Sometimes treasures are hidden in plain view and go unnoticed for years. Such was the case in 2013 when Ray Rickman and Robb Dimmick found a box in a storage bin of items belonging to the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society in Providence. When they opened the box, they found a dress that had belonged to the famous African American soprano, Sissieretta Jones, also known as “Black Patti.”
Unfortunately, the cream-colored gown was in about 125 pieces, said Rickman, a former past president of the RIBHS and a citizen historian of black history and culture in Providence. “It looked like someone took a razor blade and cut it. We thought nothing could be done,” he said. But they were wrong.
They contacted one of the best dress restoration experts, Deirdre Windsor, of Windsor Conservation and took the gown to her studio in Dover, Massachusetts. Rickman said the studio reminded him of a church or small cathedral. It was all white inside with 25-foot ceilings. Inside the building, which was about 75-feet long and 40-feet wide, stood three 8’ by 5’ tables, where Windsor often works on two or three projects at a time. Windsor, who had restored Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress, placed Sissieretta’s performance gown on one of the tables to examine it.
Windsor’s report said the two-piece silk taffeta dress was in “fair” condition, considering its age and evidence of use, although there were some areas in “very poor” condition likely caused by the manufacturing process used to make the silk fabric. Fortunately, metal stays in the gown had helped to keep it together and made it possible to restore the dress, but for a price — $4,400 — money the RIBHS didn’t have.
Rickman, who has done lots of fundraising over the years, went to work. First he tried an online “Kickstarter” effort to raise the money, but that proved unsuccessful. After that, he applied for a grant from the (Guillaume) De Ramel Foundation in Newport, RI, and was pleased to receive $3,500. Other donations came in to bring the total up to the required $4,400 and the three-month restoration process began. “Restoration in a long process. It’s like putting together a puzzle,” Rickman said. While the restoration moved forward, Rickman and the RIBHS began planning for an unveiling event.
Sissieretta likely wore this gown in the 1890s, possibly while she toured in Europe (February – October 1895). Windsor’s report said there were small rust stains near the front center of the neckline of the bodice where a pin had been inserted through the silk. There were also rust stains near the neckline on the left side of dress, apparently from pins. Knowing that Sissieretta wore medals pinned to the bodice of her dresses when she performed during this time period, Windsor concluded, “these stains give evidence to this known fact.”
A partial history of the ownership of this dress can be found in two old newspaper reports from the Providence Journal. According to one article in the Providence Sunday Journal (Sept. 28, 1980), the famous soprano gave this handmade beige gown and another black gown with a lace train to Georgia Johnson in the 1920s. Reportedly, the two had worked together for a wealthy family on the East Side of Providence: Sissieretta as the cook and Ms. Johnson as the laundress. The newspaper report said Ms. Johnson eventually gave the dresses to her granddaughter, Dorothea Britt. In the mid-1970s Ms. Britt donated them to the RIBHS and they were shown at three events around the state in 1976, according to another Journal article (March 7, 1976). Later the dresses were displayed on a mannequin for several years at the Rhode Island Black Heritage Museum in the Arcade in Providence. When the museum closed in the early 2000s the beige dress was apparently put into storage, where it remained until Dimmick and Rickman discovered it two years ago.
When Windsor completed the restoration, she told Rickman she would pack the dress in a pale yellow archival display box. She said the fragile dress must be kept flat and not placed on a mannequin. She also advised that no one touch the gown and that it not be moved around much to help protect the box storing the “stunning” performance gown.
The RIBHS unveiled the restored gown to an audience of 50 people at a one-night event October 8, 2014 at the Redwood Library, a private library in Newport, RI, supported through library memberships. The Redwood Library, chartered in 1747, is the oldest lending library in America and the oldest lending library building in continuous use in the country. Rickman lectured for about 20 minutes then took questions. Following that, people lined up to see the dress, which was displayed in a small, stately room off the meeting area.
Plans are to house the dress at the Rhode Island Historical Society storage facilities. The dress may be shown for a few hours in March at an event at the RIHS in Providence and perhaps again the following year at the Rhode Island School of Design, also in Providence.
How wonderful that this exceptional performance gown worn by the great soprano Sissieretta Jones has been saved and will be preserved for others to see in the future. Thank you, Ray Rickman, Robb Dimmick, the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, the De Ramel Foundation, and all those who contributed to make this happen!