I promised I'd share a few of the pieces in detail from the wonderful Immortal Beauty exhibition by the Fox Historic Costume Collection of Drexel University (more information about the exhibition here), and here is one of my favorites.
This robe à l'anglaise was made around 1780 by a skilled mantua-maker whose name is now lost. The cream-colored silk has a faint woven shadow stripe, and is strewn with polychrome bouquets. Crisp silks like this one were the latest fashion, reflecting a new interest in designs inspired by nature with an overall lighter feel. The curators have looped up the skirts in back à la polonaise, and that gathered silk in the back would have been further accentuated by a false rump (more about these here) underneath. With all those tiny pleats in the skirts and matching petticoat, this dress would have floated around the wearer like a rustling silk cloud.
I hadn't seen the short, capped over-sleeves before (I'm sure that some of our readers will know their proper name), but they are definitely a trend that appears in French fashion plates of the time. The mantua-maker accentuated this detail by cutting the rest of the sleeve cross-ways: the upper sleeves have vertical stripes, while on the lower parts the stripes run around the arm. It's a subtle touch, and the sign of a talented seamstress. She also took care to match the fabric's blossoms on the front of the bodice and along the elegantly seamed back - a detail that not only required a good eye, but more fabric as well, adding to the overall cost of the dress.
But this could have been an expensive dress for other reasons as well. Stylistically it dates to around 1780, and in 1780, America was still in the middle of the Revolutionary War with Great Britain. This silk is English, and from its design it's unlikely to have been languishing on some colonial merchant's shelf since before the war. Was it smuggled into America past British warships? If so, then the cost would have made it an even more luxurious dress - and more special to the fortunate woman who wore it.
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.