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