?
Both her grandfather and father were integrally linked to the Brighton Congregational Church, with her grandfather being involved in the erection of a new church building in Black Street, Brighton in 1875, and her father James John Blundell Jnr serving as Deacon there for sixty years.
Ethel's father was a public servant working in the Crown Land and Survey Department. She was an only child and was raised by her father and paternal grandmother, who died in 1894, and she never married.
When Ethel gave this dress to her family friend she told her that it held precious memories for her. Ethel, the spinster daughter of a “gentleman of independent means”, acted as hostess for her father when she is reputed to have worn the dress, and these occasions would have given her a status which she prized greatly.
The family home was sold on J.J.Blundell Jnr’s death in 1924 and Ethel was living at 52 Black Street Brighton when she died in 1949.
Where did this information come from?
Members of the Historical Society have been researching the provenance of this dress since it was donated to the Museum in 1987. Research was intensified in 2013 when a Significance Statement was being prepared under the guidance of Museum Consultant, Angela George. Initial information came from the donor, Dr Jean Kelly, who recounted the personal associations the dress had for Ethel. Genealogical information was sourced from the Brighton Cemetorians Inc, Brighton Council and State archives, Trove and “A History of Brighton”.
This garment has been exhibited
The dress has been on display in the schoolroom of the Old School Museum Merimbula for a number of years but has been retired to storage for conservation reasons. It is planned to have it on display again in the future.
Place of origin:
Brighton, Victoria, Australia
There is no record of what the dress cost to be made.
It is assumed the dress was made for Jane Blundell, nee Burkitt, during her early pregnancy with daughter Ethel in 1875/76.
Jane died in 1878 aged only 32 years and the dress was then certainly owned and worn later by Ethel Nina Blundell who was born in 1876, month unknown.
She gave the dress to a close family friend, Dr Jean Kelly, in the 1930s and she donated it to the Old School Museum, Merimbula NSW in 1987.
It is assumed the dress was worn by Jane Blundell and certainly years later by her daughter Ethel Nina Blundell.
Dress was worn when Ethel was hosting functions for her widowed father, James John Blundell Jnr in the late 1890s.
The dress would have been worn in the Blundell family home “Eumana”, 164 Church StBrighton, and at local daytime functions.
The dress was probably designed by a local dress maker in Brighton, Vic. adapting designs taken from fashion magazines or using the paper patterns which were available in Australia by this period.
The dress was probably made by a local dressmaker who would have visited the home to discuss the design and choice of fabrics, take measurements, fit the garment and make any necessary alterations, particularly if the client was Jane who was pregnant. There are no obvious signs of alterations to the dress but these could have been done by the dressmaker when Ethel was old enough to wear it some eighteen to twenty years later. From the account of Jean Kelly nee Gunson, the family friend who was given the garment, Ethel was very fond of this dress as it had treasured memories for her.
Ethel Blundell wore this dress when acting as hostess for her widowed father.
Trimmings / Decoration
Trimmings are formed by the use of contrast between the two different patterns of brocade and the decoration of elaborate buttons down the front of the garment.
Blue thread is used for the buttonholes and a running stitch 1 cm in from edge of bodice fastening.
Fibre / Weave
Considering the time period during which the dress was manufactured, the dye could have been either natural or synthetic.
- Natural dye
- Synthetic dye
From the profile and lack of boning, which was customary in the late 1870s, it is assumed it was designed as a maternity dress.
Seams of the dress are machine sewn and then hand finished.
Button holes are hand sewn.
There is a hand sewn running stitch in contrasting blue thread 1 cm in from the edge of the bodice fastening.
Hems are machine stitched except for the bottom hem which is bound and sewn by hand.
Pleating on the sleeve trim is hand sewn.
The bustle is lobster tail style and the dress would have been worn over a bustle pad tied around the waist.
As this is a “made to measure” garment there is no manufacturer’s label.
- Hand sewn
- Machine sewn
The dress has a princess line bodice cut straight, with the bodice panels extendingto the over skirt. In the skirt the two herringbone pattern bands are cut parallel to the selvedge to contrast with the bodice where the herringbone runs across the width of the fabric.
The dress opens down the front to below waist level, fastened by 12 decorative buttons with handstitched buttonholes.
- Hook and eye
|Hem circumference||1670 mm|
|Front neck to hem||1340 mm|
|Front waist to hem||965 mm|
|Back neck to hem||1340 mm|
|Back waist to hem||1020 mm|
|Sleeve length||530 mm|
|Neck to sleeve head||200 mm|
|Cross back||440 mm|
|Underarm to underarm||500 mm|
|Convert to inches|
There are some moth holes in the underskirt of the dress.