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, 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)
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 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.
1790-1800 basque, Collection of the Met
By the 1820s allover patterns coloured backgrounds were far more common than patterns on white.
1830s walking gown, collection of the V&A
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.
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.