Calico, muslin, gauze – a history of fabric terminology – Part 2

When I left you at the end of last week’s post on calico, muslin and gauze, ‘calico’ was a fashionable fabric imported from India, frequently patterned in large, open floral patterns called ‘chintz’ and most commonly having a pale white or cream background.

It looked like this:

1785-1795 Robe a la Anglaise
1785-1795 Robe a la Anglaise, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (incidentally, the original robe is shown over a modern reproduction of a petticoat, made of what North American’s would call muslin, and the British and Antipodeans would call calico)

Or this:

V&A 1795-1799
Round gown, 1795-1799, collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The one constant thing about fashion though, is it’s inconstancy. The large ‘bizarre’ prints of the early 18th century gave way to the open, delicate, rococo florals seen above, and soon these would give way to a new fashion on patterns.

From the end of the 18th century onwards, patterns became smaller, closer together, and more regular.

1797-1798

1797-1798 calico gown sprinkled with allover floral pattern. Collection of the Met

The fashion for patterns of white backgrounds also began to change. Pale colours were reserved for evening dress, and were usually unpatterned, or decorated with embroidery rather than printing. Patterned day wear, on the other hand, became darker in colour.

Basque 1790s

1790-1800 basque, Collection of the Met

By the 1820s allover patterns coloured backgrounds were far more common than patterns on white.

1830s English walking dress

1830s walking gown, collection of the V&A

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Page from a 1823 fabric sample book, Collection of Old Sturbridge Village

The change from a taste for open rococo florals on cream backgrounds to the much more densely patterned prints of the first half of the 19th century directly coincided with North America’s rise to economic and political ascendency.

The first half of the 18th century also saw a major shift away from the cities of the East Coast of the US. Between 1790 and 1836 the number of US states doubled from the original 13 to 26, extending as far west as Missouri and Arkansas.

1810 Indian trade calico
ca 1810 trade calico used by William Clark as presents to Indian tribes encountered during the Westward shift. Collection of the Museum of the Fur TradeThe confluence of these two factors: America’s rise in stature and its population shift away from the influences of England, combined with the inevitable desire to build a distinct identity in the wake of the American Revolution, saw American culture move further and further from its (predominantly) British roots.

One of the shifts away from British culture in North America was a change in terminology.

When large quantities of ‘calico’ fabric began to be imported into the Americas, the fashion was for small, repeated floral patterns. Americans used the term ‘calico’ to refer to the pattern they saw on the fabric, and to this day calico, in the US, means a small, repeated floral pattern.

In England, on the other hand, the term ‘calico’ was used to refer to the cheap plain weave white or cream fabric which was then painted or printed with patterns, initially chintz, but later small floral repeats. As white backgrounds became more and more uncommon, the connection with a pattern was forgotten, and ‘calico’ was only used to mean cheap cotton fabric in a neutral colour, commonly used to make toiles.

In order to describe the plain cotton fabric which European’s described as ‘calico’, Americans began using the term ‘muslin’.

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A posthumous portrait of Marie Antoinette in a muslin dress

And next week, I’ll tell you all about muslin.
7 Comments Post a Comment
  1. BaronessVonVintage says:

    so informative!! I am stuck on being able to identify, by look and feel, the difference between muslin, cotton voile, and cotton lawn. HELP!

  2. elegancemaison says:

    Thank you Dreamstress. This is so useful and interesting.

    I have the same trouble with explaining 'linen' terminology. Sourced from flax or hemp or a mix with cotton, there are differing European traditions. Also a general term for fabric items used in the bedroom or dining room. Just when I think I have got it right someone or something suggests another explanation.

  3. MrsC says:

    Gosh that 1830's walking dress is droolworthy isn't it! I LOVE the draping.
    I can see how these things happen – here we call bedroom linen collectively "Manchester" and apparently this is quite a uniquely antipodean if not kiwi term. It's easy to see how it came about as the linen brought out with the settlers was probably all from, and labelled as being from, Manchester. So, a single word lingers and takes on the whole concept.
    Linguistically as fascinating as the beautiful fabrics you are describing and showing us, thank you so much! Isn't it a pity the beautiful rococco prints gave way to sprigs so quickly. They are sooo much nicer. And look better on stage too! :)

  4. Hana - Marmota says:

    Very informative, very pretty and THANK YOU VERY MUCH!

    MrsC – the same thing, except with a different item, apparently happened in Czech as well. Corduroy is called "manšestr" in Czech.
    (Also, in non-sewing terms, this happened in Russian when all railway stations began to be called "vakzal", which stems from the name of the London station Vaux Hall. :-)

  5. The Dreamstress says:

    Hana and Mrs C, that is fascinating! I've wondered why it is called 'Manchester' for a while now.

    Baroness, I'll try to explain voile, lawn and muslin over the internet! Its on my to-do list. Along with a long ago post about dating stuff that you asked for, and which I did start!

  6. I have read in a few books about the Caribbean that Calico prints came from the production of fabrics there – meaning the brighter colors and small florals (not toiles and the beautiful florals you showed here). more like the swatchboard you showed. What can you say about fabric production in the Caribbean? Pirates who frequented that area started using the Calico prints in part of their garb.

    • Intriguing. I know calico fabrics were widely used as trade fabrics in the Americas, and for lower class clothing in the Caribbean, but I’ve never read about fabric production in the Caribbean. What books were you reading?

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Leimomi Oakes is the Dreamstress, a textile historian, seamstress, designer, speaker and museum professional. Leimomi is available for educational and entertaining presentations, textile and fashion advice, special commissions and events. Click to learn more

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