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 RISD Museum 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. RISD Museum. Photograph by Susan Holloway Scott. Below left: Detail of the dress. Photograph courtesy of RISD Museum.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.