Rebecca Benson's Dress

Original content by: Bethany Bonner

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About This Artifact

This grey and white, striped, cotton dress was worn by Rebecca Benson, the wife of Captain Timothy Benson.  It is a simple dress with a symmetrical, solid grey and striped collar and an asymmetrical, three button frontice piece on the dress.  Rebecca Benson may have worn this dress around 1910-1920 when there was an emphasis on simplicity in women's dresses.  It is likely that she would have worn a corset with this dress.  At the turn of the century, corsets changed from creating an hourglass figure to creating an S-shaped figure that accentuated the bust and created a straighter look in the front.  The vertical structure of a corset was made with whalebone or baleen, and then covered with cotton or silk. The whalebone (and sometimes steel) "stays" were thought to provide support for the wearer.  This particular dress is looser and blousier on top with a straighter skirt, in which case, Rebecca Benson may have used a corset that would have supported an S-shaped curve for the dress silhouette.

The wife of a sea captain was often the only woman on board whaling or merchant ships, and any chores, such as sewing or laundry, were difficult to accomplish and needed to be planned for in advance.  Keeping a wardrobe clean was a difficult task that added to the complications of traveling aboard a ship.  Some wives were able to handle this task better than others. 

The changes in fashion trends while wives were out to sea with their husbands caused frustration to some more fashion-minded women, as noted by Charlotte Jernegan while on the whaling ship Niger between 1856-1860. Apparently, as Charlotte arrived on shore in her best hoopskirt, feeling in full fashion, she saw right away that hoopskirts were no longer the trend du jour.  She ripped the hoops out while still in the carriage.  As she stepped into the street, she unceremoniously tripped over the extra fabric of her skirts.

Fashion trends in the late 1800s consisted of varying degrees and broadening of hoops, as well as corsets and bustles. The additional lengths of fabric used to accommodate these styles may often have been a way to display a woman's social status.  

Even though these sea-faring women had difficulties keeping up with changing fashions, ships had an important role in spreading that information.  Prior to the completion of the Transatlantic Cable in the 1860s, ships provided the only means of carrying fashion and style information across the world's oceans.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. How did fashion trends begin or end at the turn of the century?
  2. In what ways did the seafaring life change women's clothing style?
  3. How did a captain's wife's ability to travel to distant countries influence her style of dress?