Culture Victoria

Conserving an 1889 Wedding dress

By Bronwyn Cosgrove, Senior Conservator, Textiles NGV Posted Under Digitising and Conserving Fashion at the NGV

This finely tailored cream wool wedding dress with Liberty silk satin trim was worn by Ethel Florence Francis on the occasion of her marriage to Councillor David Phillips at the Brunswick Wesleyan Church on Wednesday 30th January 1889. On the evening of the wedding, guests were entertained at the Brunswick Town Hall.

Wedding photo of Ethel and David Phillips, 1889 

Wedding photo of Ethel and David Phillips, 1889

Entering the NGV collection in 2004, along with satin shoes, coronet and bouquet, the wedding dress was acquired with provenance linking its manufacture to Kilmore, 24kms from Darraweit Guim where Ethel’s family had settled in the 1860s. Ethel’s parents operated a general store and collected road tolls at ‘The Toll Bar’, at the junction of Old Broadmeadows and Darraweit Guim roads.  The general store building still stands on this site.

Lovingly cared for by Ethel’s family for over 100 years, the dress displays some  deterioration common to works of this age; the fine lightweight wool has yellowed slightly, the off-white cotton twill linings have oxidised to a deep brown colour and the wax and paper orange blossom trimmings have faded and are brittle. When assessed by NGV textile conservators, the most pressing issue was the splitting of the Liberty silk satin trims.  Further technical examination has shown that these satin trims were chemically treated during manufacture with a metal salt.  This process, known as ‘weighting’ silk, was a common treatment applied to silks during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unfortunately, the presence of these metal salts initiates deterioration of the silk fibres that results in the loss of fine weak silk float threads and splitting, as seen the satin ribbon trims of this dress.

Detail of split satin before treatment

Detail of split satin before treatment

Conditions like this prevent the work from being displayed. Therefore the first task for conservation has been to stabilize and support these fragile areas. Firstly, the satin ribbon trims were removed from the dress and the points at which they were attached to the wool skirt were marked with fine thread. Then the two ribbon trims at the rear of the dress were folded and gathered to create a double ended trim.  To stabilise the satin, a support lining was required. To apply this successfully, the trims needed to be flat and thus, removal of the gathering at the fold was necessary.  Before the gathering stitches could be removed, it was necessary to mark the fold lines of the gathering so that the original drape of the satin could be reproduced after treatment.  This was done by stitching fine polyester thread along the crest of each fold.

Detail of fold line markings

 Detail of fold line markings

 After the application of the secondary support layer to the reverse of the satin trim, areas of splitting were carefully stitched to stabilise the cotton weft threads.

 Detail of satin trim after treatment showing the stabilised areas of splitting

 Detail of satin trim after treatment showing the stabilised areas of splitting.

The conservation of this wedding dress in an on-going project.  Later this month the satin trims will be regathered and secured in their original positions, small losses in the wool fabric will be repaired and the orange blossom trimmings will be stabilised.  An underpinning will be made by our Textile Display Specialist that will offer support to the fragile dress while on a display mannequin and give it a historically accurate silhouette. Then, conservators will commence treatment of the shoes…

Happily, a birth notice in The Argus dated 15 February 1890 reads:

PHILLIPS -On the 3rd February,

at Mirboo Mitchell Street, North Brunswick,

the wife of D. Phillips of a son

Both doing well.


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