The dress, an 18th-century salmon-colored sack back gown, or robe a la francaise, is a compelling reminder of the woman who once inhabited it: Eliza Lucas Pinckney.
The gown is a remarkable survivor of Colonial Charleston. It’s fragile, frayed, shredded in places, yet whole and never altered. It sits safely in a drawer at the Charleston Museum, rarely displayed for fear of further damage.
Restoration of the dress is long overdue and the only way to save it, but the cost is high and the museum has lacked the resources.
So the Eliza Lucas Pinkney chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution has launched the Pinckney project, a campaign to raise $27,000 to fund the repair and preservation of the gown.
Jill Templeton, the chapter’s historic preservation chairperson, said the dress was given to the museum in the 1940s by members of the Pinckney family.
Compared with other Southern dresses, this one is in pretty good condition, Templeton said. It’s survived the humid climate, hurricanes, bugs, British occupation, the Revolutionary War, ship travel and, later, the Civil War, Charleston earthquake and great fire.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney got the local economy going in the 18th century when she determined that indigo would be Charleston’s first big cash crop.
She was an educated woman, a botany expert, and fully capable of running a plantation. She was born in Antigua and grew up on a sugar plantation, then moved with her family to Charleston when she was 16. Her father was Lt. Colonel George Lucas, her mother AnnLucas. They inherited three plantations, including Wappoo, where she spent most of her time.
She resisted marriage at first, but found herself paired with Charles Pinckney, a nearby planter, after his first wife died. The couple had three children. In 1753, they moved to London for five years.
That’s where Eliza Pinckney likely wore this dress when she appeared at the court of King George II.
Pinckney had three other dresses commissioned while she was abroad, Templeton said. One was gifted to Princess Augusta; another, made of silk, now is part of the Smithsonian collection; and the last probably was given to Pinckney’s daughter Harriott.
No portrait of Pinckney is known to exist, Templeton said. So the dress is one of the best objects in hand for imagining who she was and what she looked like.
Charleston Museum Director Carl Borick is thrilled that Templeton and her organization is spearheading the restoration project.
“This is a wonderful piece of Americana and its preservation for the future is a tribute to women, such as Eliza, who have played a crucial role in Lowcountry history,” Borick said in a statement.
Jan Hiester, curator of textiles at the museum, said the restoration will include significant repair to the silk, one thread at a time, sewed by hand. An underlayer will be added to help strengthen the garment.
The dress will be taken by car to the Textile and Costume Conservatory in Williamsburg, Va., where the tedious work will be done.
Afterward, Hiester hopes to feature the gown in the textile gallery, though she’s not sure it will be robust enough to mount on a mannequin. No textile object in the museum’s collection is on permanent display lest it receive too much exposure to the elements, to ultraviolet light, to the touch of curious visitors, she said.
Possibly it will find a home near the coat that belonged to Eliza’s son Thomas Pinckney.
“Eliza Lucas Pinckney is just a fascinating person,” Hiester said. “Her family helped found the city. In addition to that, the dress itself is very significant. There aren’t very many things left from the mid-18th century.”
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