1860s Purple Grey Silk Women's Possible Half Mourning Dress

Contributed by: National Institute of Dramatic Art

Front View Side Front Side Back View Front Bodice Back Bodice Back Neck Trim Detail Skirt Side Pocket Cuff Trim Detail Applied Collar detail Black velvet collar that may have been added at a later date Inside collar - stitch marks running horizontally below the top edge Inside view of front bodice and skirt - Front. Bodice mounted on medium weight duck canvas. Sleeves and skirt are mounted in the same tan cotton fabric Inside view of back bodice and skirt. Bodice mounted on medium weight duck canvas. Sleeves and skirt are mounted in the same tan cotton fabric Inside view of bodice fastenings. Inside of dress. Small rounded pocket at the left front of the waistband.
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Object information

Significance statement

This purple grey day dress is estimated to originate from approximately 1863-65. It is the only possible half mourning dress in the NIDA Costume Research Collection and it was purchased from the Banana Room in Adelaide 1999. This garment is significant as it is an excellent example of possible mourning dress that is in good condition, and demonstrates good craftsmanship as the garment is sewn completely by hand. This dress has led to several points of research, which gave insight into construction, dying, and social context of the era.

This dress has been dated from approximately 1863-1865 as the skirts weight shifts towards the back with a flatter front; the skirt features 9 panels, 7 of which are gored. All the gored panels use the selvedge on the front edge of the panel, which is the standard method of cutting a gored skirt for this period. Skirt trains in this period began to lengthen, the skirt back length of this dress is 95mm longer than the front creating a small train. The sleeves are more fitted to the arm than the bell shape that was previously fashionable.

The silk fabric in this dress is made from a mustard warp and cobalt weft to give its purple-grey appearance. Technology for dying fabrics was transformed by the British chemist William Perkin when he discovered anilne dyes in the 1850s. These new dyes became very fashionable. The first was ‘Perkin’s mauve’, followed by a variety of shades of purples, magentas, yellows, blues and pinks. The colours achieved from aniline dyes were often more intense than natural dyes; however bright colours could be achieved from natural dyes. It is unclear whether the colours in this dress have been created using natural or aniline dyes. From our research it appears the mustard and cobalt colours could have been achieved using natural dyes or aniline, or both. 

The lace on the applied collar could be Cluny guipure:French bobbin lace first made in the mid-19th century. It is called Cluny because it was inspired by examples of 16th- and 17th-century scalloped lace with geometric patterns displayed in the Cluny Museum, Paris. Cluny guipure was made from approximately 1862 in Lorraine. It was also made in England (Nottingham) and at many centres in Belgium.

Author: Isabella Cannavo, Rachel Cherry, Ella Horsfall, Kathleen Szabo, 21/06/17.


Purple-Grey shot silk women’s day dress. Round high neckline. Centre front opening. Applied decorative shawl collar. Full length one piece sleeve with dart from cuff to elbow with decorative turn up cuff peaking at the outside arm. Dropped shoulder seams with back kite seamed panels. Fitted waist with two sets of underbust darts that contain boning. External waistband attaching the skirt to the bodice. Full length skirt with 9 panels, opening at left side front. 6 knife pleats on each side starting at side front continuing towards the back with dense cartridge pleating at centre back. Skirt is longer at the back. There is a wide turn down along the back of the inside of the centre back waist seam. Small rounded pocket at the left front of the waistband. There is a horizontal opening to this small pocket. There is also a concealed vertical bag pocket opening in the right side seam by the second knife pleat.

History and Provenance

This garment has been exhibited

Exhibited on loan at the Adelaide Festival Centre 'First Nights at the Theatre', c. 2007.

  1. Owned by:

    Bought from the Banana Room, Adelaide. Run by Sophie van Rood, who moved to Adelaide from England in 1964 with her husband and children. She opened The Banana Room, (previously used as storage space for bananas by the local fruit market), an 'emporium' specialising in vintage women's clothes, January 1974, Rundle Street, Adelaide. Later moving to 125 Melbourne Street, North Adelaide. Sophie collected garments, bought and sold them, and was an accomplished dressmaker. This dress was bought at auction in 1999 and is now in the Costume Research Collection at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA).

  2. Occasion(s):

    Half Mourning 

Trimmings / Decoration

Decorative Trim: there is a symmetrical triangle continuous applied decorative trim comprised of a pair of thin cords arranged to look like a braid. The S twist is next to the Z twist. The cords surround the black, faceted, irregular glass bugle beads. It is a manufactured trim. The trim is tacked onto the shawl collar piece and around the cuffs. The trims join at the centre back of the collar. Buttons: 5 decorative black velvet covered shank buttons are hand sewn down the centre front opening. They are 2.1cm wide. 


Black velvet ribbon applied around neckline with a running stitch


Black wool braid brush strip at the hem


Inside edge of applied decorative shawl collar, cuff hem, and armhole


Black wide (probably bobbin lace) scalloped picot edge – possibly silk. It is around the edge of the decorative shawl collar and attached by tacking stitches to underside of collar.

Fibre / Weave

All external dress fabric is a plain weave silk taffeta shot with mustard warp and cobalt weft, appearing in a dull purple. The bodice is mounted on a cream, medium weight duck (light canvas). It is a tight, even plain weave. This material is also used on the inside of the waistband. The skirt and sleeves are mounted in the same tan cotton fabric that is different from the mounting used on the bodice. It is a plain weave, and its texture is stiff but light. The pockets are also made from this material. The cuff is faced with main silk dress fabric and is mounted with stiffened black muslin. It is unclear whether the mustard warp and cobalt weft are natural or synthetic dyes.

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye


The bodice is hand stitched with a backstitch in a 3 ply black thread, the skirt is hand sewn with black and brown thread. The pockets, sleeves and skirts are held together with a running stitch. Raw seam allowance on the bodice is whipstitched in a white thread. The skirt is attached to the waistband with a whipstitch in black double silk twisted thread. There is a triangular join in the fabric on each side of the sleeve seam at the hem of the cuff.

There are 9 panels on this skirt.  All are gored except for the back two panels.

The back two panels of the skirt are mounted as one, (using the full width of the tan 33 ½) with a running stich used along the centre-back seam to anchor the outer fabric to the mounting. The width of the main silk taffeta from selvedge to selvedge is 17 ½ inches. The width of the tan mounting fabric from selvedge to selvedge is 33 ½ inches. Fun Fact: in the time period, this would be described as “a yard less a nail” – A yard is 36” and a nail is 2 ½”.


The black silk velvet ribbon applied on the collar appears to be added at a later date than the original manufacture – though it is still within the period that the dress was made. There are small stitch holes on the silk on the inside collar that run horizontally, approximately 6mm down from the top edge. This suggests a different trimming was first applied. Another reason we feel this may be the case is because the velvet trim along the collar is in very good condition in comparison to the velvet buttons which are also made of black velvet, but have faded to an almost brown colour.

It was also common for dresses at this time to be worn with a small white collar which kept the neckline clean and was tacked in for easy removal for washing, so this could be another explanation for these stitch marks. 

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


9 gore skirt. Skirt panels are cut using the width of the selvedge at the centre front (17 1/2 inches). 

The back panel uses 2 x the full width of the fabric (17 1/2 inches). The tan backing fabric used is cut as one piece across both back panels, selvedge to selvedge. 

The other gores are cut with the selvedge/straight grain along the front edge of the gore

  1. Bias
  2. Straight


There are 11 brass hooks down the centre front opening on the right side of the bodice. On the left underside, there are 8 small handwork eyelet holes. 2 brass eyes at centre front waistband and 1 thread button hole bar at the top of the front neck. There are 2 brass hooks at the left side front securing the waistband to the left side of the bodice with 2 matching eyes. There are at least 16 small visible needle holes at the top of the centre front neck. This could suggest that a removable brooch was pinned on and off multiple times. The holes are both vertical and horizontal which could suggest different style brooches were worn by its wearer.

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

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

There are whalebones inside each of the two darts on each side of the bodice. These taper smaller as the bone reaches the tip of the dart which are approximately 6mm in width at their widest and are held into place with white thread in a running stitch. At the centre front, there is a 4 ¾ inch bone that runs up from the waist until the 5th hook. 


Neck 330 mm
Chest 855 mm
Waist 760 mm
Cuff 260 mm
Hem circumference 3340 mm
Front neck to hem 1277 mm
Front waist to hem 988 mm
Back neck to hem 1443 mm
Back waist to hem 1070 mm
Sleeve length 548 mm
Neck to sleeve head 200 mm
Cross back 308 mm
Underarm to underarm 308 mm
Fabric width 445 mm
Convert to inches

Width of waistband 25mm

Width of triangular trim 40mm (1 1/2 inches)

Width of lace 45mm

Width of centre back collar 95mm

Width of collar at narrowest point 38mm

Width of collar at widest front point 95mm

Width of cuff at widest point 110mm

Width of cuff at narrowest point 60mm

Width of front pocket 55mm

Depth of front pocket 55mm

Side pocket opening 175mm

Side pocket depth 210mm

Length of placket at skirt opening 315mm

Average pleat depth 25mm-30mm

Area of cartridge pleating at back waist seam 130mm

Underarm to waist 162mm

Shoulder seam 186mm 

Arm scythe 375mm

Skirt gores: Centre front 13 inches at waist, 17 1/2 inches at hem (selvedge width), side front  

Dress Themes

Everyday Wear

As the dress features a high neckline and long sleeves we believe this dress would have been worn during the day. Evening dresses of the period featured lower, wider necklines, and shorter sleeves. 

Mourning Customs

Although this dress is of lavender, which was a popular colour of the era, we think it is possible it is a half mourning dress as the trims and fastening are all black. 

According to The Association of Independent Funeral Directors, the death of Prince Albert saw Queen Victoria mourn for an extended period of time after the death of her late husband Prince Albert in 1861. “Funerals for the upper and middle classes became elaborate and expensive. Books on funeral etiquette were popular. Australians, not for the first time, wanted to ape the habits of the English aristocracy. Specialist retail shops selling mourning clothes flourished…. A husband’s death meant a whole new wardrobe. The widow was expected to wear ‘the deepest black Parramatta and crepe for the first year of deep mourning, followed by six months of full black silk, replaced by half mourning colours of grey and lavender for the last six months’”.  - Larkins, R. (2017). Death Downunder. [online] AIFD. Available at: https://aifd.org.au/death-downunder/

As this dress is made from a silk that appears purple-grey, and features black lace/trim, it meets this criterion for a half mourning dress.


On the Australian Museum page on Death in Australia it states that “in Australia, funerals were less extravagant and mourning rituals less strict - especially in rural areas.” - Australian Museum. (2009). Mourning - Victorian Era. [online] Available at: https://australianmuseum.net.au/mourning-victorian-era.


According to Lou Taylor in Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History, “by the 1860s and 1870s, elegant mourning dress was firmly established fact in the United States of America as well as in Europe. The cut of these clothes, as with fashionable dress, came straight from Paris, sometimes via London. It was, indeed, not only the styling that came from Europe but often the fabric and sometimes even the clothes themselves. Dresses from Paris and London, even in these days before the establishment of the haute couture system, carried great cachet and stylish mourning dress was not neglected.” - Taylor, L. (2010). Mourning dress. Abingdon, Oxon, England: Routledge. 



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


  1. Frayed
  2. Crease
  3. Holes
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