20th Century

Emily’s dress: recreating a 1903-1904 evening dress

I’m working on a very interesting, and challenging, new project.

This is Emily’s dress:

Evening dress worn by Mrs Emily Jane Mildon (nee Whitley), 1902-1904, Collection of Te Manawa Arts and Cultural Centre

It was made for Emily Jane Whitley, the daughter of a wealthy Auckland storekeeper, between 1902 and 1904.  Emily wore it to balls and parties on Auckland’s social scene in the years before her marriage to a Manuwatu farmer, Percy Mildon, in 1905.

We even have a photograph of Emily in her dress:

Emily in her dress, 1903-4, photo courtesy of the Mildon family

It’s a fascinating dress because we know its history, and can make a reasonable guess at how it was made.  The Whitley store sold fabric, and probably had an attached sewing workshop, so it is very likely that the dress fabric came from the family store, and was made up by the store seamstress.

Evening dress worn by Mrs Emily Jane Mildon (nee Whitley), 1902-1904, Collection of Te Manawa Arts and Cultural Centre

So what’s my project?  Well, I’m attempting to recreate not just Emily’s dress, but the whole process of making Emily’s dress.

I’m using my 1903 peddle sewing machine, a late 19th century guide to dressmaking, and a period pattern available in a NZ magazine.  I’m even wearing a corset and the type of outfit a dressmaker would have worn at the turn of the century for some of the sewing.  As much as I can, I’m going to be the unknown seamstress who made Emily’s dress.

Emily’s dress is now in the collection of Te Manawa Arts and Cultural Centre, the Palmerston North regional museum, near her husbands farm.  Te Manawa has very kindly let me investigate the dress and make a full pattern from it.

Detail of the train of Emily's dress

You can read more about the dress here.


  1. Oh how talented you are Its a lovely dress I cant wait to see what yours is like.

  2. OH MY! This is a realllllyyyy exciting project! I’m giddy for you 🙂

    ….and I especially like that you’ll be wearing a seamstress’ outfit for some of the sewing. Sounds like my kinda project 🙂

  3. Elise says

    Ohhhh! Performance art! Just don’t sew by bad lighting!

  4. Tamsin says

    Wow – very exciting. I can’t wait to see progress photos 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

  5. KC says

    What a pretty dress!

    I NEVER wear pink, but I would wear something like that!

    I bet you’ll look adorable in it!

    Good luck!


  6. Wow. I love that you’re putting yourself in the seamstress’ place, even down to wearing what she would wear. I get that, I completely get that and think it’s fantastic. I hope you write regularly about the process.

    And you got to make a pattern from the original! Squee! How Janet Arnold of you!

  7. Marvelous! I hope you’ll show us lots of exciting in-progress pictures! It would be great to be able to see pictures of you creating it, as well as pictures of the fabulous creation itself. It must be really exciting to have so much information about the gown, and to have been able to get so much access to it!

  8. jackiead says

    Wow, what a beautiful dress and what an inspiring challenge recreating it on an old treadle machine. Do you plan to recreate the same amount of tucking as the original? Look forward to updates.

    • I do, but I’m going to let myself cheat and do that on my modern machine. I’ll explain why in a post about it.

  9. Stella says

    Wow, what an awesome project and study opportunity! I love the lines of the skirt and it’s so fascinating to be able to understand the history of a garment. And to make a pattern from an extant original! Just…wow. I mean, it’s easy enough to draft a pattern from images, but it’s never quite the same as taking a pattern from a real garment. Can’t wait to see the progress posts on this one. Please tell me you won’t be recreating it in the same tacky pink colour though.

    • But the colour is important to the dress! It’s about the choices of the client and the tastes of the era!

      • Stella says

        Yes, yes it is, and you’re right to match the colour for that reason 🙂

  10. Sineuve says

    Oooh, I loove that dress! It’s so sweet, ooh, what a beautiful project! I totally admire your dedication to authenticity in sewing, but mostly I am looking forward to admiring the dress!

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