Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Blinded By the White, Colour and Dresses 1796-1815



Why do we choose to make mostly white dresses when creating dresses from 1796--1815?  It seems an obvious question to answer……’we choose white because it was the fashion and is period correct’……and evidence from surviving dresses, paintings, fashion plates and documentation support this theory……or does it?
Should we consider using more colours when creating a dress?
Are we overly biased towards using white because there are fewer surviving coloured dresses in museum collections?
Do we base our re-created clothing too much on existing examples rather than consider the bigger picture of what was being worn in reality?
I chose to investigate further.........

Evidence in Museum Collections and Surviving Examples
Taking three major collections and counting dresses only (not including printed or embroidered examples on a white background), here are some figures.

Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion,
Total dresses = 49
Coloured dress examples= 9

The Metropolitan Museum
Total dresses =79
Coloured dress examples =21

Total dresses = 30
Coloured dress examples = 7

It is obvious from the numbers here that the majority of surviving dresses in museum collections are white. I think it is important to take into account some possible reasons why.
Silk is a more fragile fabric than cotton and linen, so therefore there are less surviving examples. This also includes white silk dresses.
Could the mordant in the dyes in this period be caustic and therefore cause coloured dresses to rot easily over time?  For example black mourning dresses in this period. I know of only two existing examples although they were universally worn due to the rules of etiquette in the period.

Were coloured silk dresses more likely to be reused or cut up for use in later periods?  Are white dresses less practical to be reused, so are far more likely to survive in their original state?
Were white dresses more associated with special occasions rather than everyday wear and therefore more likely to be preserved for sentimental value?

Dress currently for sale on

Evidence from Fashion Plates
Fashion plates can be deceiving because they were hand coloured and the shades might not accurately reflect the colour of the fabric available. You should also read the description with the fashion plate when deciding to use it as the reference for an outfit. There will be information about colour even though the plate itself may not have been coloured. You can find some editions of Ackermann’s Repository, La Belle Assemblee and other ladies magazines online. Reading a description from ‘Le Beau Monde’ in 1807....... “Fashions for September 1807, an elegant calypso robe made of rich imperial muslin of beautiful light yellow”...... “Fashions for February 1808, Opera Dress- the most distinguished full dress is composed of a magnificent cloth of a deep pink”.  Another source to look at is Ackermann’s Repository of Arts fabric swatches. You can find many colourful dress fabric samples here. But, again, you need to be careful and read the description as some are designed for furnishing and others are papers for books or trim. Some of the scans available online might not make this clear.

1. Royal Embossed Satin for robes or pelisses. 2. superfine imperial bombazeen for ladies dress.3.Imitative angola shawl dress blended green and amber.4. an india rib, permanent green print.

1 &2. Furniture chintz. 3. bright Geranium lustre for evening wear.4. black or puce coloured muslin for the evening

Fashion magazines then, like today, offered inspiration and guidance but we cannot be certain how many of these dresses and fabrics were reproduced and worn in reality.  However in the collection of ‘Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion’, there is a dress which almost matches a fashion plate of ‘Costume Parisien’.

The Difference Between Ideal and Reality
So you can look at hundreds of original dresses, fashion plates etc, but does this give you an accurate picture  what was actually being worn between 1796-1815? Without a time machine we can only speculate based on the evidence. But, as a wearer of clothing in this period you can start to understand the practicality of wearing a coloured dress rather than a white dress in this period. I treat my dresses as real pieces of clothing rather than a costume. My own experience of wearing a white dress out and about is that the hem becomes dirty very quickly and if it drags on the floor, the fabric can wear easily too. I can put my dress in the washing machine if needs be, but in the period the methods of laundry were maybe not so effective at removing stains.
I was astonished by the good condition of the hems on many of the white dresses in the Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion Collection. Most of them were absolutely perfect.  Even on the finest of muslin there is no evidence of wear and tear.  ‘Blanche’ the wedding dress in the collection, has a very long train and was worn on at least two occasions but it is perfect with no marks or wear. So this raises a question to their use in the epoch. How often were they worn? Should we be using white dresses more for ‘best’ or just indoors? Did our ancestors quickly decide that the flimsy white dress was just not practical or functional and adopted more colourful dresses into their wardrobe?

Personal letters and journals can provide an interesting insight into dressing and clothing in this period. I am still researching this area but one account I read recently gave some interesting information.
These quotes are taken from ‘Memoirs of a Highland Lady’ by Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus.
“While we were at Ramsgate the old kings delirium had become so alarmingly violent it was supposed his bodily strength must give way........So my ‘careful’ mother, fearing black would rise, bought up at a sale there a quantity of bombazeen....What was to be done with all the bombazeen? We just had to wear it, and trimmed plentifully with crimson it really looked very well”. (1811-1812)
“My mother told me that my childhood had passed away; I was now seventeen, and must for the future be dressed suitably to the class of lady into which I had passed. Correct measures were taken of my size and height by the help of Mrs McKenzie who was not entirely rusted in her old art, and these were sent to the Miss Grants of Kinchurdy at Inverness, and to Aunt Leitch at Glasgow. I was so extremely pleased; I was always fond of being nicely dressed, but when the various things ordered arrived, my feelings rose to delight. We had hitherto, my sisters and myself, been all suited alike. In the summers we wore pink gingham or nankin frocks in the morning, white in the afternoon. Our common bonnets were of coarse straw lined and trimmed with green, and we had tippets to all our frocks. The best bonnets were of finer straw, lined and trimmed with white, and we had silk spencers of any colour that suited my mother’s eye. In the winter we wore dark stuff frocks, black and red for a while- the intended mourning for the king. At night always scarlet stuff with bodices of black velvet and tucks of the same at the bottom of the petticoat”.
“Two or three gingham dresses of different colours very neatly made with frills, tucks, flounces etc. Two or three cambrick muslins in the same style with embroidery upon them, and one pale lilac silk, pattern a very small check, to be worn on very grand occasions........A pink muslin and a blue muslin for dinner, both prettily trimmed, and some clear and soft muslins, white of course, with sashes of different colours tyed at one side in two small bows with two very long ends”. (1814)

I decided to write this article because I wanted to raise issues about research. The fashion in the period 1796-1815 might be well documented but it is always a good idea to cross reference resources before making choices about colour, pattern, cut and appropriate context. The evidence presented indicates a variety of colours being worn in dress of this period even though there may not be so many surviving examples. Researching this period has become much more accessible as there are more private and museum collections being made available to view online.
 In my own research I continue to find new inspiration and assess my opinion on the cut and style of dress that was worn during 1796-1815 as new dresses come to light and more research takes place. I always question historical evidence and do not take it on face value. In my opinion it is important to continually reassess and question long held ideas to move forward in the understanding of fashion of this period.


Lauren said...

Absolutely wonderful article! Thank you!

Kleidung um 1800 said...

What a fascinating post! Thank you for sharing your research, Natalie.
I remember that I've seen the fashion plate of the Costume Parisien Robe de Marcelline in green checks (in "Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion") and blue checks (ebay auction). As far as I remember the magazine "Luxus and Moden" could be ordered all black/white or in coloured editions. Could that have influenced the preference of white dresses?
On the other hand there's hardly any white fabric in the book "Barbara Johnson's album of styles and fabrics".


Gillian Layne said...

What a fascinating and beautifully researched post. Thank you so much for sharing!

lahbluebonnet said...

Oh thank you for sharing all of this. I have the book, "Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion," and now have bookmarked this post. I made my first two gowns of this era a few years ago and neither of them are white. However there is much room for improvement, therefore I will be mamking another gown this coming summer/autumn, which I hope will be better. I had been thinking I *should* make this one white considering all I've been stumbling across. I might still like a white one for special (I always thought that logically it should be for good or indoors at least so it won't get dirty or destroyed)...hopefully with embroidery, but I will definitely keep my options open in light of your post! Thank you!

Pedrete said...

A very interesting article, congratulations!

Fichu1800 said...

Thank you all for your comments. I would like to continue researching this subject further as I feel I have only scratched the surface.

@ Sabine, interesting points. I do not have the complete Luxus and Moden but it is interesting to know that the plates could be ordered without colour.

@ Lauren, Gillian, Laurie and Pedrete, Many thanks.

Tara Finlay said...

Very well done. I love the clothing of this period and am always interested in learning more.

The Bohemian Belle said...

I have no words for how amazing your blog and your work are! Oh and I plan to make more colored dresses!

Nuranar said...

This is really interesting! Have you had a chance to look at the drawings in "Mrs Hurst Dancing"? They show what Englishwomen were actually wearing in the country (albeit later than 1815, most of them), and there are lots of colors and "jumper" dresses (sleeveless over a white shirt), but few all-white dresses if I recall correctly.

Katy said...

Great article Natalie! I always love as much color as possible in my wardrobe, both modern and historic, so I very much appreciate this!

lahbluebonnet said...

I just purchased some 100% cotton voile stripe in lavendar. I think that would be appropriate for this era?

Anonymous said...

Great article!
I remember reading in Jane Austen's letters that on a number of occasions she had asked for "brown" material to be bought to be made up into a gown, though I presume this was to be for day wear. Certainly brown would hide any stains!

Lady D said...

A great little post. Having recently made myself regency dress. I initially went for all white but soon found with my skin tone and hair colour it made me look (a) ill (b) like I was wearing a bedsheet. So soon changed tack and went for a patterned fabric. My white dress I recycled into a open robe but I am planning on dyeing it a dark colour as the bottom got all dirty very quickly.
I'm sure I'm not the only person and it must have been true in the past that doesn't suit the obligatory 'white dress'. I understand it would be easier to 'accessorize' but having a coloured dress with a white chemise would be more practical for 'every day'.
As you say the plain white dresses could have been just for 'high days and holidays'..and siting for portraits.