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“Silk Dress Cryptogram” has finally been decoded!

The decade-old mystery of a code found in a hidden pocket of a mid-1800s silk bronze bustle dress has finally been solved. After pouring over 170 code books, Dr. Wayne Chan, data analyst and researcher at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada; concluded that the coded messages left behind in the Victorian-era dress were actually a series of weather reports from the time.

For those unfamiliar with the story of the “Silk Dress Cryptogram”, here is a summary. In late 2013, archeologist and fashion collector Sara Rivers Cofield was amidst her usual hunt for period clothing pieces at an antique mall when she found a two-piece silk bustle dress in fairly good condition, she bought it for $100. Later while inspecting the piece closer she named it “Bennett’s Bronze Bustle”, as she found a handwritten tag that read “Bennett”, but this would not be the only surprise for her. In her blog, she continues to go into detail about many interesting fashion aspects of the dress, but what stood out for us in the general public was the discovery of two notes with a series of lines that to many would seem like incoherent babble. In her 2014 post, she said at first she thought it could have been a writing exercise or a list, she encouraged readers or any “prodigy” reader to take on the project of figuring it out. Over the years many attempted to crack the code, even Dr. Chan admitted to having failed at it and leaving it on the back burner during a prior attempt in 2018.

“Bismark Omit leafage buck bank Paul Ramify loamy event false new event,” read the first few lines of the elusive code.

Dr. Chan’s initial instincts were right, the cryptic message was indeed a shorthand telegraphic code of some sort. But it wasn’t until he went over an old weather code bool used by the US Army Signal Service and later by the US Weather Bureau that he began to gain insight into what the code could be. With a copy of a weather telegraph code book sent to him by the US National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Dr. Chan was finally able to conclude that the cryptic messages in the dress were from Signal Service weather stations in the US and Canada. He went on to validate it over some time, you can find a summary of his findings at tandfonline.com.

According to Dr. Chan, the messages of the 1888 code each started with a station location, followed by code words for temperature and pressure, dew point, precipitation and wind direction, cloud observations, wind velocity, and sunset observations.

The translation?

It reads as follows: “Bismark Omit leafage buck bank,” indicating the reading was taken at Bismarck station, in the Dakota Territory. ‘Omit’ was for an air temperature of 56 degrees and pressure of 0.08 inches of mercury, ‘Leafage’ a dew point of 32 degrees, observed at 10 p.m. ‘Buck’, clear weather, with no precipitation and a northerly wind. ‘Bank’, a wind velocity of 12 miles per hour, and a clear sunset, according to Newyorktimes.com.

The study goes into deeper details of the rest of the code, but it is all a series of weather observations. Who owned the famous “Bennett’s Bronze Bustle” dress and why she carried these codes remains a mystery. But the code is cracked!

An exciting conclusion to a 10-year-old fashion mystery!


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