Every Woman Needs a Little Black Dress

By Kerry S. González and Sara Rivers Cofield

In the late winter of 2020, PQ (Pre-Quarantine), Dovetail conducted an archaeological excavation of a family cemetery associated with a branch of the Embrey family in Stafford, Virginia. The small plot contained the graves of 16 individuals. While analysis of the remains is ongoing we wanted to highlight a particularly interesting item recovered during the excavations.

The fabric fragment pictured below is from the burial dress of Jane Embrey (Photo 1). Jane lived in Stafford County, Virginia, and died at the age of 30 in 1893 from consumption (tuberculosis). Her obituary reads: “Death in Stafford. Miss Jane W. Embrey, daughter of the late Lieutenant Richard Embrey, who was a gallant Confederate soldier, died of consumption, yesterday at 12 o’clock at the residence of her uncle, Mr. Granville Embrey, in Stafford, aged about thirty years” (Fredericksburg Star 1893).

Photo 1: Remains of Jane’s Dress. Note fragment of intact copper alloy pin from broach by the collar noted by white arrow.

Jane was buried in a black dress with decorative black bead work (Photo 2) with over 3,000 tiny black beads recovered during the excavation and lab analysis. This style of dress and bead work was extremely popular in the Victorian, mourning-obsessed culture of the late-nineteenth century and was affordable and widely available through retail stores and mail order catalogs such as Montgomery Ward & Co. and Sears Roebuck (Photo 3).

Photo 2: Example of a Dress with a Style and Beaded Decoration Similar to the Garment in which Jane Embrey was Buried (Etsy.com 2020).

 

Photo 3: Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalog Showing Bead Trimmings That Could Be Applied to Garments (Montgomery Ward & Co. 1895).

 

Jane Embrey also wore the standard foundation garments for the period, including a corset equipped with an iron busk and copper alloy slot-and-stud closures (Photo 4). It might seem excessive to bury a lady in her corset, but without it her dress might not fit properly, as the corset defined and molded ladies’ bodies to create the popular small-waisted silhouette of the period. To be dressed in a nice black gown without a corset at the time would be the equivalent of having a woman today wear a closely fitting dress without a bra, control-top hose, or other shapewear that provides support or otherwise smooths out the figure in keeping with current styles. The corset ensured that Miss Embrey was spared the indignity of an ill-fitting bodice in her final rest. She was interred also wearing a number of accessories, including a paste jewelry hair pin and broach (Photo 5).

Photo 4: Full Corset Typical of the Late-Nineteenth Century (From Authors Collection).

 

Photo 5: Materials Found During Excavation of Jane’s Burial. Top row: paste jewel broach and hairpin. Bottom row: iron busk and copper alloy slot-and-stud closures.

 

While we don’t know much about Jane, the few items we recovered, coupled with the archival data gathered as part of our ongoing research effort, offer details previously unknown to her descendants. Through our work at the site, Dovetail was able to determine her approximate height, how she wore her hair, and how she died, and many other tiny details that would have been otherwise unknown to her family some 125 years after her death.

Any distributions of blog content, including text or images, should reference this blog in full citation. Data contained herein is the property of Dovetail Cultural Resource Group and its affiliates.

References:

Etsy
2020    1880 Bodice and Split Skirt. https://www.etsy.com/listing/521905056/1880-victorian-bodice-and-split-skirt, accessed August 2020

Fredericksburg Star (Fredericksburg, Virginia)
1893    Death in Stafford. 1 July: 1893

Montgomery Ward & Co.
1895    Montgomery & Ward Co.: Catalogue and Buyers’ Guide. 2008 Facsimile. Skyhorse Publishing, New York, New York.