One of the most important decisions to make, when recreating any garment from any period, is what fabric is to be used. Making the wrong choice can cause a rigorously researched, hand sewn, accurate reproduction to look disappointingly modern.
However, making the right choice can really make a project stand out. Even the simplest maid servant’s outfit can look as stunning as a Duchess’s, if a suitable and striking fabric is used, but there is far more to choosing a fabric than finding one that looks good. Fabric choices in the late eighteenth century convey far more than personal taste. They can convey wealth, social standing, the extent of a personal devotion to fashion, age, and even political allegiance.
In this article I'll give a brief overview of what was being used in the Revolutionary period (1770-89), what was becoming popular and what different fabric choices meant.
Some individual garments have set fabric choices: shifts, for example, were universally made of white linen. However, the options for gown fabrics are varied, and encompass more or less every possible fabric. This carte blanche, as it were, means that in choosing a fabric, it is even more essential to take into account the many different factors that make a fabric suitable to a certain dress, and the meanings and implications inextricably linked with those choices. (The same basic fabric choices apply to this period as most others: silk, linen, wool, and the newer addition of cotton, and combinations thereof.)
When one imagines the typical eighteenth century gown, I expect most people would envisage the stiff brocaded or embroidered silks of the earlier part of the century. This type of fabric, no doubt established in many people's minds as the eighteenth century ‘look’ by Dangerous Liaisons or Aristocrats, is confined to the earlier part of the 18th century, not the part with which we are concerned.
Whilst many of the older generation were no doubt still sporting these styles well into the later 18th century, they had drifted out of high fashion, to be replaced by far more delicate, softer, lighter and brghter designs.
Unfortunately, these brocaded fabrics are exceedingly hard to come by. Brocades available today do not tend to use designs suitable for reproduction use. Occasionally B. R. Exports (www.puresilks.biz) carry suitable fabrics, such as the design here , and the various silk mills in Sudbury in Suffolk, UK have suitable designs. For more images of suitable brocade designs see the book Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the Eighteenth Century.
Luckily for us, during the 1770s, plain or shot silk taffeta, twill weaves or satin returned to popularity again. Yellow, was a particularly popular colour, but blues and pinks were also particularly in use. These plain colours are far easier to come by today than the brocades, and can be purchased from either the Sudbury Silk Mills, B. R. Exports or Beckford Silks.
|Portrait of Eleanor Frances Dixie, painted circa 1753, by Henry Pickering,
||Wilhelmine Encke, Mistress of Frederick William II. of Prussia, 1776
||Painting of Marie Joséphine Thérèse de Lorraine, 1770, Elizabeth Vigee Le Brun
Plain colours also allowed for messages, such as political allegiance, to be displayed. As the character of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire states in The Duchess, dress was the medium through which women could express themselves. Consequently, through the wearing of fox tails and fur, or wearing the Whig colours of blue and orange, as Georgiana herself is depicted doing in the film, women could express opinions which would otherwise have remained private. Georgiana is not the only woman recorded as having displayed her allegiance in this way, and the Tories and the Whigs both found feminine support through this sartorial practice.
A plate from a 1780s french fashion journal, depicting the use of plain silks.
This increased preference for plain fabrics is also visible in the emerging fashion plate . Although printed in pocket books from the 1750s, from the 1770s they began to be included in the Lady’s Magazine. By the 1780s they were beginning to appear in colour, and these give us some clues as to what was thought fashionable: they overwhelmingly depict plain fabrics. Although this can be partly explained by the difficulty of depicting a patterned fabric, this very fact may have helped to influence a preference for plain fabrics.
Plain silks could be manipulated in ways that did not suit the heavy brocades. Quilted petticoats, jackets and jumps were very popular, the pattern and interest coming from the design of the quilting, rather than the motifs of the fabric. These were often made of taffeta or satin, with a layer of wool batting beneath. These garments are beautiful, though time consuming to make, and a good alternative can be to use Matelasse, available from House of Fabric.
Nevertheless, some patterns were still fashionable. Stripes in particular were increasingly popular. Originally part of some brocaded designs, with floral motifs following the pattern of the stripes (Fig. 4), they had become extremely popular in their own right (Fig. 9). They could be simple two-colour designs or contain a multitude of colours: mostly pinks, blues, yellows and greens.
Again, many suitable designs are available from B. R. Exports, or if your budget stretches a little further, Whitchurch Silk Mill. Striped fabrics are also often seen in the linens and wools of servants or poorer people’s clothing.
|Antoine Vestier, Portrait of a Lady with a book, 1785
||Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux, Self-portrait with a Harp, Between 1776 and 1802
||Pehr Hilleström, A maid in the kitchen
Of course, while silk was still a dominant fabric during this period, but it was no longer the only option for the fashionable lady. During the 17th century, Europe had begun to import the beautiful painted Indian cottons through the newly established East India trade routes. These fabrics were usually stencilled or painted freehand onto the cotton in exotic floral designs.
However, as their popularity increased, the process of block printing was imported from Europe, making production easier and faster, and consequently cheaper. This new fabric imposed a huge threat to domestic textile trades in England and France, and consequently a trade embargo was enforced by these countries against the import of Indian cotton throughout the first half of the 18th century. This was lifted in 1774, and following this date, many mills were set up in England and all around Europe, producing their own anglicised print version of the original painted fabrics. Consequently, these prints were the cutting edge of what was modern, unique and fashionable, whilst also satisfying the eighteenth century hunger for the exotic.
The designs were even favoured by Madame de Pompadour , who had these Indian motifs painted onto silk. The original designs imitated the motifs seen in traditional silk designs, mixed with a more exotic Indian theme, on a white base. Bolder designs had become more fashionable by the 1780s, before the smaller and more delicate sprig motifs became fashionable in the 1790s.
Reproduction Fabrics sell a number of excellent and exceedingly suitable designs. Gowns made from printed cottons can be just as exciting and striking as those made from silk, and in the 1770s and 1780s would have been even more so. Such cottons were used for many garments from caracos to the fashionably long sleeved robe à l’Anglaise. I have used these fabrics a number of times in reproductions, and they look just as pretty and striking today as they would have done then. These cottons are also far easier to work with than silks, and the prints can provide instant beauty, even before considering adding trims or embellishments.
Caraco and petticoat, 1770-1780. V&A T.229&A-1927
Dress, c 1780, V&A T.217-1992
Gown, 1795-1800, V&A T.121-1992
Morning Gown, 1780-85 V&A T.296-1973
Gown and petticoat, 1785, V&AT.274&A-1967
Block printed dress fabric, 1790, V&A T.37-1965
|Madame de Pompadour in a dress either of painted silk or Indian Chintz, 1763-64, François-Hubert Drouais
||A Woman doing Laundry by Henry Robert Morland, before 1797
||My own reproduction printed cotton dress
Fabrics for Other Garments
Clarissa Seymour, 1789, by Ralph Earl
Of course, fabrics for gowns are not our only consideration. Appropriate materials must also be found for caps, petticoats or outdoor wear, such as riding habits.
Caps were universally made of fine and very lightweight cottons, such as lawn or muslin, linen, or occasionally a thin silk. Similarly, riding habits were almost universally made of wool, and had been throughout the century.
Petticoats, however, were more varied. Having so many different uses, from being decorative under open fronted gowns to simply keeping out the cold, they were made in a huge variety of fabrics.
Linen or wool were used for the most practical petticoats, often simply white or unbleached, while the same decorative brocades as used for the gown were used for others. Plain silk taffetas, satins or twill weaves were used for quilted petticoats and for plain petticoats during this period, often with a frill or other decoration around the bottom of the hem in the latter case.
One example in particular is studied on page 26 of Sharon Burston’s Fitting and Proper, where the top portion is in a plain linen, but a printed linen is used to trim the bottom edge. Burston claims this is an under petticoat, rather than for the top layer, the printed linen being used to create a flash of colour if the outer petticoat lifted whilst walking. Printed cottons and linens could also, of course, be used for an entire outer petticoat, and were often an integral part of an outfit.
Marie Antoinette in her chemise à la reine, 1783, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun
Muslin, another fabric from the East which was becoming increasingly popular, was also occasionally used for petticoats. Like the printed cottons, it was first introduced in the 17th century, but gained popularity at the end of the 18th, particularly through the chemise à la reine .
Muslin was was used for petticoats either plain, or tamboured either in white or coloured silks, patterns for which often appeared in ladies’ magazines. It was increasingly used for dresses in the latter part of the period, and went on to become the dominant fabric of choice. It was therefore even more high fashion than the printed cotton, at the very pinnacle of fashion.
Late eighteenth century fabrics were more varied than they ever had been before. While the old favourites, like brocaded silk, and the practical necessities like linen remained, many new and exciting fabrics were now becoming overwhelmingly popular. This article simply provides an overview of the main fabric varieties; the minefield of fustians, kersey, camlet and silveret have barely been explored. I hope to have supplied a varied range of ideas, and to have inspired you into considering what your fabric choices might really imply.
BR Exports (Pure Silks.biz) - (Silk, Linen and Cotton)
Stephen Walters - (Silks)
Reproduction Fabrics - (Printed Cotton)
Whitchurch Silk Mill - (Silks)
Beckford Silk Mill - (Silks)
House of Fabric - (Matelasse)