Bessie Rouse's crimson silk outfit

Contributed by: Sydney Living Museums

Bessie's crimson bodice,  Hamilton Rouse Hill Trust Collection, Photo:© Alex Kershaw glass buttons, Hamilton Rouse Hill Trust Collection silk detail,  Hamilton Rouse Hill Trust Collection net detail,  Hamilton Rouse Hill Trust collection Portrait of Princess Alexandra displayed in the Drawing room at Rouse Hill House & Farm
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Sydney Living Museums
  • Owner registration number:

    HR100/28, HR100/10
  • Date range:

    1874 - 1876
  • Place of origin:

    Darlinghurst, New South Wales, Australia
  • Gender:

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Object information

Significance statement

This crimson bodice was probably worn by Bessie Rouse as an elegant presentation robe, possibly before she was married to Edwin Stephen Rouse in 1874. Bessie remained the influential mistress of Rouse Hill House from her marriage until 1924. Her outfit does not show extensive signs of wear although Bessie appears to have moved the red glass buttons across 30mm to allow for an expanding waistline. This may possibly relate to her two pregnancies. Presentation robes often boasted extravagant trained skirts and garments were often altered for later, more practical use. Though we have no exact confirmation that this was worn to a vice regal function, the Rouse's were a significant and successful family living thirty kilometres west of Sydney who entertained many interesting friends including writer Banjo Paterson and were invited to prestigious events in Sydney when they would stay with Bessie's parents, the Buchanans, in Darlinghurst.

The minimal remains of the skirt are characteristic of the resourceful use and reuse of clothing in this family collection. Little was discarded and fabric was used over again for different members of the family and purposes until it ended up many years later in the dressing up box. Another skirts has been discovered in a bundle of many pieces, awaiting a creative spirit to revamp the design. The family was resourceful, typical of their time, and having plenty of space on the property, kept many oddments that are now precious indicators of a past lifestyle.

The Rouse Hill House collection has a wealth of information - photographs, receipts, magazines and personal accounts still to be researched which will add more fully to our understanding of the six generations of the Rouse and Terry family life on this property.

Author: Lindie Ward, 14th November 2009.


This crimson figured silk bodice extends to the hip in 'cuirasse' style and is constructed in eight panels to give a shapely fit. The low square neck is piped with burgundy satin. The bodice fastens with 9 ruby glass gilded and painted buttons & hand sewn buttonholes. The original sleeves, probably in matching fabric, have been replaced with cream figured machine embroidered net sleeves extending over the hand in points and lined with pink muslin. Six of the bust darts have been reinforced with whalebone, two back bones missing. The pieced back ends in a 'fish tail' shaped to sit over a bustle skirt. The bodice is lined with glazed cotton and the seams cut to enhance shape and finished by hand. A fine 10mm cream silk ribbon has been attached inside the buttonhole side of the opening to firm up the right front which is shaped and not cut on the straight grain. The garment seams are machine sewn and it is finished by hand.

The one surviving skirt panel is the left centre back train panel whose hem is at a 30' angle. It is lined with a very fine brown gauze and faced with brown silk taffeta.

History and Provenance

Births, deaths, marriages, children or family information

Richard Rouse (1774-1852) a free settler, began building Rouse Hill House in 1813 with his wife Elizabeth Adams (1772-1849)

Their son Edwin Rouse 1806-1862 married Hannah Hipkins 1819-1907 in 1834.

Their son Edwin Stephen 1849-1931 married Bessie Rouse 1843-1924 daughter of William and Elizabeth Buchanan in 1874.

Edwin Stephen and Bessie had two children:

Nina (1875-1968)

Kathleen (1878-1932)

Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?

Invitations in the collection refer to vice regal occasions when Bessie may have dressed in this outfit.

Close study of the collection reveals many adjustments over time to conform to the latest fashion trends from overseas. Altering and adjusting costumes was standard procedure in the past, stemming from a respect for beautiful materials. Great value was placed upon resourcefulness and there was a reluctance to waste anything right up until the mid twentieth century. Garments might have many reincarnations over the years dressing different, probably smaller members of the family, then finally cut down into a tea cosy or a purse.

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

Rouse Hill House & Farm is an important historic property, not only for its artefacts, furnishings, buildings and gardens, but also because it is the most complete document of six generations of continuous family occupancy of a country house in New South Wales.

Bessie Rouse was the attractive mistress of Rouse Hill House from 1874-1924. The house and property, thirty kilometres from Sydney, has remained much as it was when Bessie Rouse lived there and has since been occupied by family descendants until it was passed to the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales in 1979. Personal belongings and clothing remain as they were left, in wardrobes and storerooms. The interior decoration has also remained largely unchanged. The study of personal belongings in the house has been revealing since it is safe to assume that nearly everything in the house has been owned by a family member. Because Bessie was proud of her tiny waist, this has meant that garments can be safely attributed to her since no-one else could fit into them.

Where did this information come from?

Information has been gathered from family members and through close research into the extensive collection of material found in the house and reference to family photographic albums and other sources.

  1. Place of origin:

    Darlinghurst, New South Wales, Australia

  2. Cost:


    While many invoices and receipts exist in the Rouse Hill House and Farm collection, none examined to date refer to this bodice. The invoice may have been discarded or simply not yet located. The garment was most probably purchased prior to Bessie's marriage to Edwin Stephen Rouse when she lived with her parents, and therefore the invoice would not be included in this collection.

  3. Owned by:

    Bessie Buchanan who lived at Lara, Darlinghurst before her wedding.

  4. Worn by:

    Bessie Rouse

  5. Occasion(s):

    Thought to be a presentation gown, part of Bessie's trousseau.

  6. Place:

    Possibly worn to a vice-regal occasion at Government House, Sydney.

  7. Designed by:


  8. Made by:

    This does not appear to be made by Bessie's dressmaker, Madame Beattie, as the style of stitching and finishing differs from bodices that we know were made by her workroom. It may be that Bessie had this elegant outfit made when she was Edwin Stephen's fiancee before they were married.

  9. Made for:

    Bessie Rouse (Buchanan)

Trimmings / Decoration

The double piping around the hem creates a firmer, crisp finished edge.






Burgundy silk piping on neckline (single) and at hem (double)







Fibre / Weave

Bodice: Crimson silk damask with woven self coloured pattern of floral sprigs.

Lining: Cream glazed cotton

Sleeves: Cream cotton machine embroidered net

Sleeve lining: pink muslin

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye


The seams are machined with lock-stitch and the finishing is by hand and quite rough.


no label


Buttons have been moved across the bodice for an expanding waist of 570mm to 600mm. The original sleeve was most probably wider and in matching crimson silk worn with an under-sleeve. This has been replaced with lace sleeves.

  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other


The bodice is cut on the straight grain with intricate seams and bust darts to create a shapely fit. It extends to the hip without a waist seam. This distinguished the period from earlier styles with a pronounced waist seam.

The sleeves have been remade in a different fabric altogether.

The skirt is also cut on the straight, possibly the width of the fabric and is not shaped.

  1. Bias
  2. Straight


Bodice front fastens with 9 ruby glass gilded and painted buttons & hand sewn buttonholes.

The buttons would have been made in a mould, the metal shank put into the back while the glass was still molten. The surface would then be gilded by hand leaving the gold in the leaf depressions in the glass surface.

  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

The bodice is lined with glazed cotton.

There is a 10mm cream silk ribbon holding the buttons firmly down centre front on the inside.

The skirt is lined with brown gauze and faced with brown taffeta.


bodice skirt
Neck 680 mm
Chest 850 mm
Waist 635 mm
Hip 1000 mm
Cuff 200 mm
Hem circumference 1180 mm
Front neck to hem 395 mm
Front waist to hem 230 mm
Back neck to hem 675 mm
Back waist to hem 285 mm 1650 mm
Sleeve length 585 mm
Neck to sleeve head 140 mm
Cross back 320 mm
Underarm to underarm 400 mm
Fabric width 580 mm
Convert to inches

Skirt panel is 530 wide by 1650 long

PLEASE NOTE - The first set of bodice measurements relate to the bodice in its original state and the second set of bodice measurements relate to the bodice in its altered state.

Fabric selvedge possibly 580 mm

Dress Themes

With its long train, this is thought to have been a presentation robe which Bessie would have worn to a very special occasion.

Additional material

Articles, publications, diagrams and receipts descriptions

Bessie greatly admired Princess Alexandra who was almost her exact contemporary. Alexandra was well loved and influenced many young women and how they dressed in much the same way as Diana, Princess of Wales a century later. In particular the influence of her hairstyle, her trim figure and her fashion for the pearl choker, can be seen in photographic portraits of Bessie.

Other related objects

Rouse Hill House and Farm has an extensive costume collection and related material including photographs, jewellery, receipts, magazines and furnishings.

Link to collection online


Evidence of repairs

The original silk sleeves have been replaced with net sleeves, sewn roughly into the armhole.

The skirt has been unpicked and only one panel, the left back train panel, survives.


  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor
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