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The return fancy dress ball at the old exhibition building, Samuel Calvert, IMP27/10/66/357

On 20 September 1866 Mrs Matilda Butters attended the Mayor’s Fancy Dress Ball in the new exhibition buildings as The Press.

The highly anticipated event, was said to be the sole topic of conversation in social circles at the time, according to the following day’s newspaper coverage in the Age, and must have been an extravagant occasion for more than 1200 frocked-up revellers. It also marked the first social outing of the new Governor of Victoria, Sir John Manners-Sutton, and his family.

Newspaper article

THE MAYOR’S FANCY DRESS BALL. (1866, September 21). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 5

Stunning the crowd, Mrs Butters’ dress was pieced together with 31 pieces of custom-printed silk satin, using printing plates from 13 different Melbourne newspapers, including the Age, Argus, Herald, Australasian, Leader Illustrated Australian News and Punch.

Image of The Press dress

Caption: The Press [Fancy dress skirt and part of sash],  William W Dobbs Mrs, 1866, H141541

The costume was trimmed with gold braid and the titles of all the Victorian country newspaper were printed on slips inserted between the panels. It certainly made an impression:

“Perhaps the most noticeable character in the room was the Press, represented by Mrs Butters.”

The dress was made by local dressmaker Mrs William Dobbs. She must have been of high regard as her name is mentioned in the newspaper reports:

“Altogether, the dress was one of great beauty in its general effect, and reflected much credit on the printers who convoyed the impression of the types to the satin fabric, and on the maker, Mrs Dobbs, of Gardiner’s Creek-road.”

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Examination of the skirt by our Conservation team revealed it was partly made by machine, which is unusual at this time. Sewing machines were new, expensive and out of reach for many women.

Fortunately The Press dress was captured in an illustrated wood engraving by Samuel Calvert published in The Illustrated Melbourne Post on 27 October 1866. It was the second appearance of the dress when Mrs Butters wore it to the Return Fancy Dress Ball on 4 October 1866 in the old exhibition building. Butters is pictured with costumed revellers, in all her regalia.

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Detail of Samuel Calvert illustrated wood engraving featuring Mrs Matilda Butters as ‘The Press’, IMP27/10/66/357

Unfortunately we do not know the whereabouts of the original bodice, head-dress and staff, or if they still exist. Only the skirt and sash are original, and part of the Library’s collection. The Library commissioned costume designer Annette Somilas to reconstruct the bodice based on Calvert’s illustration and contemporary newspaper descriptions. Somilas also made a corset and crinoline cage undergarments so The Press could be displayed as it was meant to be worn.

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The Press dress in the Library’s Conservation Lab

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Working on The Press dress in the Conservation Lab

The original head-dress was also described in the Age:

“The head-dress was the coronet of Liberty, as represented on the gold coinage of the United States on which was displayed in bold silver letters, the motto “Liberty of the Press,” surmounted by a circle of silver stars.”

Mrs Butters wore dress for a third time in December 1867 to attend The Corporation Fancy Dress Ball with her husband, who had by this time become the Lord Mayor of Melbourne.

Reported in the Argus on 24 December 1867, Mrs Butters initially appeared in another striking costume called The Mirror:

“The dress was of rich white corded silk, trimmed and striped with blue’ and pink ribbon, and covered with glittering mirrors, numbers being suspended round the skirt. An ornamental looking glass was held in the hand. The neck-let, bracelet, and earrings wore also composed of mirrors.”

Newspaper article

THE DUKE OF EDINBURGH IN VICTORIA. (1867, December 24). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), p. 5

The lady Mayoress was reported to have changed into The Press later in the evening with the addition of a sash worn across her shoulders bearing the words Civic Fancy Ball 1867.

Accessioned into the Library’s collection in 1951, the dress has undergone extensive conservation treatment, involving surface cleaning and complete deconstruction to facilitate adhesive stabilisation of the silk. Textile Conservator Christina Ritschel (who now works at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London) was engaged by the Library to do this work with funding from the Violet Chalmers bequest.  It took four months to deconstruct, stabilise and reassemble. A special 19th-century shaped mannequin supports the costume while on display.

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The Press dress is currently on loan to the National Gallery of Victoria for their exhibition Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950. The exhibition features more than eighty works from around the country that celebrate Australia’s quilt heritage.

150 years after its first public outing, it’s fitting that this headline-making dress can be displayed once again in Melbourne, celebrating the craftsmanship of Mrs Dobbs and flair of Mrs Butters.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Love the dress, love the story, love the State Library!
    Thank you!

  2. Can’t believe that such a dress could have been made in the 1860s! The cost must have been astronomical! The lady mayoress must have been an interesting character to have had the courage to wear such a garment and the mayor a supportive husband for encouraging and allowing her to wear it! What a story from the 1860s!

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