The Case of the Missing Dress
Quite recently, a longstanding mystery of the archives was solved through a happy bit of circumstance. A missing dress lost somewhere in the collections of the DeKalb History Center, was unearthed within this last month. ‘Why all the fuss about a dress?’ you might be thinking. Well, considering who wore the dress, and who she married while wearing it, we think you will be able to understand our excitement.
Joseph Emerson Brown married Elizabeth Grisham in West Union, South Carolina on July 13th, 1847. These two individuals would go on to become the governor and first lady of Georgia a decade later. Joseph E. Brown held the gubernatorial seat for four terms from 1857 and throughout the Civil War years. His wife stood by his side in all the years of their marriage. When Brown passed away in 1894, only two years later that Elizabeth followed. Given the important history surrounding these individuals, you can imagine how anxiously we were looking for the Brown/Grisham wedding dress.
The dress itself is an interesting example of a mid-1800s textile. There had been some debate between Elizabeth’s aunt and father about who would purchase a satin wedding dress for her. The discussion was settled when Elizabeth decided since she was getting married in midsummer, she wanted a linen dress for the wedding instead. The handkerchief linen dress is covered in intricate hand-crocheted patterns and lace inserts. Supposedly, Elisabeth Grisham Brown wore thirteen petticoats under the dress!
The reason we know what the dress was made of, and what it looked like, is due to an article published in the early 1980s.
At the DeKalb History Center, the historical society had put the dress on display. The gown had been donated in 1966 by a Mrs. Brown. Within the History Center’s collections database, this article is attached to a 2011 ‘Elizabeth Brown wedding gown’ entry. Twenty-seven years after the dress was on display, no one had a clue where it was. The only helpful bits of information were the grainy photo attached to the article and the fact that the dress was known to be made of linen.
So after such a long period of fruitless searching, how did we finally manage to find it?
It was, quite honestly, a real moment of serendipity.
Because the History Center is putting a textile exhibit together, dusty boxes full of incredible textiles are in the process of being sifted through. One box, filled with four dresses, was opened only an hour or so after the missing dress debacle was discussed that same day. The story had been shared in answer to a question from yours truly about all the post-it notes on boxes stating ‘searched through for Grisham/Brown dress.’ It was an interesting anecdote, but with it lost for so long, it seemed incredibly unlikely to just be stumbled upon, especially in a box that had already been looked at.
I was to be proven very wrong.
Within the box of four dresses, only three were listed and described on forms. The fourth simply had a tag that read, ‘1900s’ along with an accession number. The dress was interesting in terms of the detailing, definitely holding potential for display in the exhibit. At the time, it simply seemed unfortunate that there was no additional information on the dress. That is until our archivist walked past, did a double take, and rushed to pull up the article with the above image. A scan of the dress showed some similarities, but it wasn’t until the dress was turned over that the fuzzy but distinct detailing came up as a perfect match. The linen wedding dress, hidden for so long and apparently looked over, had been found at last!
The real kicker is that upon looking up the accession number listed on the tag, a photo of the dress popped up immediately. The description read “Woman’s day dress of white lawn (a fine linen or cotton fabric) with crocheted trim, high collar and three quarter length sleeves. Dress fastens up the back and has machine stitching. No marks.” The date listed was 1900-1915.
In 2006, someone had come across this dress, listed a description and a likely time period, entered it into the collections database, and there it sat for years. Because it was simply titled ‘Dress’, because it was dated incorrectly, because it wasn’t listed as a wedding dress, no one searching had been able to find it in the database. The fact that the dress was linen probably added to the fact that it was so easily overlooked; it simply isn’t as sumptuous and satiny as other wedding dresses in the collection. It’s somewhat ironic that the linen is what ended up catching our eyes that day, perhaps because it was offset by the satin filling the rest of the box.
Ultimately, the find was incredibly thrilling. We rushed (carefully) to place it on a mannequin and were beaming delightedly the entire time. The case of the missing dress had been resolved at last, and the dress was still remarkably intact. While there are no direct ties to DeKalb county on the part of Elizabeth or her husband, the dress is still an incredibly rich showcase of Georgia history. We are fortunate that it was donated to us, and even more fortunate that it has been well maintained (though admittedly lost) all these years. It just goes to show that you find the best things only when you aren’t looking for them.
Needless to say, we will most certainly be keeping a close and careful eye on this 171-year-old dress from now on!
Written by Sophia Malikyar
Dress images and information from DeKalb History Center Archives
Memorial image from findagrave.com