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Woman's Dress, 1855–65

Woman's Dress, 1855–65

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This elaborate summer dress was worn by Mary Louisa Adams Johnson, a granddaughter of President John Quincy Adams and a great-granddaughter of President John Adams. Mary Louisa was born at the White House in Washington, D. C. on December 2, 1828. On June 30, 1853 she married her second cousin, William Clarkson Johnson of New York. She was his second wife. They had two children, Louisa Catherine Adams Johnson (who later married Erskine Clement), born in 1856, and John Quincy Adams Johnson, born February 12, 1859. She died at Far Rockaway, Long Island, New York on July 16, 1859, just a few months after her son's birth. It is possible that Mrs. Johnson may have had the opportunity to wear this dress only a few times before her death.
This dress with its cutting of the printed fabric to create the overall effect was clearly made by a skilled dressmaker. Since labels were not incorporated into dresses at this date, we will never know the name of the woman who made it. Silk gauze dresses of this sort were extremely popular for summer wear in the 1850s as evidenced by the number of them that are depicted in fashion plates, the hand colored fashion illustrations that were inserted into women's magazines. Because of the fragility of the open weave of the fabric, most existing examples are in poor condition. Buckram underskirts, which created the fashionable bell skirt silhouette, also abraded the gauze, causing additional damage. This example is in relatively good condition, with only a few tears in the skirt.
This two-piece dress is constructed of white silk gauze in a woven pattern with a printed small paisley design, predominantly red and blue at the top portion of the dress with medallions and flowers in browns and reds at the lower portion. The fabric has been cut and stitched to use the pattern to advantage in the dress. The bodice is made of a white cotton body covered with the paisley printed fabric. It has a round neck edged with corded piping. The center front opening is closed from waist to neck with twelve hidden metal hooks-and-eyes, with the front of the opening decorated with five silk tassels. The bodice has two boned darts on either side of the center front and a center back piece boned in the center with two smaller pieces on either side. A peplum is formed of separate pieces of gauze in a medallion design sewn to the body of the dress at the waist. The peplum is pointed at the center front, the center back, and the sides and is trimmed at the bottom edge with pink ribbon with chenille button fringe. The bell sleeves are lined in the upper portion with cotton, and the paisley printed fabric is pleated to fit the sleeve linings at the upper portion. The lower portions of the sleeves are constructed of the medallion print. Some pleats on upper sleeves and sleeve openings are trimmed with the same silk and chenille ribbon as the peplum. Tassels are attached at the points of the sleeve openings, and the same piping that edges the neckline is inserted in the seams of the armholes. The skirt consists of separate sections of buckram and gauze pleated and attached together to a narrow buckram waistband with a large metal hook-and-eye closure at the opening. The buckram skirt section has a narrow fold over hem, and the gauze skirt section has a partial overskirt that forms a flounce. The lower edge of the flounce and the gauze skirt section are trimmed with silk and chenille ribbon. The waist measures 20 inches.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Dress, 2-Piece
Object Type
Main Dress
Entire Body
Date made
1855 - 1865
used by
Johnson, Mary Louisa Adams
used in
United States: New York, Long Island
waist: 20 in; x 50.8 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Mary Louisa Adams Clement
See more items in
Cultural and Community Life: Costume
Clothing & Accessories
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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