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Charleston Museum conserves a centuries-old vestige of the Lowcountry

If Gowns Could Talk

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On May 2, 1740, at the age of 18, Eliza Lucas Pinckney wrote to her friend Mrs. Boddicott in England:

"I have the business of 3 plantations to transact, which requires much writing and more business and fatigue of other sorts than you can imagine. But least you should imagine it too burthensom to a girl at my early time of life, give me leave to answer you: I assure you I think myself happy..."

Born Eliza Lucas in Antigua in the West Indies and schooled in the fine arts in England, Pinckney and her family moved to Charleston when she was a young teenager. When Pinckney's father, an officer in the British military, had to return to the Caribbean, she was left to run her family's three plantations. Pinckney was fascinated by botany — she is credited with making indigo a viable crop in the Lowcountry. After receiving seeds from her father in Antigua, the autonomous botanist learned which strains of the plant were succesful and cultivated these, writing to her father in 1741, "I make no doubt Indigo will prove a very valuable Commodity in time." And she was right. Before the Revolutionary War, an English "bounty" on the indigo crop made the Carolinas rich.

At age 22, Eliza married Charles Pinckney, a politician who supported her nascent and increasingly successful agricultural ventures. She maintained her spunky independence, as her husband traveled often, running a household of four children plus her family's plantation property. A woman ahead of her time, Eliza Lucas Pinckney governed her offspring according to the progressive "tabula rasa" theories of John Locke. Two of her sons, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Thomas Pinckey, served in the South Carolina Continental line and were both active in the early federal government (Cotesworth is also one of the founders of the Charleston Museum).

Eliza Lucas Pinckney's 18th century dress was salmon-colored, almost as vibrant today as it was many years ago - COURTESY OF THE CHARLESTON MUSEUM
  • Courtesy of The Charleston Museum
  • Eliza Lucas Pinckney's 18th century dress was salmon-colored, almost as vibrant today as it was many years ago

And, like any lady of means in the colonial period, Eliza possessed a fine wardrobe. We cannot pretend to know if Pinckney, the scientifically-minded business woman, was enamored with or cringed at the process of dressing in her (recently restored) 18th century salmon-colored sack back gown, on display at the Charleston Museum starting March 7.

Was she taken with the damask, so detailed it makes one's head spin — the petticoats such a bright shade in 2017, they were perhaps blinding 300 years ago — or could she care less? What we do know is that the garments speak volumes, and mean even more. Yes, historians have Pinckney's letters (she was a prolific communicator), but to have this tangible, strikingly beautiful fabric that once touched this history-making figure — that's something else entirely.

The sack back gown, which was originally donated to the Museum by the Pinckney family in 1940 — with a deep V for a stomacher and matching petticoats — returns to the Charleston Museum after a nearly year-long conservation process, or, rather, conservation journey. In May 2016, Loreen Finkelstein, a Virginia-based textile curator who is also credited with helping to restore George Washington's Revolutionary War tent, picked up the gown and transported it in her own car to her Williamsburg studio.

Finkelstein spent hundreds of hours restoring the dress which had been worn by Pinckney and multiple family members; she overlaid the damaged sections with "stable text," dyed fabric to match the centuries-old shade, and used steam and carefully placed stones to release the creases in the oh-so-delicate silk. The goal of conservation is not to make the dress look new — the dress looks like it's seen a few seasons — but to make it strong enough to be put on display for short periods of time. The Eliza Lucas Pinckney chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution spearheaded the Pinckney Project, helping to raise more than $23,000 for the conservation of the dress. Pinckney Project chairman Jill Templeton notes the significance of this endeavor: "Besides the obvious importance to textile and fashion historians, garments like these can give hints to the industry and trade of the era. As no portrait of Eliza Lucas Pinckney is known to exist, this particular piece helps to build a tangible image of the woman behind the gown. "

The Museum's curator of historic textiles Jan Hiester beams when she discusses the story of this relic: "My assistant Nikki Ohlandt and I drove to Virginia to pick up the dress; we never let it out of our sight... it is so exciting that this rare and significant dress, while still fragile, will at last be strong enough for temporary exhibitions."

The doors unlock for a limited public viewing March 7-16.


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