I’m going to try to keep up a regular blogging schedule again
This week’s dress is a floral bedecked pink frock that’s an excellent example of transitional styles in the last quarter of the 18th century, and is also an illustration of British colonialism in that period. Rate how it looks, but think about the circumstances that made it possible.
Last Week and-then-some: a mid 1860s dress in green
Bad: mis-matched green (quite possibly not the dress’s fault: the tabs may have been a perfect match to begin with).
Maybe: Those tabs. The dress would be too boring without them, but you couldn’t really call them good.
Bad: No trim on the back of the dress
The Total: 7 out of 10
It was a dress to be OK with, but not to love.
This week: a 1780s dress in Indian chintz
I think this 1780s Anglaise (more on that later) is such an interesting dress, because it shows how cuts and definitions of different types of garments blend and become hazy as fashions transition from one look to another, and because it contains quite a few examples of things are a bit contrary to what we’re usually told are ‘right’ in late 18th century fabric and fashion.
First, the fabric:
The quick guides to late 18th century cotton fabrics tell you that they should have delicate, widely spread floral patterns, possibly combined with stripes, but all kept very light and sparse. Alternatively, there are the cottons that were popular in the Netherlands, with bold grounds, and large, striking floral motifs.
And then there’s this fabric. It’s a striped and floral cotton chintz with a densely speckled ground – the ‘chitta‘ spots that gave chintz its name, sometimes called ‘vermicelli‘ by modern costume historians. It features lush florals in pinks, purples, blues, and greens, on three different kinds of stripes: dotted with scalloped edges, multi-striped with rosebuds, and densely striped with a garland twining around it. The florals wind in and out of the stripes, splashing across the spotted ground to interact with other stripes. It all sounds far too busy to be probably as a 1780s fabric.
And yet – here it is! There are other examples of similarly dense and busy 1770s & 1780s fabrics. They were made with a combination of block printing and resist dyeing and hand-painting, with each additional colour adding and step adding to the cost, so were very expensive, but definitely existed and were used by those who had the means to splash out on a decadent gown.
The fabric, made in India, but with a dense print and the inclusion of rosebuds, shows the influence of European taste on Indian made fabrics. This fabric was almost certainly created specifically for the European market. It’s a visual symbol of the complicated relationship between the maker and the consumer, with an artist creating designs for the taste of a country they had never seen, and a consumer buying an ‘exotic’ product that had been designed precisely to appeal to them. The cultural and economic relationship that the fabric represents is equally complicated Some makers (or at least the owner of the workshops) in India grew rich off the trade in fabrics, and used their technological knowledge to retain autonomy and control of the relationship – at least for a time. At the same time, the desire for these products fuelled a rising tide of European colonisers eager to control the trade in fabric, and other products – and controlling the trade meant controlling the country.
In addition to its unusually decadent fabric choice, this garment has some other features that are a trifle unexpected. I’ve squinted and squinted at the back of this gown trying to decide if it would be considered a robe a la anglaise (dress with the back panel extending from the neck down through the skirt to the hem) or an Italian gown (dress with the skirt and bodice cut separately). I think it has the skirt and bodice cut separately, but the patterning has been very carefully placed and matched so that the scalloped stripes run smoothly from the bodice through the skirt, creating the illusion of continuity. Either that, or it was cut in one, and has had a seam added later, to ‘update’ the look to the new ‘Italian’ fashion.
The sleeves of the dress are another interesting point. Earlier in the 18th century stripes on sleeves almost always run across the sleeve. By 1780, you start to see sleeves cut with the stripes cut vertically. However, contrary to what some fashion historians have claimed, this change isn’t absolute: there are still a good number of examples from the 1780s and 1790s, like this dress, that continue to use horizontal stripes.
The horizontal stripes on this dress allow some beautiful pattern matching where the back joins the sleeves: see the rosebud stripes flow perfectly from back to sleeve.
The dress is missing its petticoat, so the Royal Ontario Museum has paired it with a full length apron and lavishly embroidered fichu: a clever dressing that hides the missing pieces, but also illustrates how the dress might have been accessorised and styled in the 18th century.
Although the crossover fichu partly covers it, you can still see that the front of the dress is cut someone off grain, but not quite on the true bias. This somewhat casual approach to bias is typical of the front of 1770s and 80s gowns. Going off grain allows the bodice to smooth over the body. The modern aesthetic preference would be for completely bias stripes meeting in Vs down the front, but modern tastes are not historical tastes. It appears that the maker of this dress wanted to retain the appearance of vertical stripes as much as possible.
What do you think of this dress which pairs a very pricey fabric with a relatively modest silhouette, and a cut which isn’t quite ready to commit to the new fashion.
What do you think?
Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10
A reminder about rating – feel free to be critical if you don’t like a thing, but make sure that your comments aren’t actually insulting to those who do like a garment. Phrase criticism as your opinion, rather than a flat fact. Our different tastes are what make Rate the Dress so interesting. It’s no fun when a comment implies that anyone who doesn’t agree with it, or who would wear a garment, is totally lacking in taste.
As usual, nothing more complicated than a .5. I also hugely appreciate it if you only do one rating, and set it on a line at the very end of your comment.