Something I should probably have done before beginning my embroidery (but never mind: it wasn’t exactly possible in the middle of a pandemic!) was visit the jacket in Bath Fashion Museum that is similar (but not identical) to the one in the Burrell Collection. I did so last weekend, though, when I went to Bath with Harriet and Serena as an excuse to dress up in 18th Century finery.
It was really useful to be able to compare the two, and I think I’ve managed to learn a lot that will come in useful next time (if there is a next time!).
The Good News!
I’ve managed to get the proportions of the pattern just right! It’s all to the same scale as the Bath jacket. My colours are right, the stitches are right, and in that respect all is well. My linen isn’t nearly so fine as the Bath jacket’s linen, but I was expecting that anyway: I knew the linen I had chosen was somewhat coarse, but fine, closely woven, opaque linen is really hard to come by nowadays… It’s also been really useful to see the Bath jacket because it retains more of its spangles, so once my spangles arrive, I’ll be able to space them out in a similar manner.
The blending of threads that I conjectured had been used to achieve blends of colour was correct, and many of the guesses I had made about rows of stitches (two yellow, two blue in the stripy leaf, for example) were also correct.
The Bad News…
Basically, while I’ve got the pattern the same size, mine is in bold… I’ve been doubling the threads over, because I was concerned that they were too thin, but in reality I’ve gone and made everything slightly thicker than it ought to be. The gold plaited braid stitch in particular is very fine. Likewise, the red thorns are much smaller on the real jacket. It looks like the red zig-zags on the bluebells go on top of the already embroidered white (or blue, in the case of the Bath jacket) so I can stop worrying about which way I should do those now!
While my efforts are by no means perfect, I’m not going to begin this whole process again because I’m using doubled over threads rather than the one strand I should have been using. I’ll continue, and then use what I’ve learned when/if I get around to creating something similar to the Devereux bodice held in the Kyoto Costume Institute!
Anyway, here are some of the pictures I took of the Bath jacket, for those who want a closer look:
A garment of which there are huge numbers of surviving examples, as well as painted depictions, is the late 16th century – early 17th century woman’s waistcoat or jacket. Such garments seem to be almost entirely English, and their survival is perhaps mainly thanks to their small size and intricate embroidery. It’s not very easy to cut them down and turn them into anything else!
Such garments were informal wear for noble women, while the gentry considered them formal wear. Decoration varied from simple wool embroidery on fustian to metallic threads on linen or silk, complete with hundreds of metal spangles.
Possibly the most famous jacket is the Margaret Layton one, since not only does the jacket still exist, so does a portrait of it being worn! Such a survival is rare for something for so old, and it gives valuable insight into how such garments were worn.
“The waistcoat has long, tight sleeves, narrow shoulder wings, semi-circular cuffs and a small curved collar at the back neck, dating it to about 1610. Made of linen, it is hand sewn and lined with coral silk taffeta. Originally the jacket was fastened with pink silk ribbons. In the 1620s, an edging of spangled silver-gilt bobbin lace was added. Fragments remain of the original silk ribbons used for fastening. The waistcoat is embroidered in detached buttonhole, stem, plaited braid, chain, couching and dot stitches, with knots and speckling, with coloured silk threads, silver-gilt threads and spangles.”
The jacket had the lace added in the 1620s, but as fashion was changing, waistlines had risen. Rather than further alter the jacket drastically, Margaret Layton instead wore her petticoat higher up over the jacket, hiding its lower waistline.
For more pictures of the jacket, see its page on the V&A website. There are nearly 100 detailed pictures of the embroidery and construction!
Another jacket held by the V&A with a huge number of images is this loose fitting one from c.1590-1630.
“This simple unlined jacket represents an informal style of clothing worn by women in the early 17th century. Unlike more fitted waistcoats, this loose, unshaped jacket may have been worn during pregnancy. A repeating pattern of curving scrolls covers the linen from which spring sweet peas, oak leaves, acorns, columbine, lilies, pansies, borage, hawthorn, strawberries and honeysuckle embroidered in coloured silks, silver and silver-gilt threads. The embroidery stitches include chain, stem, satin, dot and double-plait stitch, as well as knots and couching of the metal threads. Sleeves and sides are embroidered together with an insertion stitch in two shades of green instead of a conventionally sewn seam.
Although exquisitely worked, this jacket is crudely cut from a single layer of linen, indicating the work of a seamstress or embroiderer, someone without a tailor’s training. It has no cuffs, collar or lining, and the sleeves are cut in one piece. The jacket was later altered to fit a thinner person. The sleeves were taken off, the armholes re-shaped, the sides cut down, and the sleeves set in again.”
Unlike many other extant jackets, it is embroidered entirely in silk, without the use of metallic threads or spangles that are so visible on so many of the others. The fact that it survives while still being so loose fitting is also interesting, since it wouldn’t have been difficult to cut it down into on of the more fashionable jackets of the later 1630s.
One jacket that has been cut down and altered is this one.
The neckline has been cut down, cutting into the embroidery, probably so that it could be worn as a masque costume. The sides have been taken in, and the armscyes made smaller by adding pieces to them. It doesn’t seem to be a particularly skilled job, but since masques tended to take place in the evening, in candle light, it is unlikely that anyone would have noticed!
A jacket that was also altered for a masque (though in a very different way!) is also held by the V&A.
“Four pieces forming a woman’s waistcoat made of bleached linen and embroidered with coloured silks, silver and silver-gilt filé and spangles. The pattern of the embroidery comprises a lattice of geometric strapwork in plaited braid stitch with threads. Worked inside the strapwork compartments are flowers, fruits and leaves in coloured silks in detached buttonhole stitch. The grapes are similarly worked, but raised for a three-dimensional effect.
The waistcoat was probably altered in the 1620s to wear as masque costume. The fronts were removed, shortened and new gores added, then sewn to new silk backs (not meant to be seen when worn) The waistcoat probably had a scattering of silver-gilt spangles. Many more, each topped with a glass bead, were added, filling the linen ground and almost obscuring the pattern of the embroidery…
…The British philosopher and writer Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote an essay, ‘Of Masques and Triumphs’, in 1594, advising on the colours and decorations most effective for masque costume. He recommended spangles, ‘as they are of no great cost, so they are of most glory. As for rich embroidery, it is lost, and not discerned.’”
On that note, I think I’ll just present you with a collection of some of the other beautiful embroidered jackets still in existence!
French court fashion in the last half of the 18th century was excessive. Marie Antoinette set the trend, paving the way for fast fashion as we know it today. She would spend up to £20,000 a day, reportedly commissioning 300 dresses a year, and hardly wearing anything twice. At a time when fashions changed slowly, fashion plates were being printed every 10 days to keep up with her!
Such silk gowns were worn over the top of structured underthings: after putting on a shift or chemise, stays, panniers, and petticoats would be used to help the wearer achieve the ideal fashionable figure. Silk was the most popular fabric for gowns and coats: the aristocracy at court kept the French silk industry afloat, and their clothes were a display of their patriotism in doing so.
Taking French Court fashions into mind, it is little wonder that this portrait caused such a scandal when it was exhibited publicly in 1783!
Marie Antoinette has shed the visible indicators of the fact that she is queen, and there’s no evidence of her husband (the King) anywhere! She’s not even wearing any jewellery, and there’s certainly no subtly placed crown in the corner.
The dress is loose fitting, with no panniers beneath the skirts to hold them out. You can barely tell that she is wearing stays! On top of that, its made of cotton muslin, not French silk.
Finally, (and arguably most scandalously) the dress looks a lot like a chemise or shift: the under most linen or cotton garment worn by women, which was easily washable and served as protection both for the body from stays rubbing, (think wearing a tight shoe without any socks), and preventing sweat from soaking into the unwashable stays and outer gown.
However, fashions rarely materialise out of the blue. They all have their origins somewhere, and this dress was not thought up by the Queen for her pastoral fantasy at Le Petit Trianon.
Vêtement dit a la Créole, composé de celui que portent nos Dames Françaises en Amérique: c’est un grande robe de mousseline, à manches justes qui se serrent au poignet; la robe est un peu ajustée à la taille et dégagée autour de la gorge dans le gout d’une chemise: elle est cependent sortaisée et ouverte par devant; on l’áttache en haut avec une épingle lorsqu’on veut qu’elle joigne, et a la ceinture avec un ruban comme la Lévite; par dessus un caraco à coqueluchon sans manches; celles de la robe forment l’amadis. Cette figure est coëffée d’un chapeau dit à la Grenade.
A dress a la Creole, made up of that worn by our French Ladies in America: it is a large muslin dress, with fair sleeves that tighten at the wrist; the dress is a little tightened at the waist and clears around the throat in the way of a chemise: it is however taken off and opened at the front; you fasten it at the top with a pin when you want it to join, and at the waist with a ribbon like a Levite [a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi]; over this a short sleeved caraco jacket; those of the dress form the lower sleeves. On her head is a hat a la Grenade.
[Apologies for the slightly dodgy translation: my French is rather rusty…]
The Chemise a la Reine was rarely called such in the C18th, and was instead known by a variety of other names, primarily (and most notably) the Robe a la Creole. Such a garment began to appear in fashion plates from 1779 in the Galerie des Modes et Costumes Français, as the “Vêtement dit à la creole,” described in the caption as being “made up of that which our French ladies wear in America.” What the title tells us (that the caption does not) is that the French ladies in America were copying the dress worn by black freewomen and enslaved people, which approximated European fashionable dress using the materials these women had available to them. Since such clothes were less restrictive and better adapted to the warmer climates, it didn’t take too long for white colonial women to begin wearing them too.
Marie Antoinette succeeded in popularising the simple cotton dress amongst her friends, but it took the French Revolution for cotton to become so vital to fashion. Luxurious silks and excessive dresses, as a symbol of the fallen aristocracy, were anathema to the revolutionary ideas. The dramatic simplification of dress in the late C18th – early C19th fuelled the rise of the slave trade, and made it possible to later declare that “Cotton is King.”
Europeans in the 18th Century saw hair as an indicator of character: hence so many of the cartoons mocking women with overlarge, overly elaborate hairstyles. Smooth hair was “civilized,” while African hair, particularly the most tightly coiled, kinky hair was seen as mere wool: an indicator to their white contemporaries that they were “wild and disorderly”. The Europeans did not see African hairstyles as remotely important, when in reality they date back over 3000 years, and could contain complex communications, indicating occasion, religion, family, status, age, marital status, and occupation.
However, forced labour in America meant less time to spend on hairstyles, so they became simplified, and mingled different cultures together. In many cases enslaved women working in households were forced to cover their hair with headwraps by the Tignon laws and thanks to the jealousy of their mistresses – tightly coiled African hair with its height and volume is (ironically) far more suited to the elaborate high hairstyles of the white upper classes.
While some Black people in colonial America used hair powders, it is of note that even they kept their natural hair texture, as a form of passive resistance against white beauty standards and control over their bodies.
In the later 1770s through to the beginning of the 1790s, many European women adopted a “frizzed” hairstyle, very similar to an afro. They weren’t shy about where they had acquired the style, either:
French women are “covered with a vast load of false hair, which is Frizzled on the forehead so as to exactly resemble the wooly heads of the Guinea negros.”
Tobias Smollet, 1760s
1780s fashion plates displayed the “Coiffure a la Jamaique” alongside such styles as the “Robe a la Creole”.
While “wooly” hair was seen by Europeans as morally degenerate when it was on the heads of Black people, on the heads of white European women it was evidence of their status: they had the time and money to be able to twist and set their hair into the volume required by fashion. Such appropriations of Black hairstyles continue to this day: such styles that are looked down on as “unprofessional,” “ghetto,” or “ugly” on the heads of Black people are seen as “chic,” “stylish,” and “groundbreaking” when worn by white models and celebrities.
Even the legislation against Black hair has continued, with girls being sent home from school for their afros being “too big,” or for wearing their natural hair, or women being denied jobs if they don’t cut off their dreadlocks. There is a complete lack of understanding within modern day white society about the sheer quantity of cultural significance that Black hairstyles contain, and I will confess to being guilty of only knowing about them in the context of the 18th Century in America.
The French Crown was, unfortunately for its finances, unable to tax the nobility, thanks to the law rendering them exempt. Louis XIV (or rather, his finance minister Colbert) found a clever way around this, however. By investing Crown money into the manufacture of luxury goods: silk weaving, glass blowing, and lace making, for instance, and then encouraging the nobles to spend vast quantities of money on these luxuries, it was possible to enrich the country and the state.
Fashion is to France what the gold mines of Peru are to Spain.
This encouragement of consumerism met with the rise of the early newspaper, and in 1672 the combination resulted in the publication of the Mercure Galant. Published by Jean Donneau de Visé, it reported on who was wearing what when, and where different items could be bought or made.
The new female couturiers (who gained guild status in 1675), were able to respond to demand far quicker than the male tailors, and were helped enormously by the publication of this magazine. Between them, trends could be set far more quickly, and the concept of fashion “seasons” emerged. It should perhaps be mentioned that female couturiers initially gained their business from the import, appropriation, and imitation of several forms of eastern dress (including the Japanese Kimono and the Indian Jama), but I’ll deal with that in more detail in a separate post.
The Mercure Galant, while effective in its spreading of French fashions and the concept of the seasons, was the only one of its kind for nearly a century after its first publication. It did, however, cement France as a centre of fashion in Europe, something that Colbert had always been working towards.
In the 16th Century, communication was relatively slow and fashions changed equally slowly. They tended toward very specific regional styles: you can see in the above map that the countries around Germany favour lots of pleats, while the Dutch and Flemish have large, dark hoods, and the English women have fitted gowns that are open down the front. Headwear in particular is different all across the map.
Upper class fashion aimed to imitate the monarch, and monarchs were often the ones who imported new fashions through their marriages, or increased the extremes of fashions through their wealth. Part of the reason for such distinct styles was the fact that the printing press had only relatively recently been invented. Through the 16th Century, a few books appeared detailing patterns for tailors, but these retained the regional styles, and were very much aimed at tailors – not the general public.
Embroidery books did exist from the 1520s onwards, with different patterns for different styles of embroidery and (later) lace. These could be used by ladies undertaking domestic sewing for pleasure as well as professional embroiderers. The fact that the patterns within these books were much plagiarised led to some commonality in the embroidery and laces across Europe, but not clothing as a whole. At this point there was no concept of a fashion magazine.
Books with clothing illustrated in them certainly existed, but they served more as a way of showing differences in regional dress. Lucas van de Heere’s book is an example of this. The one major exception to books illustrating the differences between regional dress is the book of Matthaeus Schwarz of Augsburg, which detailed each and every set of clothes he ever bought (now published as the First Book of Fashion).
While Schwarz’s book was certainly accurate, since its whole purpose was to detail his clothes as he bought them across 40 years, books of costume showing the clothes of different countries relied on letters and accounts of travellers. Such descriptions of clothes were often lacking, and so the books tended to be somewhat less accurate. Compare the painting of an English woman from 1567 with the woodcut of an English lady! The foreign interpretation is radically different to the reality.
The silhouette is relatively accurate, but there have certainly been some creative liberties taken. The headdress is not something I’ve seen anywhere in mid 16th century fashion, and the hoops of the farthingale showing would only be accurate for late 15th century Spain. The partlet and small neck ruff seem reasonably, but the neckline of the gown is bizarre. The wrist ruffs with the cuffs seem an odd combination, and the muff hanging from her girdle is ridiculously small. The slashing on her bodice seems very large, but not impossible: I have seen similar slashing on slightly later bodices. All in all, it’s an image that seems to have been created by someone who didn’t know what they were looking at or (more likely) didn’t have anything to look at!
One notable exception to the lack of fashion magazines was in Italy. Printed images were produced showing hairstyles, and while the intention was to show the hair styles of different places, women would use them as inspiration for dressing their own hair. This is something we know thanks to a few lines in a play by Ben Johnson:
Philautia:…What, have you changed your head-tire?
Phantaste: Yes, faith, the other was near the common, it had no extraordinary grace; besides, I had worn it almost a day, in good troth.
Philautia: I’ll be swon, this is most excellent for the device, and rare; ’tis after the Italian print we looked on t’other night.
Ben Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels, first acted in 1600. Philautia addresses her friend Phantaste (Act 2, scene 1)