New England Quilt Museum Hosts Victorian Gown Exhibition

Lavish Victorian gowns exhibit explores the aesthetics of 19th-century clothing design.

A popular exhibit of lavish Victorian gowns is coming to Lowell from the University of New Hampshire this winter as the Classroom Gallery at the New England Quilt Museum welcomes the traveling ladies from  January 22 to March 22. The exhibition, Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail, explores the aesthetics of 19th-century clothing design, and how their embellishments were constructed.

When Astrida Schaeffer, guest curator at the UNH Museum, describes the smooth grey silk of a Victorian-era dress that has been knife-pleated on the cuffs and bodice, its bodice pleat edged with contrasting sea-green trim, you don’t have to actually see the garment to see it. Her knowledge of historic detail, her love of fabric, brings the dress to life.

Schaeffer combined that knowledge and love when she chose 13 garments from the period for the exhibit. They are drawn from the UNH Museum’s Irma Bowen Textile Collection of approximately 600 textiles, originally gathered by Bowen to demonstrate fashion history and dressmaking technique for classes she taught at UNH from the 1920s through the 1940s. The dresses on display range from 1870 to 1910.

“To embellish something, to transform it with decoration and then add more, is at the core of the Victorian sense of beauty,” says Schaeffer. “Yet the fabulous effect is in fact the result of just a few simple design principles combined in a variety of ways. ‘Embellishments’ looks at what these principles are, and how they are applied, to help you see Victorian fashion in a new way.”

Each of the mannequins in the show was custom made by Schaeffer to support its historical garment safely and correctly for its specific style.

Schaeffer will present two programs in conjunction with the exhibit:

  • curator’s tour on February 6
  • full-day hands-on embellishments workshop on February 8.

For information, please visit To register for the workshop, please visit

[Photo: One of the Victorian-era dresses on exhibit at the New England Quilt Museum through March 22, 2014. Lisa Nugent, UNH Photographic Services.]