jet closeup

Curator’s Cache: Jet Black

Black silk dress c. 1913. Ornamented with embroidery, chiffon and jet beads. Found in collection.
Jet dressFirst in a series of Curator’s Cache objects, this exquisite black silk dress dates from the early nineteen-teens, probably about 1913. It is both as ornate as a Victorian dress with embroidery and chiffon embellishments; and as simple as an Edwardian dress with clean lines and an absence of corseting superstructure. It may have been a mourning dress as it is all black with no color and the only ornamentation is of jet which was considered the most appropriate trim for mourning.
A small jet specimen

A small jet specimen


Jet is a mineraloid related to coal. It is formed from decaying wood over several million years. Some of the most famous jet comes from Yorkshire in the north of England. In 1861 when Prince Albert died, Queen Victoria set the fashion for widows to wear jet jewelry. Jet became so popular that the mines and manufacturers could not keep up with the demand and so black glass and obsidian were often substituted. Oddly, fake jet made of other materials such as glass retains its shiny appearance while real jet clouds over with a grayish cast over time. This surface can be rubbed off easily revealing the shiny material underneath. Looking closely at the ornamentation on this dress one can clearly see areas where the tiny jet beads have clouded as well as areas where we have polished them to show how they would have appeared when this dress was new.

Label for Spencer Cleveland

The garment’s label gives us a tiny clue


We do not know how this garment came to be in the collection. It was discovered during the recent inventory and cataloging project. It has certainly been in the collection for at least 20 years. The label inside reads “Spencer Cleveland.” It serves as a prime example of early 20th century ladies’ wear and is in excellent condition. The costume collection of the Winnetka Historical Society contains over 4,000 articles of clothing and accessories. Only a tiny fraction of them have ever been on display. Curator’s Cache is an opportunity to let a few of these lovely pieces out of storage to be enjoyed by our visitors.


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