Sunday, July 15, 2012

Barbara Johnson's Album: One Lady's Style, 1746-1823

Sunday, July 15, 2012
Isabella/Susan reporting:

Thanks to the internet, today's fashion-conscious woman can see the latest styles the very minute they appear on the Paris runways, and keeping track of her own wardrobe purchases is as easy as a smart-phone app. Two hundred years ago, a lady in Staffordshire, England, was doing much the same thing: not with an app, but an album.

In 1746, when she was only eight, Barbara Johnson (1738-1825) began to keep a kind of fashion journal for herself, and she continued to do so for the next seventy years, until 1823, two years before her death. In an over-sized book covered in green parchment, Barbara not only listed all the clothes she had made for her, the yardage, and the cost, but also included swatches of the fabric she chose, bringing home neatly clipped squares from her mantua-maker to pin on the pages beside the description. On the page shown above left, the simple description of "green & white yard wide Stuff"comes to life when the actual fabric - the flowered print in the lower corner of the page -  is there as well. (It's the same kind of visual aha! that happens with a similar kind of 18th c record-book with attachments, the admissions books and tokens of the Foundling Hospital.)

Barbara didn't stop with her own clothes, however. She also included clippings from contemporary fashion plates and magazines of gowns and hats she admired, clippings that perhaps resembled a garment she owned, or wished to have copied. The 18th century marks the first beginnings of the fashion media, with printed fashion plates and lady's magazines bringing the latest London styles to every corner of the English empire. In this era, when nearly all clothes were custom made to suit a specific person's body, taste, and purse, a lady could bring the fashion plates to her own mantua-maker no matter where she lived. She could incorporate as much or as little of the new styles into her own clothes, or have older gowns updated. For Barbara, who lived far from London, the pictures must have brought a glimpse of the high style and glamour of the capitol to her rural home.

The album also shows the dramatic changes that occurred in fashion during Barbara's lifetime, from the full petticoats, stays, and hoops of the mid-18th c to the high-waisted, uncomplicated styles like these, right, from a page in 1803. On the same page, Barbara includes a swatch for a "Sarsnet Pelise", a gift from her brother; although by then she was an aged lady in her sixties, she's still clearly interested in the new fashions.

But Barbara's notes - in that wonderful Georgian penmanship - also show how the clothes fit into her life. The blue-and-white lutestring at the top of the page, above left, was worn to "Brother Johnson's birthday" in 1765. On the same page, below left, with the bright yellow tabby silk and flowered silk brocade is a swatch of plain white lutestring, used for "second Mourning for My Father" in 1755.

Barbara's album is now in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Go here to see more pages, or search the museum's site for "Barbara Johnson's album." In the 1980's, W.W. Norton printed a facsimile of the album as A Lady of Fashion: Barbara Johnson's Album of Styles and Fabrics, edited by Natalie Rothstein of the V&A's textile department. Long out of print, the facsimile is highly prized, and highly priced, too. If you come across a copy in a used book store, buy it - it's a treasure!

Above: Album, compiled by Barbara Johnson, 1746-1823. England, Britain. Victoria & Albert Museum. All images copyright Victoria & Albert Museum.

14 comments:

Robin's Egg Bleu said...

I don't think my husband is going to be too happy when he sees my Christmas list this year!

Kleidung um 1800 said...

This truly is the kind of books, which manages to take you back in time easily.
While paging through the large facsimile album (of course sitting in your favourite chair & a steaming cup of tea within reach), one can only be deeply fascinated. The photographs are brilliant, it's almost as the fabric scraps are real and it plants probably the same joy into today's reader's hearts than it did to Ms Johnson.

Sabine

Ana said...

What a fascinating find.
If the opportunity ever presents itself, I'll be sure to pick it up.

Darlene E Williams said...

I want it!

Darlene E Williams said...

Gasp! $300 for used on Amazon.

Margaret Evans Porter said...

So happy I purchased it when I did...and got it at a discount price, years ago. It's gorgeous and so useful. The Textile Dept. of the V&A is wonderful, and I've had the privilege of private access.

gio said...

This is so fascinating! I hope I can find a copy at some used book store.

Karen A. Chase said...

I love this posts you do about fashions of the times, and this one is so fascinating! I'm writing a book about the American Revolution time-period and your blogs are just the ticket to help me include some unique details. But I must say, they make me long for those days. If I kept a fashion journal like Barbara Johnson, it wouldn't be quite so lovely.

Vic said...

I happened to find a color copy of this book last year for a reasonable price. It was still quite expensive, but worth every penny!

Kieran said...

What a treasure!!

KWillow said...

Oh dear oh dear... I spent quite a while looking at the Amazon page for the book... mentally counting the $$ in my checking account. Then I thought "maybe I can get it for my birthday". We'll see!

Katherine S. Crawford said...

This is incredible! What a find. Wish I could afford the book.

Donna said...

Love this! Thanks so much for bringing it to our attention...

dekoracija said...

Thanks for sharing this fantastic post with us. So many nice ideas!

There was an error in this gadget
 
Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket