Inside the Collection

FASTENING AFFRAY – How a Victorian wedding bodice became fully buttoned up

Clothes we wear embody a past no matter how old or new they are. An intriguing Victorian wedding dress made of silk taffeta was selected for Love Is … Australian Wedding Fashion. This mulberry coloured dress (Fig.1) was worn by a bride in Sydney in 1887. The choice of a coloured wedding dress may be unorthodox today but wearing one’s finest gown was customary. It was Queen Victoria who made white wedding gowns fashionable when she married Prince Albert in 1840.

Janet McDonald Wedding Gown Bodice showing missing buttons

This beautifully adorned bodice is couched with silk cording in a display of meandering floral motifs. Petit black tubular glass beads are skilfully stitched in between corded borders to capture light and attention. It is not unusual to discover missing components on historical garments. Two buttons are missing while another three at waist level were replaced with similar sized buttons although different in design. Did she lose the buttons on her wedding night? Could they have rolled away and lodged themselves under the floor boards? We will never know but replica buttons can be made to complete the original appearance.

Conservator Rebecca Ellis successfully cast a mould from one of the original buttons (Fig.2). Firstly, she inserted cotton wool into the filigree openings to prevent casting material from entering the cavities of the button (Fig.3). The process of casting often involves creating two moulds that join together. Rebecca embedded half the button into white Plasticine (Fig.4) and inserted three keys around the mould for exact positioning. To contain the liquid silicone rubber, barrier walls were erected around the casting. Pink silicone rubber is poured over the embedded button to become the first layer of the process (Fig.5). Once the rubber had dried, the Plasticine was removed. This new half mould was turned over ready for the second layer (Fig.6). The final pour of silicone covered the entire button (Fig.7). To create the new button, epoxy resin was used. Rebecca added various pigments into the clear epoxy mixture, colour matching the tones and highlights of the original button. The resin was poured into the two half moulds then joined together and left to dry. A moment of great satisfaction occurred when the moulds were released to reveal a near to perfect replica of the lost button. So, many years later, a bodice finally became fully buttoned up! (Fig.8 & 9)


Rebecca Ellis casting mould from original button
Fig. 2


Cotton wool inside the original button
Fig. 3


Original button embedded in plasticine
Fig. 4


Original button in silicone
Fig. 5
Pouring the silicone
Fig. 6
Silicone mould
Fig. 7
New Buttons for Janet McDonald Wedding Dress
Fig. 8
Detail of Janet McDonald Wedding Gown
Detail: 86/648 Wedding gown, silk taffeta, Australia, c. 1887

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