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.........
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 vintagetextile.com|
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)