Favorite decades: 1910's, 1800's, 1870's
Favorite artists: Anthony van Dyck, Giovanni Boldini, Henry Fuseli, Thomas Lawrence
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Gown from silk made by Anna Maria Garthwaite (1690-1763), 1740’s England, altered 1780’s (fabric made in Spitalfields, London), the Victoria & Albert Museum
Originally, the gown was probably a sack back, with loose box pleats at the back to allow for maximum display of the silk pattern. The gown would have been open down the front, with folded-back robings and rectangular cuffs at each elbow. The last conversion in the 1780s to the style of that time was quite clumsily executed, suggesting that perhaps the gown had been handed down to a maid.
Design & Designing
The design is brocaded in coloured silks on oyster-coloured satin. Two large sprays of flowers fill the width of the repeat, linked by upward and downward trails of bright pink berries and rose buds. Among the identifiable flowers are roses, morning glory and auricula. From both sprays the flowers on upward stems are brocaded in shades of pink, fawn, lilac, white and black, while those hanging down are in shades of blue, yellow and red. A variety of greens colour the stems and leaves, and the flowers are shaded naturalistically by the weaving technique.
The freelance textile designer Anna Maria Garthwaite (1690-1763) received at least 40 commissions for silk designs from a Spitalfields master weaver called Mr Gregory. The design for this silk was one of them. There were a number of members of the Weavers’ Company with the name Gregory, so we do not know his exact identity, but the designs she produced for him are some of Garthwaite’s prettiest and most fashionable, and include patterns for brocaded lustrings, damasks, tissues and satins.
Sack back gown, 1760-65 London (made of Chinese silk), the Victoria & Albert Museum
There is a green ribbon trimming which was added in the last quarter of the 19th century, but I don’t see it in any of the pictures.
This elegant robe and petticoat are fine examples of a woman’s formal daywear in the early 1760s. In cut, fabric and design they were the height of fashion.
Materials & Making
The pattern on the silk is hand-painted. The fabric was first sized with alum to make the paint adhere. Next the design was drawn freehand in ink or silverpoint. A variety of pigments were used, including white lead or a chalk ground for the highlights. The robe and petticoat are hand sewn with silk thread and trimmed with gathered strips of the hand-painted silk.
The style and design of this ensemble exemplify the Rococo fashion in dress. The pale yellow silk painted in a variety of bright colours reflects the Rococo palette, while the scalloped sleeve cuffs and gathered robings create a decorative surface pattern. The robe is a sack back (a style of gown with the fabric at the back arranged in box pleats at the shoulders and falling loose to the floor with a slight train), and would have been worn with a wide square hoop under the petticoat.
The silk was woven and painted in China. The width of the fabric and the use of coloured threads in the selvedge (the cloth edge) differ from European silks. The floral pattern shows the influence of Western design, indicating that it was made expressly for the European market.
Afternoon dress, ca 1785 England, the Victoria & Albert Museum
In the 1770s and 1780s printed cotton fabrics began to replace silk in popularity for women’s gowns. The material of this gown has a dotted ground and is printed in a repeating pattern of floral sprays. The gown has a fitted back and open front below the waist, revealing a petticoat of the same fabric. The lack of decoration and use of cotton instead of silk indicates that this gown was probably worn during summer afternoons for card games and tea parties, rather than for evening dress.
Robe, ca 1797 England, the Victoria & Albert Museum
Cashmere shawls were prized imports from India during the late 18th century. British manufacturers soon began making shawls in similar styles. Not only were they worn with the newly fashionable Neo-classical gowns, the shawls were also made into gowns. In this example of the late 1790s, the shawl was cut in half and then sewn together to form the front and back of the gown. Sleeves of cream satin and a collar and over-sleeves of green silk fabric were then added. The waistline is very high, sitting just below the bust line.
Mourning evening dress, 1823-25 Scotland, the Victoria & Albert Museum
This black velvet evening dress was worn Jane Johnstone (1803-1847), niece of William Jardine founder of Hong Kong merchants Jardine, Matheson & Co.
The wide neckline and short sleeves of the dress are typical of fashionable evening wear of the mid 1820s. Although it retains remnants of the high-waisted, neo-classical shape popular at the beginning of the century, its construction shows the move towards the lower waists and fuller skirts of the 1850s. The use of velvet demonstrates the trend for more sumptuous fabrics after the dominance of cotton and muslin in the previous two decades.
The death of Princess Charlotte, the only child of George IV, in childbirth in 1817 plunged the whole country into mourning and set the high standards for mourning dress of this period. Fabrics such as silk and velvet were too shiny to be worn for the first stages of mourning, however, official mourning guidelines issued by the Lord Chamberlain decreed that black velvets and silks were permissible in the third and final stage. This dress would have been worn with an evening turban, long gloves and a pelisse cloak, often lined with chinchilla fur. It is likely that it was a gift from William Jardine and was worn when mourning the death of Jane Johnstone’s grandmother, Elizabeth Johnstone who died in 1825.
Robe, 1795-1800 England, the Victoria & Albert Museum
The cotton weaving and printing industries in Britain expanded greatly during the period 1775-1800. Cotton was a very popular fabric for clothing, from sheer muslins to heavy corduroys. It was part of the wardrobe of all classes. This printed cotton gown of the late 1790s could have been the Sunday best of a working-class woman or the informal morning gown of a wealthy lady. The very high waist and long sleeves are the typical fashion of this period.
Walking dress, 1817-20 UK, the Victoria & Albert Museum
Echoes of military uniform give this walking dress a masculine flourish. The curving satin bands applied to the front of the spencer are reminiscent of the parallel lines of braiding which extended across the breast of many uniforms. Passementerie in the form of crescent-shaped moulds, looped cord and balls covered in floss silk replace the gilt or silver buttons on some regimental coats. The tassels on the collar ends and cuff bands evoke the tassels adorning boots, hats, sashes and cap lines of military accessories. In place of epaulettes, puffed oversleeves composed of linked bows emphasize the shoulder line.
The infusion of military styles into fashionable dress in Britain was largely due to the influence of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). Among other factors, contact with foreign troops had a strong impact on civilian as well as regimental dress, and military ornament was translated into stylish trimmings on women’s hats, bodices, spencers and pelisses. The uniforms worn during this period were some of the most elaborate in the history of military dress, and their bright colours, frogging, braid and tassels fuelled the imagination of fashion for years to come.
Although this walking outfit is not based on any particular uniform, some garments closely followed certain styles. The uniform of the hussars, who were light cavalry, was particularly flamboyant as it was derived from Hungarian national dress. In her memoirs, Elizabeth Grant describes the admiration she received when she ‘walked out like a hussar in a dark cloth pelisse trimmed with fur and braided like the coat of a staff-officer, boots to match, and a fur cap set on one side, and kept on the head by means of a cord with long tassels’.
Formal day dress, ca 1735 England (Spitalfields) (altered 1740’s and 1780’s), the Victoria and Albert Museum
By the 1730s the open robe was beginning to replace the mantua as formal day wear. The beautifully patterned Spitalfields silk indicates a degree of luxury. The accompanying quilted petticoat suggests that the ensemble was probably worn for afternoon tea parties rather than in the evening at the opera or theatre. The pattern of the silk, with pear-shaped fruits and exotic flowers, is typical of the 1730s. The gown itself was altered in the 1740s and probably again in the 1780s.
Robe by Liberty of London, ca 1897 London, the Victoria & Albert Museum
This garment with its full sleeves and long, flowing silhouette owes much of its inspiration to Pre-Raphaelite dress. The gown consists of a flared front panel attached to an open, flowing robe which falls from pleats at the back. The front panel has a patch pocket on the right side which is hidden by the deep plush edging.
Materials & Making
The puffed sleeves, wide cuffs and velvet edgings are inspired by plain, loose 16th century gowns. The sunflower and pomegranate motif on the fabric was a recurring design on objects associated with the Aesthetic Movement. The subtle gold and brown tones were popular ‘artistic’ colours used in both dress and furnishing fabrics during the 1890s.
Pre-Raphaelite painters had clothed their models in plain, loose dresses based on the forms of ‘early Medieval art’. The opening of Liberty’s dress department in 1884 helped popularise the taste for aesthetic dress. The Liberty designs which ranged from aesthetic gowns and children’s artistic dresses to more conventional ‘tea-gowns’ had a wide international appeal among the social elite.
Ownership & Use
This type of dress was seen as the healthy and aesthetic alternative to the corseted and constrictive fashions in conventional dress. Before long it was not only those with artistic leanings who chose to wear garments which fit more loosely. By the early 20th century many fashionable dresses had a softer shoulder line and a more natural silhouette.
Evening coat by Liberty & Co, 1900-25 London, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Pink satin evening coat or wrap, cut in kimono style; collar and cuffs of white satin embroidered with pink silk in conventionalized floral design; lined with white satin. Front trimmed with white satin buttons wrapped with pink thread and pink tassels. Label: “Liberty and Co., London and Paris”
Dress, ca 1745 (restyled ca 1760) England, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Yellow silk brocaded with polychrome silks in floral motifs. Robe: neck and front lines with matching bands of ruching; sack (Watteau) back with stitched-down pleats; short fitted sleeves with double asymmetrical ruffles; panier accomodating skirt with slits at hipline, fullness knife-pleated into waistline; linen bodice lining. Underskirt: fullness pleated into tie-tape waistband; scallped ruffle and ruching in ribbon motif applied to front.