One of my favorite textile/costume exhibitions was last summer's Elaborate Embroidery: Fabrics for Menswear before 1815 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (you can read my post about it here.)
But as wonderful as the exhibition was, I longed to see the richly embroidered samples more closely than the display cases permitted. Last week, I finally returned to the Met for a research appointment at the Antonio Ratti Textile Center and Reference Library - the keepers of all those embroidery samples and much, much more besides.
The sample here (click on the images to enlarge) was one of the ones that I requested to view. It's not large: 12-1/2" x 7-3/4". The black fabric is faintly dotted silk velvet, and the embroidery threads are silk and metallic. There are also dozens of tiny sequins as well as paste jewels worked into the design. It might have been a sample of an embroidery pattern that was shown to gentlemen considering new suits, or it could also have been a experiment with a new pattern. The sample eventually became part of the textile design archives of The United Piece Dye Works, who gave the collection to the museum in 1936.
This sample was stitched in France around 1800-1815, long past the time when Louis XVI's court and their legendary excess had been displaced by the Revolution. But Napoleon Bonaparte liked those same sartorial trappings as much as his royal predecessors had, and gentlemen appearing at the imperial court were expected to appear in suits of luxurious fabrics embellished with embroidery like this. Of course, this kind of elaborate formal dress had never stopped being worn at the English court and others like it across Europe, but these suits were to be the last gasp of the glittering male peacock. Within a generation, formal wear for gentleman became dark and subdued, and has remained so to the present day.
Worked in shades of silver with gold accents on that inky velvet, a suit enhanced with the design in this sample would have sparkled and gleamed in an elegant, refined show of wealth and taste. Equipped with a magnifying glass, I was able to see the exquisite delicacy of the stitches, and the extremely fine silk and metallic threads used to create them, threads that would likely be impossible to find today.
I was especially interested in the tiny sequins, held in place by even smaller beads. The sequins that were stitched directly onto the velvet had tarnished over time, probably from a dye in the velvet, giving them an unintentional ombre effect. The small paste (glass) "jewels" near the edge were secured in in metal collars, which in turn were hidden by a loop of wrapped metallic thread. These details are visible where some of the loops has slipped away from the jewel.
I also loved being able to see the back side of the embroidery. Without the pile of the velvet and the glitter of the sequins and jewels, the design becomes more linear with the transition stitches criss-crossing over the flowers and leaves. In a way, it's equally beautiful, like the finest of silk spiderwebs.
Most of all, seeing this sample in such detail left me in awe of those now-forgotten designers, embroiderers, thread-spinners, sequin-and paste-jewel makers, velvet-weavers, and needle-makers who would have each contributed to its creation, and the skill, artistry, and accomplishment that this small bit of two-hundred-year-old fabric represents.
Many thanks to Melinda Watt, Associate Curator, European Sculpture & Decorate Arts, and Supervising Curator, Antonio Ratti Textile Center, and the staff of the Antonio Ratti Textile Center for their assistance, knowledge, and patience - as you can tell, I had a wonderful Nerdy-History-Girl time!
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.