19th Century, 20th Century

Terminology: What is Aerophane

Aerophane has been on my to-do list for a terminology post for ages, and then, when this Rate the Dress turned out to be Aerophane I thought “ah-hah!  I simply must do it now!”

So what is aerophane?

Well, there is a bit of confusion about it.  At its most basic, it is a fine, slightly crisp, silk gauze, sometimes with a slightly crinkled, crepe appearance.  In The Book of Silk Phillipa Scott describes it as:

Fine thin silk crêpe, popular in the early nineteenth century for decorative appliqués, as raised motifs, or applied and re-embroidered, and for pleated and gathered dress trimmings.

‘Aerophane’ is also used to describe a type of ribbon embroidery, where wider, crisper silk strips are used to create three dimensional ornamentation (usually roses).

Aerophane embroidery is probably so called because the silk that was originally used for it was aerophane silk, but it is used somewhat indiscriminately these days, making it impossible to tell if someone means that the aerophane roses on a dress are roses made of aerophane silk, roses made in the aerophane technique, or roses made of aerophane in the aerophane technique.

Dress (Robe à la Française), 1770–75, French, silk, bast fiber, Metropolitan Museum of Art. The roses have been described as aerophane roses, but is that because of the embroidery, the silk, or both?

That was the basics of I knew about aerophane (that it is a crisp silk gauze, and an embroidery technique that was probably originally done with that technique) is until quite recently, when images of this dress started making the rounds:

Dress, 1830s, Aerophane silk, Helen Larson collection via the OC Register

This dress is part of the Helen Larson collection, which the FIDM is currently raising funds to acquire.  The caption for the images reads ” This early 19th-century English dress is made from aerophane, a very light silk that can no longer be reproduced because the silk worms that created it are extinct.”

Fascinating.

I’ve seen other aerophane dresses, I’ve read mentions of aerophane, but I’ve never read/heard about aerophane being made from a silk where the silkworm had gone extinct before.  So of course I needed to go on a quest to find out more.

I searched the internet.  I searched books.  I searched journal articles.  What did I come up with?  Zilch.  Zip.  Nada.  I can’t find a mention of this.  Is it a very obscure fact?  Did I just not look in the right place?  So if you know where this claim comes from, please enlighten us all (especially me!).

And, just to make matters more confusing, check out the details of the embroidery on the aerophane silk dress.  That looks like aerophane embroidery.  Worked in aerophane silk?  When do the names start to differentiate!?!

Detail of the aerophane embroidery on the aerophane silk dress

Even if I can’t determine if aerophane was made from a no-longer-with-us type of silkworm, or exactly what relationship aerophane embroidery has to aerophane silk, I can tell you a little more about aerophane silk.

Aerophane was very fashionable from the 1830s through the 1850s, where the thin, slight crisp, almost transparent material fit perfectly with the stiff but ethereal aesthetic of late romance dresses.

Dress of white aerophane crape and satin, over a rich white satin slip, Royal Ladies Magazine, June 1831, via Koshka the Cat

In 1849 the New Zealander advertised “white aerophane muslin robes, openwork and embroidered tucks” and also bonnets in “silk, aerophane, and tulle.”

While it wasn’t as popular from the 1860s onwards, aerophane fabric is mentioned in international fashion columns, and was available in NZ, in every decade of the 19th century.  In 1865 “white crape or aerophane” was recommended as a support fabric for beetle-wing embroidery.

A “Low Bodice for Gown” from 1889. “This pattern can be carried out either in silk, moiré, plush, velvet, brocade or satin. The sleeves and folds may be either lace, gauze Aerophane, or China crepe” Via Ageless Patterns

In addition to its use in frocks, aerophane was a popular material for millinery.  It was spread over wire frames to make translucent bonnets, and used in trimming.  Apparently it was preferable to tulle, as it remained crisp in damp and humidity, while tulle was notorious for wilting.

After a lull in the first decade of the 20th century (there are only 3 mentions of aerophane in NZ newspapers between 1895 and 1909, and hundreds in ever other decade) aerophane returned to popularity in the 1910s, though it appears to have been used primarily for millinery rather than garments, its crisp hand being more suited to hats than the draping, clinging garments fashionable in the teens and ’20s.  A 1913 fashion column describes a dress in “a new sort of aerophane, but not stiff and crepe, as was its wont in old days (suppleness being still a sin qua non)

In her short story about a WWI solider Mary Butt describes a shell-shocked soldier who retreats into the world of fashion, delighting himself with “velours and organdie, and that faint windy stuff aerophane”.

Mentions of aerophane dwindle after the 1930s.  Was this just a case of it falling out of fashion as a fabric, or a term, in the same way that marquisette disappeared as a term while it is still possible to fine leno weaves?

And when ladies columns from the 1920s advocate making your own aerophane flowers to trim lingerie, and a hat from the 1930s has aerophane roses, are they aerophane silk, or aerophane embroidery, or both?

A CHARMING MODEL.—This large powder blue hat of fancy straw is very becoming when worn by the right wearer. It is trimmed at the side with aerophane roses in powder blue to match. The design is from the fashion studios of Messrs. Pegg and Co., London. Evening Post, 4 July 1931, via Papers Past

I’m afraid this post raises as many questions as it answers, but sometimes research is about determining what all the questions are, because at least then you know what you need to answer!

 Sources:

Scott, Phillipa.  The Book of Silk.  London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.  1993

17 Comments

  1. I don’t much to add except that a) this is really interesting! and b) the fabric reminds me of the silk crepeline used by textile conservators that is so valued for its translucency.

  2. The story I’ve heard is that the finest silks came from China and Japan. During WWII the finest silkworms were so particular that they couldn’t be kept alive. The worms that survived the war were much hardier but produce less fine silk. It wasn’t just aerophane that suffered, other silk fabrics are now impossible to produce because the silk fibers no longer exist.

    • Laurel Parker says

      I took sericulture from a Japanese lady. She emphasized the need for quiet and said that if you drop a book in the room where silkworms are spinning cacoons they all stop and die. So, bombs going off outside could certainly do that, if it was time for the worms to spin.

  3. So would it be reasonable to imagine aerophane as a much lighter, finer and less stiff version of silk organza?

  4. The Mad Purple Chicken says

    Extinct silkworms? That is so sad.

    It is fascinating to read about different types of fabric, it’s always so much more complicated than a dictionary definition. The first thing I thought when I read the title was that this term sounds a bit like “airplane”.

  5. Cornelia Moore says

    ok, you finally hit the number with me. this is, if we were rating them, a 50 on the scale of 1 to 10 with me. utterly love this stuff and everything to do with it. it’s sculptural and yet light, full of life and vibrant, I would turn in to any store that displayed it in their window!
    sadly, I know less about it than you do, so I cannot help you there. I know a bit about style and fashion, but no specifics about the fabric or the embroidery beyond the basics of how it’s done. I have too many interests, so have not delved into this one deeply.

  6. Really interesting! I haven’t any new insights, but I hope you update us if you find out more!

  7. I’ve always thought that the term ‘aerophane’ was used to describe very light, see-through (–> ‘airy’) fabrics, no matter if they were actually tulle, organza or chiffon – not as a word for a *particular* type of fabric. Hmmm.
    About that extinct silkworm thing, couldn’t you just write to FIDM or someone responsible for the Helen Larson collection and ask where the information comes from?

    As always, thanks for the post & pictures 🙂

    • Laurel Parker says

      I too assumed the aero came from air and doesn’t “phane” mean transparent ( as in cellophane). Isn’t the word “pane” as in window pane derived from it?

  8. Laurel Parker says

    I’ve had aerophane wrong all these years. I thought it was a very lightweight and transparent silk with denser threads shot through (usually a stripe or tattersol ) it to give it stability and pattern. That fabric also later came as a – well, not exactly a crepe but a plisse and was very popular in the same time periods as aerophane.

  9. wow this is amazing i had no idea aerophane was just one type of fabric. do you know if there are any books on the embroidery?

    • Hi Rosie,

      Sorry, I haven’t been able to find any books that describe the technique using that name – just single mentions here or there. It seems to be something like ribbon embroidery with stiffer organza type ribbon. I’m not an embroidery expert by any means though!

  10. Madeleine Tait says

    Just reading a novel by M.E.Braddon, Henry Dunbar, where she describes bonnets at a wedding as ‘ aerophane ‘which became spoiled in the rain.Thanks for your information and help in picturing these beauties!

  11. Elizabeth says

    Sorry to come into this conversation so late. I was just reading English Domestic Needlework by Therle Hughes, and in chapter 6 (Pictorial Embroidery) came across the following reference: “Other pictures are found mainly in chenille and others again in applied work, some wholly in imitation of pictorial embroidery but with all the motifs in fabric, tinsel, ribbons and the stiff muslin known as aerophane, shaded with darning stitches”. Doesn’t add much to the knowledge – just another reference. (I found yours when I Googled to try to find out more – many thanks for all your research, which helped give me a much better idea of this elusive term/product.)

  12. Liz Keasley says

    Am just reading Early Days by Miss Read in which she writes about one of her grandmothers getting married who she thinks probably got married mid 1860s and who said she wore aerophane bonnet with gooseberries on it on her wedding day. Apparently no one in the family knew what aerophane was. I was so glad to find these posts as I had not the slightest idea.

  13. I just came from an opening at FIDM where the aerophane dress is currently on display. The fabric appears as Laurel Parker describes above: “a very lightweight and transparent silk with denser threads shot through”. These denser threads appear, to my eye at a distance of a few feet, as a fine grid of threads just a few millimeters apart, woven in an even finer chiffon. It almost appears as if there are two layers of fabric, one open weave and one fine chiffon on top of it.

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