Monday, September 1, 2014

A 1790 Gown with a Rare Seaweed Calico by William Kilburn

Monday, September 1, 2014
Isabella reporting,

While my vacation did include beach-time with my family, it also (as usual!) featured lots of nerdy-history junkets along the way. Among these was a trip to one of my fav small museums, the RISDMuseum in Providence, RI, where I saw this wonderful dress made from a very rare printed calico. The dress is currently on display in the museum's Angelo Donghia Costumes & Textile Study Gallery. The white petticoat and neckerchief are modern reproductions; and the dress would most likely have originally had a matching petticoat.

While today we tend to think of printed cotton calico as a humble fabric for patchwork quilts, in late 18th c. England it was considered a luxury fabric, used for high-fashion clothing. Technological advances in cotton manufacture (the heart of the British Industrial Revolution) combined with a new taste for lighter fabrics with designs inspired by nature to create a very different "look" in women's fashions as the 18th c. ended.

Some of the most popular calicos featured designs by botanical illustrator, calico designer, and printer William Kilburn (1745-1818). This is from the Museum's description for this dress:

William Kilburn trained in Dublin as a textile printer. His primary talent lay in drawing patterns for block printing, and once he arrived in London his designs were immediately successful. The seaweed-patterned fabric used for this dress was expensive: a guinea per yard. Kilburn gave a similar length for a gown to Queen Charlotte, wife of England's George III. No actual textiles by Kilburn were previously believed to have survived, but just before RISD purchased this dress in 1987 the printed design was found in an album of Kilburn watercolor drawings in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. The dress's style indicates that it was probably made when the textile was brand new and at its most fashionable, about 1790.

A close-up of the printed fabric is left; compare it to Kilburn's original design in the V&A's collection here.

But as far too many creative people learn to their sorrow, popularity brings imitation. Although Kilburn was renowned as one of the best and most successful calico printers in Britain – he owned his own calico-printing factory in Surrey – he was still dismayed by how fast his original designs were copied and printed by other factories. Pirated versions of his work, printed in fewer colors on coarser fabric, appeared for sale less than a week after he introduced a new design, and at two-thirds of his price.

In 1787, Kilburn decided to fight back. He was named the chief petitioner in a request to Parliament for design copyright protection in the textile trades. Although his rivals were furious, one of the first bills protecting artistic work was passed in May, 1787: "An Act for the Encouragement of the Arts of designing and printing Linens, Cottons, Callicoes and Muslins by vesting the Properties thereof in the Designers, Printers, and Proprietors for a limited Time." The "limited Time" gave exclusive rights to the designer for two months after publication.

But it wasn't enough to protect Kilburn. Despite the popularity of his work, the cheaper imitations ruined him, and he went bankrupt in April, 1802.

Above right: Dress, textile designed by William Kilburn, c. 1790. RISDMuseum. Photograph by Susan Holloway Scott.
Below left: Detail of the dress. Photograph courtesy of RISDMuseum.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Gone Fishin', Again

Friday, August 15, 2014
Isabella and Loretta reporting,

As we've done before (and will probably do again), we're going to step away from blogging and other social-networking for the last two weeks of August to unwind, spend time with family and friends, and maybe even get a bit of writing done.

Since this is more or less our blog's fifth anniversary, too, we'd like to thank you all for another year of following our sundry historical discoveries, thoughts, and ramblings. We're not exactly sure when it happened, but it seems that sometime in the last few months we crossed the two-million mark in page views. We're amazed, and grateful as well. Who knew there were so many other Nerdy History Folk out there?

Enjoy the rest of your summer, and see you in September!

Above: Selfie proof that, once in a while, we really do wind up in the same place at the same time.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Regency Era Steam Yacht

Thursday, August 14, 2014
View at source here

Loretta reports:

Though most of my books are set in early 19th century England, now and again I send my characters abroad.  Writing Silk is for Seduction, I needed to become familiar with the steamship packets that carried travelers and mail across the English Channel.  It was easy enough to find information and images about steam vessels from the Victorian era.  But before that, things online are a little sparse.  So of course I was thrilled to find recently, in the 1819 Ackermann’s Repository, this image.  I was even more delighted with what the description conveys about the

entrepreneurs “zealous to promote the success of the application of steam as the
Read online here
propelling power to vessels.”  The detailed interior description is a pretty good substitute for the interior photo shots we’d expect today.  It's also a good example of the prose style of the time, which appears very convoluted to 21st century eyes.

Read online here

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the captions will allow you to read at the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

More about the 1734 Wedding Dress, and the Bride who Embroidered and Wore It

Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Isabella reporting,

As I wrote this blog post on Elizabeth Bull's embroidered wedding dress from The Bostonian Society earlier this week, I realized I'd need a second post as well to share all the interesting things I'd learned about the dress - as well as a mystery about it, too. Since so many of you wished to know more about Elizabeth herself,and what happened to her (and the dress) after her marriage, I'm including that, too.

Although the dress has been updated and refashioned several times in its history - it currently reflects the styles of the 1830s - there's a hint that perhaps it might have been changed even before it was first worn. Preserved along with the dress is an item referred to as the "practice bodice," left, a fitted back section of a dress bodice, that is currently on display at the Old State House in Boston.

The bodice is actually only the back-half of a bodice, as you can see in the photo right. It's made from the same celadon China silk as the dress itself, and not only were the same silk threads used to embroider it, but the design and craftsmanship are every bit as elegant and skilled as that used on the dress itself. Note, too, the inked designs towards the bottom that were never completed. (There's also an extra small scrap of embroidery pinned near to the neckline.)

While no one knows for sure, historians have decided that this was a trial run for Elizabeth's embroidery, a test piece before she began on the actual dress. As anyone who has embroidered with silk, on silk, will know, it's not easy, and, once stitched, it's also very difficult to pick out to correct or change a design. Given that Elizabeth was only fifteen or so at the time, perhaps her mother or embroidery instructor suggested this step to help build her confidence.

Or...perhaps this once was the actual back of the dress. Certainly there's nothing "trial" about the design or the stitchery. But once that embroidery was complete, there'd be no possibility of making adjustments in the vertical pleats that shape the back of the bodice. What if in the years in which she worked on the dress, she grew in size to the point that the narrow back no longer fit and needed to be replaced, and a newer section was inserted?

Or...perhaps Elizabeth changed her mind regarding the dress's style. She was obviously fashion-conscious, and cost was not an issue to her. A new style in women's gowns was appearing from Paris during the time she was working on her dress. The robe à la Française, or sack gown, replaced the earlier fitted back with a series of open pleats that flowed gracefully down from the shoulders into the skirt. (Here's an example from 1730-40, and here's a replica of a similar dress being made by the mantua-makers of Colonial Williamsburg that shows the pleats more clearly.) Could it be that Elizabeth wished to follow this new style, and discarded the original, now-old-fashioned back?

These possibilities are only musings of my own; novelists can let their imagination ramble, while professional historians can't. No one knows for certain, and neither the back of the dress as it stands nor the practice bodice offer many clues. But it's a tantalizing mystery, isn't it?

What happened to the Elizabeth and her wedding dress? In 1734, she married an Englishman, the Reverend Roger Price, a commissary of the Church of England; he was twenty years older than she, and it was a marriage joining prestige and fortune. Soon afterwards, the couple moved from Boston to a substantial house in rural Hopkinton, where Rev. Price started a new church. Elizabeth continued to wear her wedding dress as her "best" dress, as was customary for 18th c. brides, and was known to charm the friends and parishioners of her sometimes prickly husband. Elizabeth gave birth to eleven children between 1735-1753, five of which survived to adulthood - a sadly average figure for the time.

In 1754, the couple sailed to London, leaving their considerable property in Massachusetts behind. They never returned. They were considered Loyalists, and during the Revolution, they lost their property and assets. In 1783, her oldest son and daughter returned to the Massachusetts, and successfully recovered most of the family property. Elizabeth herself died in 1780, aged 72.

I find it fascinating that despite so much political upheaval, Elizabeth's family kept the dress, as well as other examples of her needlework (look for another blog or two in the future!) I like to think they did so not only as mementos of a well-loved mother, but also in recognition of her skill and artistry, talents that were clearly so much a part of her.

And the dress? Family legend has it that the dress traveled to London with Elizabeth in 1754, and that in time it was remodeled and worn by her oldest daughter to the court of George III.

As before, many thanks to Patricia Gilrein, Kimberly Alexander, and the staff of The Bostonian Society for so generously sharing Elizabeth's dress with me.

All photographs courtesy The Bostonian Society.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Belt Buckles for Gilded Age Wasp Waists

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Loretta reports:

Not long ago I read Consuelo Vanderbilt’s The Glitter and the Gold, which had me thinking about Gilded Age fashions.  We’ve looked at the wasp waists more than once, mainly in connection with the tight corseting of the Victorian era.  Belts often encircled and called attention to those tiny waists, sometimes with beautifully crafted belt buckles, of which the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has a splendid collection.

This gold and garnet buckle is one fine example, dating from about 1899.

The nickel and silver glass paste buckle, with its strange face and the wide open mouth, is something completely different.  It’s about ten years later, and looks less Victorian and more Art Nouveau.

Can you picture the sort of woman who’d wear one of these? My guess is that it would not be the same woman!

Buckle # 1, by K.K. Faschschule für Edelsteinschleifer, Edelsteingravure, Goldschmeiede und Juweliere, Bohemian (Turneau), founded 1884.

Buckle #2, by Kirschgaessner und Kraft, German (Pforzheim), founded 1902.

Marie Kröyer
Painting: Peder Severin Kröyer, Portrait of the artist´s wife: Marie Kröyer (1901) courtesy Wikipedia

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the captions will allow you to read at the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.
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