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In 1660, a ship carrying a treasure trove of luxury goods sank off the coast of Texel, the largest island in the North Sea.
Nearly four centuries later, little remained of the wooden unidentified Dutch merchant ship. But as the silt and sand covering the wreck washed away, broken chests began to appear in 2010. Four years later, divers retrieved the chests and brought them to the surface.
Inside were remarkable objects, the likes of which had never been seen before, according to researchers at the Museum Kaap Skil in the Netherlands, where the exclusive collection of items are on display.
The chests were full of clothing, textiles, silverware, leather book bindings and other goods that likely belonged to people from the highest social classes centuries ago.
Some of the most stunning items include two virtually intact lavish gowns — a silk dress and another one interwoven with pieces of silver that was likely a wedding dress. Few textiles or clothing from the 17th century remain preserved today, and it’s even more rare to find them in shipwrecks because fabric decays so quickly.
“When I saw the clothing for the first time, I must say, that I actually found it very emotional,” said Emmy de Groot, a textile restorer and adviser who studied the dresses, in a video shared by the museum. “Clothing is something so personal. And you’re holding something in your hands that has been worn on someone’s body. How close can you come to someone from the 17th century?”
The silver dress, revealed in November 2022, has joined an exhibition of items recovered from what is now known as the Palmwood Wreck at the Museum Kaap Skil.
All but pristine gowns
The two gowns, both made of expensive silk, were found together in the same chest.
The first silk dress, originally revealed in 2016, looks like something that could be worn in a period drama rather than an item of clothing that laid on the seabed for nearly four centuries.
Made of silk satin damask, the garment has a woven floral pattern. The gown includes a bodice, ruffled sleeves and a full pleated skirt that fans open at the front, which is similar to Western European fashions between 1620 to 1630.
To complete the look, the gown would have had underskirts, sleeves that were likely adorned with silk tassels and silver or gold buttons, and a stand-up collar made of linen or lace, as well as other embellishments.
The dress includes cream, red and brown colors, but researchers believe it began as a single color. Over time, the original dyes dissolved, while staining from other garments in the same chest left their mark. Despite its intricate design and expensive fabric, the dress was likely intended for everyday wear.
The silver wedding dress, on the other hand, was made for a special occasion and was found in separate pieces, including a bodice and skirt. The dress features embroidered plaited patterns of silver thread that resemble knotted hearts, as well as actual silver disks sewn onto the dress.
“Thanks to the silver, the dress would have had a formal, light and sparkling appearance,” conservator Alec Ewing said.
“It must have been one of the most extraordinary dresses that a lady from the highest social classes in Western Europe would have worn in her life. Silver fades and deteriorates relatively fast in salty environments but the traces and patterns of the original decorations are still visible.”