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.
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.