Bessie Rouse's black bodice, labelled M.Beattie

Contributed by: Sydney Living Museums

Silk satin bodice labelled 'M. Beattie ...' Rouse Hill House & Farm collection, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Photograph: © Alex Kershaw Photograph of Bessie Rouse wearing the bodice / c1887
Freeman & Co.
Hamilton Rouse Hill Trust collection silk deterioration on bodice silk on sleeve Label 'M. Beattie ...' inside bodice, Rouse Hill House and Farm collection, Historic Houses Trust of NSW Portrait of Princess Alexandra displayed in the Drawing room at Rouse Hill House & Farm
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Sydney Living Museums
  • Owner registration number:

  • Date range:

    1885 - 1886
  • Place of origin:

    Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  • Gender:

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Object information

Significance statement

This black silk bodice c1885 was worn by Bessie Rouse (1843-1924,) mistress of Rouse Hill House from her marriage in 1874 to Edwin Stephen Rouse (1849-1931) until her death.

The bodice is part of the extensive Rouse Hill House & Farm museum collection - the survivors of several generations of Rouse and Terry family from 1870 until the early 1990s - men's, women's, children's and even dolls' clothes. One of the oldest continually occupied houses in Australia, Rouse Hill House is crammed with more than 20,000 objects expressing the realities, hopes and dreams of 6 generations of family life in rural New South Wales from early colonisation to the late 1900s.

This low square necked evening bodice which fastens at centre front with 12 jet buttons features in a photograph of Bessie Rouse taken c1887, confirming that it was altered before and after the photograph was taken. Close scrutiny reveals that it was originally styled with a high round neck, and later altered by lowering the neckline and adding lace-inset three quarter sleeves. 3 whalebones are inserted on each side of the front which, with the centre back bodice dovetail pleats enhance and exaggerate the waistline and sit fashionably over a bustle skirt, which no longer survives.

The bodice survives in the house where it was possibly worn, stored, re-modelled, repaired, laundered and even played with for dress-ups by children of later generations. It survives with a multitude of family possessions including sewing equipment, trimmings, women's magazines that possibly inspired it, photographs that record it worn by Bessie Rouse, invoices from Madame Bernice Beattie that also possibly record it along with her label at the waist, something not often used by Sydney dressmakers at this time.

Alterations to the bodice from a more austere style possibly designed for family mourning to the elegant evening bodice photographed on Bessie effectively document a standard practice in Victorian times, the re-design and re-cycling of garments. Bessie showed a resourceful respect for quality materials, a desire to conform to the latest fashion trends from overseas, and a great reluctance to waste anything.

A later history might be found in the fabric of the bodice too as some of Bessie Rouse's descendants loved staging amateur theatrics using discarded garments. Subsequent alterations, therefore, might reflect this convivial aspect of later Rouse and Terry family history.

Author: Maria Martin and Lindie Ward, 20th November 2009.


This very fine silk satin bodice has a low square neck with lace trim at the front and shapely three quarter sleeves with a central insert of black machine lace. A lace frill also trims the cuff. The bodice fastens at the front with 12 jet buttons. The waist is fitted and has a dovetail effect at the centre back probably designed to fit over a bustle. The bodice is well constructed and made and has a label inside - M. Beattie. The bodice is lined with discoloured black cotton fabric and has three whalebones inserted on each side of the front. A distinctive decorative stop stitch at the top of the whalebone prevents it from breaking out of the casing and stabbing its wearer. The seams are sewn by machine with fine hand stitched finishing on curved cuts which allow the seams to lie flat.

The skirt has not survived in the collection.

History and Provenance

Births, deaths, marriages, children or family information

Richard Rouse (1774-1852) a free settler, began building Rouse Hill House in 1813 with his wife Elizabeth Adams (1772-1849)

Their son Edwin Rouse 1806-1862 married Hannah Hipkins 1819-1907 in 1834.

Their son Edwin Stephen 1849-1931 married Bessie Rouse 1843-1924 daughter of William and Elizabeth Buchanan in 1874.

Edwin Stephen and Bessie had two children:

Nina (1875-1968)

Kathleen (1878-1932)

Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?

The bodice is part of the extensive Rouse Hill House & Farm collection of garments and accessories, the well-worn and well-loved survivors of several generations of Rouse and Terry family clothes from about 1870 until the early 1990s - men's, women's, children's and even dolls' clothes. Rouse Hill House is one of the oldest continually occupied houses in Australia. the property being crammed with more than 20,000 objects expressing the realities, hopes and dreams of 6 generations of family life in rural New South Wales from early colonisation to the late 1900s.

Bessie Rouse (1843-1924) was mistress of Rouse Hill House for 50 years, from 1874 when she married Edwin Stephen Rouse (1849-1931). The Rouse's distant pastoral and agricultural interests supported the family and Bessie and Edwin Stephen's two daughters, Nina and Kathleen, were born in 1875 and 1878 into the leisurely confident world the late 19th century squattocracy.

This bodice, very suitable for house parties and seasons in town, is well documented in a photograph of Bessie Rouse taken c1887, and although altered in Bessie's time and since, the alterations were purely stylistic; its size remained unaltered so the bodice provides a set of measurements against which other garments in the collection can be compared for possible attribution to Bessie Rouse. Attribution to Bessie can be made with some confidence as she was petite, the smallest woman in the family, having an enviable tiny waist and apparently retaining her petite figure into late life.

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

The black bodice together with the portrait of Bessie Rouse wearing it, illustrates how style and fashion were important to her and reminds us that, although Rouse Hill was a considerable distance from Sydney, the Rouses mixed in Sydney social circles where fashion was not only followed with propriety for its own sake, but was also closely read as a symbol of one's status in colonial society. This garment fits into that context, an exclusive evening bodice perfectly suited to wearing to dinner and evening entertainments in Sydney (when the Rouses stayed with Bessie's parents at 'Lara' Darlinghurst) or on a special occasion in their dining room at Rouse Hill House.

The historic fashion context can also be read from the photograph, for the hairstyle and pearl choker Bessie chose to complement the bodice shows she admired the style set by Alexandra (1844-1925) Princess of Wales, who was almost her exact contemporary. Alexandra, fashion icon in the late 19th century as Diana, Princess of Wales was in the late 20th century, appears in many portraits at Rouse Hill House, on walls, in photo albums and in books and magazines. The portrait of Alexandra in the drawing room at Rouse Hill House illustrates that this admiration led Bessie to emulate her style. Compare the choker, hairstyle and shapely figure in the portraits of Bessie and Alexandra in this entry.

The family history context may explain the original design of the bodice being more severe than that photographed on Bessie. Her father William Buchanan died in 1885, so perhaps the bodice might originally have been designed for mourning considering it had a high buttoned neck, later tucked under (and still evident) when it was re-styled to make the fashionable evening bodice that Bessie wears in the photograph. As part of the re-styling the sleeves were replaced with this lace-inset pair, perhaps inferring the original sleeves were also more austere.

Later, in an unfinished attempt at another alteration, or else a need to use the trims elsewhere, the shoulder tabs, beading and bodice lace were removed, with the latter being only partially replaced with the lesser quality lace seen on the bodice today. These changes could have been made either by Bessie herself, or else by her descendants in a context of using discarded garments kept especially for them to play dress-ups and stage amateur theatrics.

Where did this information come from?

Information has been gathered through close examination of the garments, research into the extensive Rouse Hill House & Farm collection and from family members.

This garment has been exhibited


  1. Place of origin:

    Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

  2. Cost:

    This receipt appears to relate to this garment:

    60 WYNYARD SQUARE, Sydney Dec 31 1884

    Mrs E Rouse

    Dr. to Mrs BEATTIE,




    Widows' silks, Henriettas, Parramattas, Hoemspuns, and Large Crapes.

    Sept. 1/2 jet net net - 22/6 (11/3) 1/2 jet lace 7/6 (11/3) 1/2/6

    1, 1/4 jet lace 4/- 5/-

    1 Merveilleux Satin 8/6 8/6

    Ficelle muslin & lace costume 5/18/6

    lnr?? 2/4/3

    Rec payment


    Feb 9 1885

  3. Owned by:

    Rouse Hill House & Farm collection, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales

  4. Worn by:

    Thought to be worn by Bessie Rouse (nee Buchanan 1843-1924)

  5. Occasion(s):


  6. Place:

    Rouse Hill House

  7. Designed by:

    Madame Beattie

  8. Made by:

    Mary Jane Beattie was a Sydney dressmaker and friend of Bessie Rouse. She was not French but used the French title 'Madame' with its implied French quality and style to add cache to her business. Family descendant (Sue Burton) confirms there was no French heritage. It was important for dressmakers such as Madame Beattie to distinguish themselves with exclusivity from other Sydney dressmakers and tailors. This also suited her clients.

    Several labels feature 'Doak and Beattie' suggesting at some time there was a partnership. Doak is also a family name, so this partner was thought to have been a relative.

  9. Made for:

    Bessie Rouse who was petite with a distinctively small waist - 520mm

Trimmings / Decoration






Fine double piping around the hem gives the lower edge a crisp line.


Machine lace trims the centre front neck, centre sleeve and cuff.





Fibre / Weave

Black silk satin bodice

Discoloured black cotton lining

Black machine made cotton lace

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye


The bodice is machine seamed with hand finishing by a professional seamstress in Madame Beattie's workroom. The work is of good quality and has stood the test of wear.


Turquoise silk label : M.BEATTIE, ROBES & NOUVEAUTES, SYDNEY.


The original bodice had a high round neck closing with five additional buttons, now removed. The back seam has been opened to allow the neck to be folded down into a lower neckline. The sleeves probably replace an original plainer pair; beading and tab later removed.

  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other


The silk is cut on the straight grain.

  1. Bias
  2. Straight


12 faceted black glass buttons with metal shank are attached to a backing of fine black ribbon on the inside. This probably serves to protect the outer silk and may explain why the buttons that had been removed made so few markings on the fabric.

  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

The bodice is stiffened with three whalebones in each side of the front.


Neck 780 mm
Chest 780 mm
Waist 580 mm
Cuff 240 mm
Hem circumference 860 mm
Front neck to hem 290 mm
Front waist to hem 110 mm
Back neck to hem 450 mm
Back waist to hem 160 mm
Sleeve length 390 mm
Neck to sleeve head 115 mm
Cross back 295 mm
Underarm to underarm 390 mm
Convert to inches

The original high neck is now folded under to create lower neckline possibly after a mourning period had ceased. This altered the neck to hem front and back and neck to shoulder. The original button placings were hardly visible suggesting this first high necked version was not worn very many times.

The original measurements for the bodice are listed below:

Neck - 370mm

Front neck to hem - 400mm

Back neck to hem - 525mm

Neck to sleeve head - 150mm

Dress Themes

This is a special evening bodice.

Additional material

Articles, publications, diagrams and receipts descriptions

A practical footnote to the Alexandra inspired curled fringe hairstyle worn by Bessie Rouse in the photograph is the existence of an electroplated curling tong in the collection that may have helped Bessie achieve it. The diameter of the rod is small, ideal for creating a short tight curl, and the tong's present condition suggests is was used often - as the steel still corrodes aggressively - a condition caused by the metal having been frequently heated. As the tong was heated over a spirit lamp, judging the perfect temperature to curl the hair without burning it was difficult, so women would play safe by wrapping each piece of hair in a strip of paper to avoid the horrors of singeing it.

Other related objects

Two receipts in the collection appear to refer to this garment (see section 14)

Enlarge here with receipt


The underarm fabric has minor perspiration stains.

The silk satin on the bodice is deteriorating especially on the right side, suggesting chafing caused by routine arm activity. However the sleeve shows no sign of wear in a corresponding position, suggesting that new sleeves were added some time after manufacture, but before the photograph was taken.

Two images taken with a digital microscope indicate that the sleeve is less worn than the bodice which may confirm that the sleeve was a later addition.

Evidence of repairs

The bodice was restyled from an original high neck design to the lace trimmed evening bodice as worn by Bessie Rouse in the photograph:

1. The neckline was lowered, evidence being the original higher neck edges are neatly tucked under and stitched down, with the necessary buttons removed. Lace was applied to edge the new neckline.

2. The earlier sleeves were replaced with this lace-inset pair, evidence being the original piping from the armhole left inside the armhole.

3. The sleeve satin shows slightly less wear (in macro shot) than that of the very worn bodice, suggesting the sleeve was a later addition, after the bodice had been worn for some time. The sleeve should also show wear in the same place as the bodice had it been attached from the start.

4. The photo of Bessie in the bodice shows a lace trim at the neck, beading on the sleeve and a beaded tab at the top of the sleeve. These have been removed in the existing garment, the stitching still evident.

The bodice has been altered probably three times.


  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor


  1. Frayed
  2. Stained
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