This post didn’t start out as a terminology post! I was going to show you more images from my Spring 1915 Standard Mail order catalogue – and thought I would do some terminology explorations along with it.
I started writing about the dresses and the terms mentioned, and the post got longer, and longer, and longer… So I’ve cut it apart, and will just focus on one term: tussah silk. It’s featured in my least favourite dress on the page: the brown floral number with the ruched midriff.
Tussah Silk (also Tussar silk, Tushar silk, Tassar silk, Tusser silk or kosa silk)
Tussah silk comes from a variety of silkworms that eat oak leaves, and other leaves high in tannin, rather than mulberry leaves. The tannin in the leaves gives tussah silk its characteristic pale gold colour. The filaments of tussah silk are much thicker and stronger than standard silk, and are oval instead of round. Because the initial threads aren’t as fine, tussah silk cloth has a coarser hand than regular silk, and often has a slightly slub-y effect.
Tussah silkworms are significantly hardier than their delicate mulberry-fed cousins, and can survive much more easily in the wild. Due to the rougher texture of the silk, and the few wild populations of tussah silkworms that are harvested for silk, tussah silk is sometimes called ‘wild silk’, although the vast majority of it comes from farmed silkworms.
In 19th century fashion writing tussah often refers to the specific type of silk, and tussore to the slubbed look of the weave most associated with it: so tussah could be woven not in tussore style, or in tussore style.
To make this even more confusing, tussah silk fabric was sometimes called tussore linen, particularly in the 1870s, because its subtler sheen and slightly rough finish meant it was considered more suitable for the type of informal summer clothes that linen was made out of than the more formal styles of silk. Very annoyingly as a researcher, a rough calico was also sometimes called tussore cloth, as was a linen-cotton blend, and maybe hemp or piña cloth (the references to Indian pine are quite confusing), and linen in the specific golden shade characteristic of tussore silk. Today slubbed linen is also called tussore linen, and while some references are clearly one are the other (this one’s obviously silk, and I’m pretty sure this one’s linen, but maybe not?), many are not, and its impossible to tell if the fabric in question was a linen or a silk.
Tussah silk has been used in China, India and Southeast Asia for centuries. It begins to show up in Western fashion on a regular basis from the 1850s onwards, probably because of England’s increased control of India after the rebellion of 1857 and increased influence in China following the first & Second Opium War, and Japan’s forced opening up to the rest of the world.
This dress (possibly a wrapper) is one of the earliest examples I’m aware of a Western garment in tussah silk:
In the 1860s and 70s tussah was considered a luxury fibre, and was clearly singled out from standard silk. However, it was also an informal fibre: used for summer day wear, and accessories like parasols, and never for evening or formal wear.
After its initial novelty popularity wore off, the use of tussah was confined almost exclusively to sportwear.
This tennis dress is an excellent example of the use of tussah silk for sportswear. Elegant, casual, and supremely expensive, this outfit is the modern equivalent of designer yoga gear: it says without words that you can spend money on clothes to sweat in.
Even when it was out of fashion elsewhere, tussah silk was widely used by the Arts & Crafts movement, the aesthetic dress movement and design houses like Liberty of London.
This dress by Raymond Duncan (brother of Isadora), is a later example of the link between alternative dress movements and tussah silk. It uses the natural golden colour,and slight slubs of tussah silk, to enhance the antique and bohemian aesthetic of his design. Duncan was an almost fanatical proponent of a return to Grecian styles. He believed they were healthier and more attractive than the fashions of the time.
Having been relegated to very informal clothing & fringe fashion for a couple of decades, tussah returned to popularity at the end of the 19th century, as in this fashion article where the author gushes over the shades of tan it comes in, the delicate brocading (like the dress I dislike so much!), and its rescue from ‘homespun’! Another fashion writer compares it to pongee, and gives advice on how to trim it.
Although fashionable again, tussah silk was still primarily used as a linen alternative in the Edwardian era, as in this elegant dust coat.
By the mid-teens, the era of my magazine, tussah silk had by and large lost its outsider status, and was being used for a wider range of garments, though still exclusively for daywear. Thanks to the influence of Poiret, the Ballet Russes etc, anything exotic was in.
Tussah continued to be a popular fabric into the 1920s. It fit in with the fashion for rough and textured fabrics, like roshanara. It had also lost its high price tag: tussah silk appears as a lining in a number of 20s garments that I’ve seen in museum collections, suggesting it was an affordable silk.
Tussah silk should not be confused with silk noil (the rough silk made from the short bits of leftover silk fibres) (looks pointedly at Understanding Textiles on this point), or raw silk (silk with the gum left on).
Some tussah silk is “ethical silk” “non-violent silk” or “Ahimsa silk“, in that the silkworms are not killed to create the silk, but that’s not traditionally part of the tussah silk process, and unless labelled as such tussah silk is unlikely to be “non-violent”.
Very annoyingly, I carefully packed the three pieces of tussah silk I own away at the bottom of a trunk in vacuum sealed bags just today! The next time I have cause to get in the bags I’ll photograph them for this post.
- Basu, Trailokya Nath. Tant-o-rang: A Book of Textile Technology. 1964
- Cant, Jennifer and Fritz, Anne. Consumer Textiles. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 1988.
- Collier, Billie J. and Tortora, Phyllis G.. Understanding Textiles. 6th ed. Sydney: Prentice Hall. 2001.
- O’Hara, Georgina, The Encyclopedia of Fashion: From 1840 to the 1980s. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1986
- Phipps, Elena. Looking at Textiles: a Guide to Technical Terms. Los Angeles: Getty Museum. 2011
- Pickens, Mary Brooks, A Dictionary of Costume and Fashion: Historical and Modern. Mineola New York: Dover Publications. 1985 (originally published as The Fashion Dictionary. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. 1957)