In Focus: Lillie’s Wedding Dress

Up in Godinton’s attics, we keep an array of treasures, many of which are too delicate to be on public display: one such example of this is the beautiful silk wedding dress of The Honourable Lillie Bruce Ward (nee Partington), who married Robert Bruce Ward in 1897, and later bought the Godinton Estate in 1918.

The dress is typical of a late 19th century bride, with a high waist and puff sleeves. The waist of Lillie’s dress measures 18 inches (bear in mind the average waist size for a British woman today is 31 inches), which meant it would have been necessary to wear a corset in order to achieve quite such a tiny waist – specifically, one which would push the last three ribs in enough to get a waist down to this size. This particular dress has a whale bone corset built into the bodice, but would still have required a corset to be worn underneath too – conforming to standards of beauty came at a high price!

The dress was made by Samuel Samson, ‘habit maker, ladies tailor’ of 181 Sloan Street, Belgravia. Whilst we don’t seem to know that much about Samson, it is clear he was a court dress maker, as indicated by the Prince of Wales feather on their logo.  It is comprised of all natural materials, including lots of Silk Duchesse satin and Lisse silk. At this point, silk would have been made in Italy or China, and woven in France. As a general rule, silk has a lifespan of about 60 years. This particular silk would have been bleached to make it white, and then dressed with tin salt so it rustled appropriately when worn, giving off them impression of quality and luxury. However, tin salts weaken fabrics, meaning today, they are especially fragile and prone to rotting or disintegrating when handled.

We don’t know exactly how much the Partingtons paid for such a dress, but it would have been hundreds of pounds in the 1890s, which equates to tens of thousands today: it was deemed valuable enough to have been put on the inventory back then. However, like today, such a dress was rarely worn more than a handful of times at the very maximum: such a dress could be used for a court presentation on the occasion of your ‘coming out’ as a debutante, marriage, or if your husband took state office. Being white, the dress could be re-dyed if re-wearing was necessary, and the sleeves could also have been removed.

When it was worn for a wedding, the dress would have required a large quantity of petticoats, and of course a veil – probably somewhere around 3 metres in length. The veil Lillie wears in her wedding photographs is a confection of lace, seemingly secured in place by a headdress covered in orange blossoms – although these may well have been made out of wax.

Sadly, because of the dress’ age and fragility, we can’t put it out on public display for any length of time, but it is an object we treasure nonetheless, and hope that with careful conservation we will be able to preserve it for many more years to come.