When someone hears you have been antique hunting, the first thing that comes to mind is digging through a pile of “junk” to look for that one special piece. As an intern within the curatorial department at Meadow Brook Hall, I noticed that we are constantly looking for that one unique item connected to The Hall’s past. Our curatorial department found a piece – a dress – in the most unlikely of places: ebay.com. The difference between this piece and everything else we search for is that we do not actually know if it belonged to Matilda R. Wilson.
But, not wanting to miss out on the chance that it may have been hers, – especially with an upcoming costume exhibit – we made a quick decision to purchase it. Later came the hard part: the curatorial department had to determine its authenticity. To do that, we compared the size and style to the clothing Matilda wore before she would have commissioned the dress. One can easily view Matilda’s clothing through the Meadow Brook Hall website by clicking here to view the digital archive of MBH’s 450 costume items. The dress bought from ebay has a ‘60s feel… it is covered in shiny pink, purple, green, blue, and silver flowers. But comparing this dress to what we have in our Archives put us in a tricky situation. There is one dress that has the lines of this gown (see left). However this photo of Matilda at the 1966 International Tea – an event where she could have experimented with contemporary fashion – shows her wearing a very conservative dress.
So was this actually Matilda’s dress? The design was one consideration, yet the height of the dress was also in question. Matilda was a fairly short woman, just over 5 feet tall. The dress measures more than 50 inches, too tall for Matilda’s short stature even in 3” heels.
We dug further through some interviews, beginning with the ebay seller. She had purchased the dress from a former seamstress in the Metro-Detroit area, who not only created the dress, but owned several others she said she made for Matilda Wilson. This raised more questions: If these dresses were made for Matilda, how did the seamstress get them back? Though some of the Wilsons’ possessions were sold or given away after Matilda’s death, none of the costumes were to our knowledge. Was the seamstress somehow able to get the dresses back? Unfortunately for us, the seamstress was selling her clothes because she was about to move. Though a letter was sent to her former address, no response ever came. We also do not know her name.
In the few months I worked at Meadow Brook Hall, I became familiar with the personalities of the Dodge and Wilson family. Given that knowledge, it did not seem that this dress fit with Matilda’s style in the 1960s. It is possible that she may have wanted to change things up, but the questionable design, its length and its shaky provenance make that highly doubtful.
The solution? While Matilda never wore the dress, Meadow Brook Hall can now display it to educate visitors about the occasional downfalls of collecting.
Olivia Hampton was a curatorial intern and docent at Meadow Brook in 2015 and 2016. She is a 2016 graduate of Oakland University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology with an Archaeology concentration and a minor in Art History. In September of 2016, she will start work on an MA in Roman History and Archaeology in England.