Clothing Featuring Ornamental Beadwork at Rose Hill Museum

by Barbara Comienski (Collections Volunteer/ Docent)

Rose Hill has a number of amazing costumes on display as part of this year’s special exhibition Beadwork: The Beauty of Small Things.

Undoubtedly, the embellishment of late nineteenth century clothing with jet beads or crystals was inspired by the replacement of candles with gas lighting which would pick up the glint of the beads. The use of jet beads resurged in the 1880’s. Near the first-floor staircase, the museum has a beautiful gown, the sapphire blue bodice of which is embellished with black jet beading. There are several types of black jet. Natural jet, derived from fossilized wood, is lighter in weight and shines rather than sparkles. These beads would be a harder type than Irish jet which is fossilized peat, vulcanite, a vulcanized rubber, or dark glass imitating jet.

Collar detail of 1860s black beaded dress, 1996.C.132

Throughout the first floor, visitors can see examples of black berthas, detachable collars, and bib like accessories also decorated with jet beading. Since beading was very labor intensive, few middle-class women had the time to embellish an entire garment or be able to afford to purchase one. Such accessory pieces allowed them to be fashionable and would also have been particularly helpful to quickly utilize in mourning attire.

As with the invention of sewing machine in the mid-nineteenth century, the turn of the century also relied on decorative stitching, pleating, or ruching effects for ornamentation. By the nineteen teens, fashion turned to metallic thread and sequins until glass beads returned to popularity in the 1920’s. A black dress at the front left of the Victorian Parlor illustrates this crossover in trends with elements of both. The squared neckline, straps, and hem are defined by sequins, while the bodice, sleeves, and skirt feature heavy beading.

Early 1900s beaded black dress with square neckline, 1997.C.131

The popularity with beading in the 1920’s was to catch the glimmer of the new incandescent light bulbs. Shimmering satin fabric also reflected the light. Literally, women personified a “dazzling” fashion statement. Often 1920’s dresses favored thin gauzy fabrics. Many of these dresses have disintegrated under the weight of the beads pulling the fibers of the fabric. Several Rose Hill dresses currently on display are laid out on furniture to prevent further damage; one example is the black beaded mustard colored dress on the green sofa. Note the repeating diamond design of the black beads, which emphasizes the fascination in geometric patterns during this part of the Art Deco period.

Detail of a floral bead design, Bay Village Historical Society

Fashion in the 1920’s was also influenced by exotic cultures. Amulets and other jewelry from ancient Egypt were often copied, as were the softly side pleated skirts from Egyptian art. Howard Carter had only recently discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Several beaded appliques on display in the Cahoon Library of Rose Hill show the bright colors and interesting shapes emulating these ancient designs. A penchant for exotic cultures in general permeated mid to late 20s fashion; therefore, we see nature and animal motifs in ornamental beading of the time.

Wedding headpiece, 1941, 2022.C.15.05B

As one heads upstairs, the 1940’s wedding headdress, bedecked with pearls, gives a preview of the variety of eras represented by beading on the second floor. A mid twentieth century evening gown creates visual interest with the undulating overall patterns of silver and pink beads. Over the stairway is a black gabardine cape with a beaded stand-up collar. The front and back have beaded V-shape bottom edges. Black bugle beads form a swirl pattern on the main part of the cape. Continuing toward the Victorian bedroom, visitors can see a mid- nineteenth century burnt orange velvet bonnet, unique in the rim of sparkling beads framing the face. From the same period, a pale blue gauze fabric dress is displayed on the bed to preserve the garment. The profusion of beaded flowers on the bodice stresses this fragilefabric. Peeking into the children’s room, one notes the beaded flowers on the collars and pocket of the pink child’s dress from early in the twentieth century.

Child’s party dress, ca. 1890-1920, 1996.C.022

Fun vintage, but reproduction, beaded clothing can be found in the Early Settler section as one enters the basement displays. Two Campfire Girl dresses from early in the twentieth century replicate beaded Native American garb. Since treaties for land west of the Cuyahoga were not in effect until 1805, early settlers to the area would still periodically encounter a few Native Americans journeying or hunting.

1940s Campfire Girl uniform with bead accessories, 1996.C.207AE

These are just a few highlights of the amazing creations on display in our current special exhibition. We hope you can join us at Rose Hill soon. In addition, consider attending our benefit fashion show Silhouettes of Style, September 24 at Lakewood Country Club. Details can be found at

Posted in Blog, Glimpse of the Past.