Recent Exhibition Highlight: Embellishments in Victorian Dress, May 13-August 27, 2017


Saco Museum

How did nineteenth century clothing makers think about design? How did they create the fabulous, over-the-top trims late 19th c. fashion is known for? Embellishments in Victorian Dress looked at nine design principles, and how they were applied, to help see Victorian fashion in a new way.

First opening at the University Museum at UNH, Durham in September 2012, the exhibition traveled to Lowell, Massachusetts in 2014 and the Portsmouth Athenaeum in 2015. This new, greatly expanded exhibition of fifty garments featured the nine core examples from the original show, with many new selections from the University of New Hampshire’s Irma Bowen Textile Collection, the Saco Museum, Portsmouth Historical Society’s John Paul Jones House, Strawbery Banke Museum, and Woodman Institute Museum.



Strawbery Banke Museum

Woodman Institute Museum










John Paul Jones House


Saco Museum




Embellishments wins an IPPY award!

2015 winner of an Independent Publisher's Book Award!


Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail has been awarded a 2015 silver medal by the Independent Publisher Book Awards!

Here’s what people are saying about the book:

In an era in which our closets are full of mass-produced clothing, Embellishments offers us a rich and lushly illustrated book that combines an obvious love of handcraft with intimate knowledge of Victorian garment construction. — Michelle Tolini Finamore, Curator of Fashion Arts, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I just opened your exquisite book! What a wonderful thing you’ve done! It’s the next best thing to seeing and touching the genuine articles: the close-ups, the drawings, the insights as to how and why! You’ve done such a service for those of us who will probably never have the opportunity to do more than gaze longingly through the glass at museums. I envy you the experience. Thank you so much for sharing it!
— Mary Elizabeth Quinn

The book is just wonderful. The photographs are great as are the illustrations. They make it very clear and undaunting to try these techniques.
— Rex Richards, Dryden House Stitching

It’s fantastic! Wow, what a resource! I am so glad I found out about this and would gladly back another project like this. Maybe a Volume II with pattern diagrams? — Gillian Simpson

This is a magnificent book, and very special since you have so carefully deconstructed the magic of creating those intricate trimmings and embellishments! It is both a reminder of the beauty of the collection and a primer on how to recreate some of the loveliest and most complex garment finishings ever! My staff are enjoying the book – especially the instructions on achieving the trimmings – I told them they could enjoy the book, but not to drool on it!
— Ann Carnaby, Tracy Theatre Originals


Embellishments 2015: June-November in Portsmouth, NH



photo by Lisa Nugent

Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail will be coming to the Portsmouth Athenaeum in lovely downtown Portsmouth, NH! The opening reception is Friday, June 19, 2015 from 5-7 pm and the exhibition will run through the evening of November 6.

A full slate of gallery talks, lecture, and a workshop are scheduled, hope to see you there! Go to for directions and information on visiting.

Saturday, June 27, 2015, 1-2 pm,
Curator’s Gallery Talk,
The Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, NH

Embellishments curator Astrida Schaeffer leads an exploration and discussion of the thirteen dresses on view.

Saturday, July 18, 1-2 pm,
Dress in Detail: A White Glove Tour,
The Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, NH

Take part in an in-depth examination of three dresses on view in Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail, with guest curator Astrida Schaeffer. Get a look at construction inside and out.

Thursday, August 20, 7 -8 pm,
Lecture: High Fashion, Local Flavor: Social Positioning Through Dress in Seacoast NH,
The Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, NH

In the early 1870s, a woman went for a stroll through Somersworth, NH wearing a high fashion bustled silk gown trimmed with ruffles, fringe, and more, looking like she’d stepped from the pages of the latest fashion news. Everyone who saw her could tell at a glance that she was a woman of importance. In fact she was only Celestia Freeman, a textile mill overseer’s wife, and she had made the dress herself.
The story behind the dress is that of the booming, innovative 19th century with all its new ideas and new possibilities: the invention and introduction of the sewing machine into the home, the creation of a commercial pattern industry, and the spread of fashion magazines across the nation. These things together gave women across social levels all they needed to turn dress into status. Celestia’s dress is the centerpiece of an exploration of how a woman of limited means could make the clothes that could make the woman.
With curator Astrida Schaeffer.

Saturday, October 3, 10 am-4 pm,
Victorian Trims & Embellishments Workshop,
The Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, NH

Get inspired by 19th century gown embellishments with author and costume historian Astrida Schaeffer. Learn how the Victorians thought about design, and make a sampler of the piping, cording, pleating, ribbon work, applique and self-trim techniques that made their clothes fabulous. The class includes a visual tour of Victorian gowns, handouts, and hands-on instruction. Fee: $90, registration required click on button below.

Book Review: Possibilities are Endless!

Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail

Book Review, November 2013

“Ms. Shaeffer doesn’t only show the embellishments used, she explains how to do them! With clear instructions and diagrams she shows the reader ruching, pleats, ribbon work, binding, piping, cord & braid work, and appliqué. The possibilities for your own costumes are endless!” — READ the ENTIRE REVIEW…

Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail

Embellishments, by Astrida SchaefferThis book of full-color photographs and how-to guide highlights ten of the dresses from the Embellishments: Constructing Victorian Detail exhibit at UNH and analyzes their design elements in depth. Each item has been closely examined, taking advantage of places where threads have loosened over time to peer at the back side of trims, searching garment interiors, and studying fabric grain lines and seams for clues on construction. Lush photography of full-length gowns and close-up views of construction details are paired with descriptions, clear diagrams, and instructions for a book you can enjoy on many levels.

by Astrida Schaeffer
foreword by Lisa MacFarlane, PhD
introduction by Kimberly Alexander, PhD
Published by Great Life Press

Inspired by the Embellishments exhibition.

>> Readers’ Comments



One of a Kind Mannequins

mannequin in processEach SchaefferArts mannequin is made by hand to the exact needs of the garment it will be displaying. The size is calibrated to show off the clothing without straining it. The shape is based on the correct silhouette for its time period in history (complete with whatever hoops, bustles, corsets, petticoats or pads it would have needed), and all materials are archival to ensure the safest possible display experience.

A mannequin takes several days to complete and is made to fit the needs of the exhibition in terms of color and pose. One was even made to hang suspended from the ceiling, holding a mapping grid in its hands! (see Scuba Diver portfolio)
More about our Custom Mannequins

Featured Article: Say “Yes” to the Dress

Astrida Schaeffer, photo by Lisa Nugent, UNHVictorian women put their own spin on the power suit.

The Victorian ladies of UNH have gathered for a chat. They mill about on risers in a ground-floor room at Dimond Library, facing in all directions as they display their finery from perfectly pleated collar to elegantly draped bustle. They are a fashion show, a three-dimensional swatch of history, and a testament to the tough-minded long-ago instructor who brought them together.

The ladies are headless, yet they speak. And through the contemporary women who channel their voices, this is what they say:

Do not underestimate us. You’d be amazed what we can do in these corsets.

>> Read the full article in the UNH Alumni Magazine By Jane Harrigan.