The women behind The Ladies of Prospect Avenue
The Darien Historical Society is closed on Mondays, but that does not mean all is quiet in the Scofield Barn. This Monday, curator Babs White and her two "indispensable associates," Janet Sargent and Kathy Karlik spent the morning in the upper level of the barn, mending dresses from another time.
It's been a Monday morning routine for the women since April, when they learned White's exhibit "The Ladies of Prospect Avenue" was given the go-ahead to be shown in the exhibit space this September. The exhibit will feature seven mannequins, decked out in period pieces from the mid-19th to early-20th centuries. Each of the seven dresses is meant to represent what Darien women would have worn during the moment in time that corresponds with the birth of a new house on Prospect Avenue.
The development of Prospect Avenue is a story of how sophisticated, metropolitan men and women came to Darien en masse. In 1865, a developer named Melville Mead purchased eight acres on the road for $3,500, and subdivided them to make room for two dozen building lots, according to Historical Society documents.
"The prospects are that Darien is about to awake from its long sleep," a Feb. 5, 1867 article in the Norwalk Gazette states. "Melville Mead will soon open up a road on his land on the hill that will throw into the market 20 or more desirable building lots. Six lots have already been sold. ... These beautiful ridges that line themselves within sight of the Depot afford unsurpassed attractions for private residences commanding an extended view of Long Island Sound and he surrounding countryside."
In 1872, Mead rented out full trains and brought in prospective buyers from Stamford and Norwalk to view the lots; the day-long excursions also featured music on the green and a banquet, according to documents.
Now, 138 years after, White is paying homage to the women of the three-quarter mile stretch, and their fashion.
There's the 1868 dress that represents the lady of 23 Prospect Ave.; the 1876 dress that would be worn by a woman residing in 19 Prospect Ave.; the 1890 dress for 20 Prospect Ave.; the 1898 gown for 30 Prospect Ave.; the 1901 piece for 3 Prospect Ave.; and the crown jewel of the exhibit, the 1867 dress that represents the mistress of 5 Prospect Ave.
The last is White's favorite dress, and it accompanies the first house built on the street.
The lavender dress is the only of the seven to feature the hoop skirt, which was the style at the time, before the variations of bustles seen elsewhere in the exhibit came into fashion.
And while the dress required a lot of labor to bring back to exhibit-level quality, it was a labor of love, she said.
The women have to do a lot of tweaking with the mannequins, stuffing the dresses to represent the way a woman's body would have looked in that particular style. There's the S-curve stuffing for the 1901 dress, and fixing others to show the way a woman's figure would have curved and filled out different bustles and corsets, White said.
The mannequin that represents the Lady of 5 Prospect Ave. was made using modern proportions and the Civil War-era dress wasn't big enough. So the women added extra fabric beneath the bodice to create a longer torso.
"It took a lot of time sewing," Karlik said.
And that's just the bodice. Restoring the braided details along the collar and sleeves took 20 hours.
"I would work on the braids two or three times a week for about three hours or so, and it took three weeks," Sargent said.
Mending the dresses is no easy task. The women have to search for the right color and material if they need new fabric. Some of the fabrics for the dresses have traveled from Europe to the attic workspace on Old King's Highway North. Once the fabrics and other materials are gathered, there's the challenge of adding them to the dresses or replacing pieces in a way that doesn't compromise the historical integrity of the garment. And sometimes the quality of the fabric is compromised by poor storage or other challenges facing these fashion relics.
Sargent likened the process of working with the antique garments to "sewing wet Kleenex together." And that's just working with fabric. Adding beadwork to the mix can be a whole new ball-gown game.
"Everything takes so much time," White said.
The blue dress that represents an 1887 outfit features a lot of intricate beadwork.
"Every time you turned around, the beads dropped off," she said.
The peach dress, which represents a woman who would have lived at 30 Prospect Ave. in 1898, required a lot of work as well.
"Oh the peach one took forever," Sargent said with a laugh. It's a small dress, which needed a good amount of restoration work done.
That's not to say the dresses weren't in good condition, White said.
"They're in excellent condition, but we have to get it into show condition," Karlik said.
They will continue to spend their Monday mornings in the attic of the Scofield Barn, sprucing up the dresses in the society's antique clothing collection throughout the rest of the summer in preparation for the exhibit, which will open in September.