Any idea what this Victorian-ish beaded clothing thingy is?

My sister found this amazingly beautiful bit of apparel in a used clothing store in Maine, and I’m not sure what to call it, what it’s for, or if it’s worth anything. Help!

This is a heavily beaded and heavily fringed black shawl-like thing. It looks like it was supposed to be worn over a dress to make it look fancier, not as any kind of independent garment. I’ve taken a bunch of pictures and made a (very high-quality and artistic) sketch of how it should look on a person:

http://s260.photobucket.com/albums/ii24/drnaiche/beaded%20shawl/

The fabric is slightly faded, but still very close to black. The beading is mostly intact, though coming loose in some places. There is a set of ties on the inside of the back panel that look like they’re made to attach it to the dress underneath.

The questions I’m interested in are:
What do you call it? Does this type of garment have a name?
Any idea of what time frame it’s from?
Is it of any historical or financial importance, or just pretty?
Any ideas on what I should be doing to preserve it?

Cheers,
mischievous

I don’t know what else to call it except a decorative capelet.
I might be of some value especially if it is in good condition. It looks like it may be of the Victorian era. If you take it to an antique dealer, he or she may be able to tell you a lot more. What do you think you might want to do with it, if I may ask? It’s absolutely fabulous.

Are the beads jet? It may very well have been a mourning piece, since jet was considered a mourning gem.

The beads are black, but I don’t know how to tell if they are jet or not.

I’m not sure what I want to do with it. While it’s extrememly fabulous, it’s far too small for me to wear. I think that means it probably is old, though, since it’s obviously intended for an adult, but sized for today’s 10-year old.

If it’s genuinely valuable/historical, I’ll probably donate it to an interested museum, but if it’s just a neat old piece of clothing, I think I’ll get a small dressmaker’s form and display it in my living room.

The beads are black, but I don’t know how to tell if they are jet or not.

I’m not sure what I want to do with it. While it’s extrememly fabulous, it’s far too small for me to wear. I think that means it probably is old, though, since it’s obviously intended for an adult, but sized for today’s 10-year old.

If it’s genuinely valuable/historical, I’ll probably donate it to an interested museum, but if it’s just a neat old piece of clothing, I think I’ll get a small dressmaker’s form to drape it on and display it in my living room.

There IS a way to test for jet, actually. Heat up a sewing needle, either in a stove flame or with a lighter, and hold it to one of the beads. Jet will smell like burning coal (since that’s basically what it is). If it’s an imitation jet bead made of hard rubber, it’ll smell like burning rubber. An imitation jet bead made of plastic (or bakelite) will (obviously) smell like burning plastic.

Do the test in an inconspicuous spot, of course, and be careful with the needle.

The missus agrees with Not a Well Woman: Victorian decorative capelet seems like a likely description. The beads are probably black glass, as opposed to jet. Value (at least around here; NYC prices are certainly higher) probably isn’t much: $50-$100 range, say.

Cool, you learn something new every day. I’ll try that out as soon as I have a spare moment at home. I’m thinking maybe sometime in July?

It’s a shoulder cape from the late 1890s. They went by a lot of different names: shoulder cape, capelet, mantelet, cape. It’s kind of hard to put an exact date on it – shoulder capes/drapes start showing up in the first bustle era (roughly 1870 to 1878) as fichus, and then in the second bustle era (roughly 1883-1890) as part of full dress ensembles, i.e. the cape is made out of the same material as the rest of the dress. They fade out after WWI. The elaborateness of it pushes it towards a later date, though.

The closest picture I can find is this, but I didn’t look very hard. That picture is from 1899. Some similar pictures:

Ice skating in Central Park, 1892: The girl in yellow is wearing a shoulder cape.
Beaded cape by Worth, ca. 1890: Note that it sold for nearly $7,000 because it’s by Worth and so the craftsmanship is very high, and the provenance is known.
Velvet capelet attributed to Doucet, ca. 1898
It doesn’t have much value unless it was made by a major fashion house – Worth, Fortuny, Doucet, etc. – or a known maker. If it has a tag or label on the inside, that will increase the value, but if it’s a nobody, then it won’t. Documented provenance will raise the price as well.

You might want to try offering it to a museum, anyway, especially if it’s of local interest. Like if it’s labeled as coming from a local shop or something. Sometimes the owner’s name is stamped or written on the lining of Victorian clothing. If you find a name, contact a local historian and see if it has any importance.

As for preserving it, keep it out of the damp, direct sunlight, and drafts. If it seems very delicate, you won’t want to display it on a dress form, because the weight of the garment itself will cause it to deteriorate. If you store it in a box, make sure everything is acid-free. NO BASEMENTS. You can take it to a conservator, who can mount it in a display box or case for you.

Bless the Straight Dope, I knew I’d get some answers!