The American dress with the short sleeves is the earlier of the two, dating from about 1830. It’s made of silk satin patterned with weft floats, and dyed with either madder or cochineal (the king of red-dyes and Starbuck’s strawberry frappuccinos – more about it here). The lady who entered a room in this gown would have had every eye on her, and with good reason, too. Simple in style, it’s the color that makes it such a beautiful stand-out.
The dress with the longer sleeves dates from 1868-70, and was also sewn in America, but of fabric made of pineapple leaf fiber from the Philippines and combined with a silk underdress trimmed with silk net. According to the museum’s label, the dress has an interesting history: “This bright pink dress was originally worn by Mary Francis Cook of Hyde Park, Massachusetts, and was made of piña cloth brought home by her sea-captain father. By the second half of the 19th century, the port of Manila had a vibrant trade in pineapple fiber cloth, which was lauded for being strong, light-weight, and breathable. This fabric was dyed with fuchsine, an aniline dye color introduced in 1858 that became ultra-fashionable in the 1860s.”
In other words, the color of the earlier dress came from naturally derived plant or animal dyes that had been in use for hundreds of years, while the later dress represents the latest in 19th c. color innovations, straight from the chemist’s lab. Yet side by side, the two complement one another beautifully, like a pair of prize azaleas.