By Jennifer Nason and Camille Myers Breeze
In last week’s blog, the Oberlin Connection, Camille wrote about a donation of clothing from Mike & Midge Burnham. While cataloging Ruth Thayer Burnham’s exquisitely preserved 1895 silk wedding dress, we came across something fascinating: alterations to the stays stitched within the bodice of the dress. Assuming one only wears one's wedding dress once, we have been curious about why this dress might have been meddled with.
Hand-stitched inside the bodice of the dress are sixteen stays. Stays, or boning, are thin strips of rigid material used to help hold the form of a corset or dress. The earliest materials used for stays were wood, ivory, baleen--also called whalebone--, and bone, hence the term boning. By the mid 19th century, steel and baleen predominated. The elongated torso popular in the 1880s to early 1890s required large amounts of corsetry but by the late 1990s a lighter, shorter style emerged. This simpler shape required much less boning than in the 1880s and permitted a greater range of movement. Ruth Thayer’s 1895 marriage to Alfred Burnham took place right while this change was taking place.
The stays in Ruth's wedding dress were sewn in by hand and also altered to make some shorter than others. The cuts to the fabric casing of the shortened stays reveal them to be both a translucent and opaque flexible material. This is likely baleen, which comes in a range of colors that sources suggest can be used to identify the whale species from which it came.
But the stays tell an even more complicated story. The front four are more flexible and lack the crisscross pattern of stitching that holds the others down. Luckily, two are coming loose from the dress allowing us to see blue lettering on the back that reads, “Warren’s Featherbone.” Featherbone was the unique invention of dry-goods salesman Edward Warren. On a tour of a feather duster factory, Warren realized that the inexpensive pointer feathers being discarded could replace whale boning. Warren opened a store in 1873 to sell his new Featherbone and the compressed-feather boning quickly became popular for its light-weight, rust-proof quality. Warren’s Featherbone enjoyed its peak of success between 1873 and 1900.
How can we explain the complex series of decisions that went into the construction and alteration of this dress? Perhaps Ruth originally wore it with a separate corset and the boning was altered for subsequent wearings. If the dress was worn only once, though, perhaps the longer stays were trimmed in the final fitting to make the bride comfortable, and Featherbone was preferred for the front of the bodice.
As an opera singer, Ruth would no doubt have sung on her wedding day, requiring an extra degree of mobility and comfort. She also had many occasions on which to wear spectacular costume, such as the gown pictured in this photograph, which appears to be Edwardian, from the first decade of the 20th century.
As cataloging and rehousing continue, we will search for other alterations in the wedding dress that could confirm that it was worn more than once. We may never know for certain, but perhaps our readers have additional insight into the story told by this particular detail of Ruth's spectacular wedding ensemble. Please weigh in if you wish to hazard a guess.