In a workspace in the theatre and dance department’s costume shop—a place that could double as the set of “Project Runway”—junior Tania Bukach spent her summer playing designer for Mary Willis Ambler Marshall, the wife of Chief Justice John Marshall. 

Bukach hopes to someday design costumes for historic movies. To achieve her goal, Bukach self-designed an interdisciplinary studies major, combining theatre and history courses to create a special academic focus on medieval costumes. When compared with the medieval dresses Bukach has studied in the past, Mary Marshall’s dress, resembling ones from the early 1800s, is practically modern.

With the help of a School of Arts & Sciences summer research fellowship, Bukach wanted to recreate a historic dress that had some local importance to Richmond. On a visit to the John Marshall House Museum, she saw a portrait of Mary Marshall and decided to recreate the dress she wore in the painting.

The museum estimated that the painting had been completed circa 1790 but Bukach’s research on Mary Marshall’s dress led her to believe the style of the dress was more in line with early 1800s fashion.

“There’s not much history about her out there,” Bukach said, “and that’s what I like about this project. I’m giving her more of a visual impact on history.”

John Marshall was a respected attorney in Richmond in the late 1700s. He was influential in the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and President John Adams appointed him to serve as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1801. 

Marshall married Mary, whom he affectionately called “my dearest Polly,” in 1783. Bukach followed his lead and calls her project “Polly’s dress.”

“It makes me feel more connected to how Richmond began and how it interacted in the wider history of the states,” she said.

In the style of muslin dresses from the early 1800s, Polly’s dress embodies similar white empire waist dresses from period movies such as “Pride and Prejudice.” However, the dress in the portrait only showed Polly from the waist up, so Bukach had to get creative to figure out the structure, silhouette, fabric, and techniques used to construct it.

While conducting primary research at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and at the Valentine Richmond History Center, Bukach viewed historical dresses and patterns that may have been similar to Polly’s. In her research, she found a pattern for an open-style gown, somewhat similar to modern wrap dresses, after which she modeled Polly’s.

In her research she also found that early 1800s dresses had a bodice lining that wasn’t attached to the skirt lining but instead was attached to the shoulders and sleeves. Sheer fabric then wrapped over the bodice, adding a layer and providing more modesty, she said.

Using white linen and cotton voile, Bukach created the different layers and pieces of the dress, from the linen shift to the pleats, and sewed them all by hand. She built the stays (similar to a corset) based on a pattern she found in a book, crafting channels for each of the stay’s metal bones. Historically, the dressmaker would have used whalebones, Bukach said.

She wanted to make accurate stays from the era, but realized she wouldn’t be able to use a human model. Because women grew up wearing corsets that ultimately altered the shape of their bodies, modern women would not be able to comfortably wear one and take the shape of a woman from 1790. But using a mannequin proved to be difficult as well.

“There are a lot of challenges to working with a mannequin and not a person,” said Bukach, who nicknamed her mannequin Pollykin. “She doesn’t have arms, so making the sleeves has been difficult.”

In the remaining weeks of summer, Bukach’s to-do list included finishing Polly’s sleeves, attaching the skirt, and hemming the dress—not to mention adding lace to the cuffs and waistband. When she finishes the dress, Bukach plans to donate it to the John Marshall House on East Marshall Street in downtown Richmond.

Watch a video about Bukach and Polly's dress:

Originally printed in the fall 2011 issue of Artes Liberales.