Rate the Dress: Bottle Green Riding Habit

Last week I showed Élisabeth Alexandrine in a mad hat and a bizarre fabric dress and a robe.  Many of you found the hat just wee bit weird, but the suggestion of the outfit as a masquerade costume for Nanny Ogg tilted the balance in its favour (and besides, it was rich and elegant and fashion forward), and the rating came in at exactly 8.5 out of 10.

This week’s Rate the Dress was chosen primarily because the mannequin and presentation are strong contenders for the creepiest costume photos ever.  I’m not sure it quite beats the staging of the plunging Regency frock for dreadfulness, but I could equally see it as a Dr Who villain!

So yeah, no points for the mannequin.  But what do you think of the riding habit with its gold trim and high standing collar?  The gigot sleeves and back pleated skirt?  Perfect sartorial elegance for a day with equines, or too stiff and formal?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10.

Terminology: What is matelassé or marseilles cloth?

As I’ve just finished a matelassé waistcoat,  it’s high time I (finally) finished my matelassé terminology post and added the term to the Great Historical Fashion & Textile Glossary!

18th century waistcoat thedreamstress.com
Matelasse or Marseille’s cloth (sometimes shortened to marcella or called piqué de marseilles) is also known as woven quilting, because it is a weave specifically designed to imitate quilting.  It looks like a fine quilt, or like a slightly bubbly, blister-y brocade.  Matelassé is sometimes patterned in simple geometrics, or (like my waistcoat), in elaborate foliate designs.  It can range from a heavy, bulky fabric, to a fairly light but still puffy and squishy crepe.  A very similar fabric (sometimes sold as matelassé, and it’s difficult to tell the difference on some examples), is cloque.

From a technical standpoint:

Matelassé is a figured fabric made with either three or four sets of yarns. Two of the sets are the regular warp and weft yarns; the other sets are crepe or coarse cotton yarns. They are woven together so that the yarn sets crisscross.  When the fabric is finished the crepe or cotton yards shrink, giving the fabric a puckered appearance.  Heavy cotton yarns sometimes are used as stuffer yarns beneath the fabric to emphasise the three-dimensional appearance of the fabric…Cloque is made of four sets of yarns: two warp yarn sets and two weft yarn sets.  The interlacing pattern is complex and simulates the appearance of quilting stitches on a solid coloured surface. Since there is no shrinkage of some of the yarn sets as in matelassé, cloque is a flatter fabric.

In the early 18th century quilted petticoats (along with other quilted items such as waistcoats, banyans and pockets) were hugely popular, and Marseilles in France was particularly famous for its quilting, especially of what would come to be known as whitework or trapunto quilting.  England, always eager to promote British made goods and to discourage importation, sought to control the importation of the quilts through taxation and import restrictions.  Various societies and manufacturers also offered rewards to anyone who could come up with an alternative to Marseille’s quilting.  In the early 1740s one Robert Elsden invented a technique for imitating the hand-quilted look on a loom.  He was immediately awarded a prize by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture & Commerce.*

Elsden’s technique was probably quite rudimentar, because it was not until the 1760s that woven quilting became commercially available, probably after much refining to the technique to make it workable and viable.  Capitalising on the fame of Marseilles’  quilting, the cloth was sold in England as ‘Marseilles cloth’, and soon became extremely popular.  Merchants in England and the American colonies could choose from dozens of patterns, sent out in samples books, some of which still exist in museums.  The fabric was sold for bedcovers, petticoats, waistcoats, and even in special designs for small items such as pockets.

In 1783 the SEAMC congratulated themselves on the success of the fabric their reward had supported:

When the proposition was first made in the Society, of offering a premium to encourage the making in the loom, an imitation of that Species of Needlework, long known by the name of Marseilles Quilting, it was almost rejected as visionary and impossible; but the laudable spirit of enterprise, which has always distinguished the Society, determined them to publish the premium, and the consequence has justified the venture. The manufacture is now so thoroughly established and so extensive, being wrought in all the different materials of Linen, Woolen, Cotton, and Silk, that few persons of any rank, condition, or fix……exist who do not use it in some part of their clothing”

18th century Marseilles cloth consisted of two layers of fabric woven together, with the patterns defined by cord.  As the Societies advertisement stated, it could be made in silk, cotton, wool or linen, though most varieties, and silk in particular, were more decorative than durable, so few early examples survive.

While the English called the fabric Marseille’s cloth, the French did not want it to compete with their prized hand quilting, so they took a name from the French matelasser – to quilt, hence the modern matelassé.

Marseille cloth disappeared from fashion in the early-mid 19th century, though it remained popular for bedspreads and furnishing.  There are a few reasons why matelassé fell out of fashion.  First, the fullness that matelassé would give to skirts was no longer desirable with the slim Regency silhouette.  Second, lighter, simpler, less bulky fabrics were fashionable for the first few years of the 19th century.  In addition, the line between underclothes and outerclothes became more distinct in the early 19th century, especially where petticoats were concerned.  Because petticoats were no longer interchangeable with skirts, expensive decorative petticoats fell out of favour, and fabrics associated with petticoats became undergarment only fabrics, rather than general fashion fabrics.

Finally, fabric manufacturing methods were revolutionised by the invention of the jacquard loom (yes, I’ll be doing a post on that!) in 1801.  Today matelassé is usually made on a jacquard loom, but I’ve not been able to determine when the jacquard loom was first used for the manufacture of matelassé.   It probably took some time to adapt the jacquard to the matelassé weave, so matelassé was eclipsed in popularity by other previously expensive fabrics like brocade that could be cheaply (or at least less expensively) be produced by a jacquard loom.

So for the first half (and a bit) of the 19th century, matelassé was quite rare as a fashion fabric .   When examples of it are shown in fashion magazines, they make it quite clear that the reader would not be familar with the fabric.  It was seen as a fabric for bedcovers, and for the occasional petticoat, like this example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with a cotton matelassé hem which would help to bulk and smooth out an elliptical hoopskirt:

Jacquard manufacture of matelasse may not have happened until the early 1870s, when the fabric reappeared in fashion in a big way: being mentioned in dozens of fashion articles in late 1874.  It was marketed under the name matelassé in both English and French speaking countries, showing the French dominance of fashion, and a clear break with the link to quilting that had made it so popular in the 18th century.

A fashion column of autumn 1874 describes the fabric and the types of styles made from it, and makes it clear that most women would not be familiar with matelassé as a fabric for clothing:

a novel fabric, which is matelasse.  It is silk with a satin face, and as thick as though it were wadded.  It is woven to look like fanciful quilting in small diamonds, arabesques and floriate designs.  It is made in black, olive green, chestnut brown and a variety of other colours; in fact, matelasse jackets, polonaises, and skirts will be all the rage when colder days arrive.  In pale pink, blue and white the material will be mainly used for skirts for wearing under trained evening or dinner dresses.

Another fashion article of the same period also describes matelasse in great detail:

The new curiasse, however, the tight bodice, with closely fitted basques, is to be made of fabrics specially manufactured for it, and called matelassé.  These fabrics are very thick and firm, and will set closely to the figure like cloth.  They are generally made with a background of wool, and perhaps a little cotton, but in some entirely of silk.  The more modest specimens are what we might term silk piqué, and have geometric patterns upon them.  A more elegant style is covered in handsome designs worked in the stuff itself, that looks as if it were embroidered upon it, and is really one of the most effective materials I have seen for a long time.

Matelassé remained fashionable throughout the rest of the 19th century, though after the 1870s it was used primarily in capes and other items of outerwear.

Examples of matelassé as a fashion fabric are reasonably rare (though certainly not unknown) in the early 20th century.  By 1923 fashion papers described it as ‘a rather old fashioned weave’, though there was an attempt to reintroduce it (or a type of cloque, as the fabrics were often confused) as ‘Cloky‘ (an unattractive re-naming if I ever heard one, and one which thankfully did not take!) After a few decades as an unusual fabric, matelassé experienced a resurgence of fashion in the 1930s, especially as lightweight matelassé crepes in silk and rayon.

Gown of gold lamé matelassé, Mainbocher, mid 1940s.

Gown of gold lamé matelassé, Mainbocher, mid 1940s.

It was once again at the forefront of fashion in the 1960s, when bulky matelassé brocades, often in the new synthetic fibres, lent themselves well to the stiff, sculptural silhouttes – just as they had as ‘quilted’ petticoats when the fabric was first developed.

Evening dress, Paris, France, ca. 1955, Givenchy, Silk matelasse brocade, Victoria & Albert Museum, T.270 to B-1975

Evening dress, Paris, France, ca. 1955, Givenchy, Silk matelasse brocade, Victoria & Albert Museum, T.270 to B-1975

*well, that covers pretty much everything


Maitra, K. Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Clothing and Textiles.  New Delhi: Mittal Publications.  2007

O’Hara, Georgina. The Encyclopedia of Fashion: From 1840 to the 1980s.  London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.  1986

Peck, Amelia.  American Quilts and Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  New York: Dutton Studio Books. 1990

Rowe, T (ed.) Interior Textiles: Design and Development.  Cambridge: Woodhead Publishing Limited.  2009

Shaeffer, Claire.  Claire Shaeffer’s Fabric Sewing Guide.  Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications.  2008

Rate the Dress: Velvet & Roses in the late 1880s

Usually I think it is silly to like or dislike a Rate the Dress based on how it would look on you, but I found I could only like last week’s very decollate 1810s frock if I imagined it worn by my early 19th century twin, both in body and temperament.  Even when I’m not very skinny I have a very wide, bony clavicle and chest, so that even the most daringly low cut neckline looks respectable until it begins to show my navel.  And I’m so innately prim and prudish and flat out innocent (usually) that I can make the tartiest dress look demure (in high school a classmate told me that if the whole class walked into a room and found me and a guy in our altogethers they would assume there was a perfectly innocent explanation for it – because it was me).  So on someone that it could not possibly look provocative on?  I love the dress!  On anyone else?  Oh dear…

The question of who it was worn by was uppermost in the rating conversation for all of you as well.  Was it someone very small busted, who could pull off the plunging neckline? (side note: it’s not just about how small your bust is, but how far apart it is and how little jiggle there is in the middle that makes a neckline look revealing or not)  Or perhaps it was the frock of a member of the demimonde? (though your discussions on this topic made me suspect that some of you have gotten far too much of your Regency history from romance novels!).  Someone pointed out that the embroider pattern on the body of the fabric might not just be kissing lips after all, which does put a whole new spin on the dress!  (I said “Oh, OH, OH”, and blushed on the other side of my computer screen).  It came in at 9 out of 10, not surprising as only two of the 35 ratings were below an 8/10.

This week, for the last day of the fairytale challenge, I’ve picked a frock that could fit in a fairytale.  It’s not the frock of the pretty young princess, or something for the wicked Queen, but rather a frock for the fairy herself: if she were a woman of a certain age and certain gravitas.  I could imagine costuming Sleeping Beauty’s fairy godmother in this if the story were set in the late 1880s.

All of the details of the outfit are quite fantastical, from the lush florals to the beaded fan at the base of the jacket:

Even the matching bonnet is fairy worthy:

And look at the detail of the embroidery on the fabric!  Even if you think the dress is hideous, you must admit that the needlework is exquisite!

Despite the whimsical collar, the fantastical beading and the romantic embroidery, this frock was no fancy dress outfit.  It was worn by the wife of a senator to President Benjamin Harrison’s March 4th 1889 inauguration.  Seen in that light, the lush velvet and embroidery become symbols of prosperity, the florals spring and hope and new growth, and the whole look makes sense for a politicians wife.

Green-gold and pink seem to have been very much the fashion for the inauguration, because I’ve shown another dress worn to one of Harrison’s inauguration events in a similar colour scheme.  You were distinctly not keen on that dress, but perhaps this one will fare better?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10

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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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