Tuesday, February 3, 2015

History's Runway with Miss Oscar: A Silk Evening Dress, 1810

With the dawn of 1810, the fashion for white cotton and muslin evening dresses gave way to brightly-colored, embroidered silks.  Part of this change of fashion was due to John Heathcote's bobbinet machine, patented in 1809, which enabled fine net to be easily produced in wide widths for dresses.  These lengths of material could be hand-embroidered for dramatic effect. These net dresses were worn with under-dresses of plain silk, sometimes white, or, often, in a matching color.

Net Gown
English, 1810
This and all related images courtesy of:
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Often the embroidery on these net dresses was done in chenille thread.  As the V&A states:

Chenille (French for caterpillar) is a type of thick thread made by a weaving process. Cotton or silk is woven into a length of cloth which is then cut into very narrow strips, the severed weft threads creating the tufts which give the yarn its velvety texture. The dense colour of chenille thread creates a contrasting effect with the ground fabric.

Fashion icons of the time, such as Empress Josephine, Napoleon's first wife, helped to make machine net, or 'tulle', gowns popular.  Joseph's wardrobe featured many machine-made net dresses embroidered with silver or gold metal thread and spangles which she wore for formal court occasions.

Here, we see such a gown, created in England in 1810, made of hand-stitched red silk machine-made net, with a high waist, low neck and short, slightly gathered sleeves. A  narrow red silk ribbon at the waistline sets off the skirt which is cut straight with additional fullness gathered at the center back.

The bodice band, sleeves and a v-shaped insertion in the bodice front are embroidered with a design of rosebud garlands worked in pink, red and green chenille. This handsome embroidery pattern is repeated at the hem, with a wider trail of roses and rosebuds.

Before the dress was donated, it apparently had a red under-dress which was not brought to the Museum because it was "very perished."  The look of the red under-dress is recreated here.  Typically, the gown is displayed with a white under-dress as it might also have been worn.

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