Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Accessories: Head to Toe": Scarves & Shawls & Shirts for Healthful Perspiration

Thursday, March 17, 2011
Susan reporting:

More from Accessories: Head to Toe, a symposium hosted by Colonial Williamsburg, March 12-16, 2011.

While stylish display dictated most of 18th c. fashion, the philosophies of the Age of Reason also influenced what Georgian gentlemen wore. Susan North, curator of fashion, 1550-1800, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, explored the importance of clothing as part of a healthy life in An Accessory to Health: Clean Linen & Its Role in Dress, Disease, & Gentility. 

Sharing her research, Ms. North referred to the many "self-help" books of the era, including those that offered advice on medicine, etiquette, and behavior. One of the most popular medical advice books of the era, Domestic Medicine, initially published in 1769 by Scottish physician William Buchan (1729-1805.) Dr. Buchan was the first to connect the idea of cleanliness with health and to promote clean clothes next to the skin as a way to avoid disease.

A typical 18th c. medical quandary involved both clothing and perspiration. Perspiration was considered one of the body's important ways of "evacuating" ills, and perspiration was therefore to be encouraged. "Insensible perspiration" – manifested as a lack of moisture on the skin – was a sign of the retention of perspiral matter, and a very bad thing indeed. Throughout the 18th c., experts like Dr. Buchan argued over which shirt would produce a better perspiration: a shirt made from linen (like the one above), or one made from a brushed wool flannel. A fascinating discussion!

Exotic influences rather than health issues were at the core of Shawls, Sashes, and Scarves, the session presented by Cynthia Cooper, head, collections & research, and curator, costume & textiles, McCord Museum of Canadian History, Montreal. Ms. Cooper traced the importance of these rectangular textile accessories from the 18th c. into the early 20th c., emphasising how they were often used to add an exotic counterpoint to Western dress.

Wide silk sashes began as part of childrens' dress in the mid-18th c., with sashes (like the ones, above right, worn by two young program participants) tied in a bow at the back for girls and in front for boys. But towards the end of the century, sashes had also been adopted by grown women like French Queen Marie-Antoinette who used the colored silk to add color and a touch of Turquerie  to her favorite white muslin dresses.

Kashmiri shawls appeared in French and English fashion in the late 18th c., soon after trade with India and Napoleon's conquest of Egypt made the exotic wildly popular. Traditional motifs from India were woven into the first shawls, whose considerable expense also helped to make them status symbols. Shawls became wildly popular, their warmth helped keep ladies in thin muslin dresses warm (like the lady, lower left, whose shawl features a Greek key border) while also, again, adding color and foreign "otherness" to Western attire. The original Kashmiri shawls were adapted by Scottish weavers and evolved into the popular square Paisley shawls favored by Victorian ladies, while ladies from 1830-1890 desired China crepe shawls from Nankeen and Canton with deep fringed borders, elaborate embroidery, and floral motifs. The final category Ms. Cooper discussed were Roman scarves, a bright, striped scarf or sash first popularized by visitors to Rome in the 1850s. Worn again first by boys and girls, the scarves later appeared in both men and women's dress, adding a foreign accent to everyday clothing as well as to fancy dress throughout the 19th century.

Upper left: Reproduction man's linen shirt, c. 1750-1810, by Mark Hutter, Colonial Williamsburg
Middle right: Reproduction girls' dresses, c. 1770, Colonial Williamsburg
Lower left: Red shawl with Greek key border over white gown, Costumes Parisien, 1799


Heather Carroll said...

I never knew about the perspiration theory. How incredibly interesting!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

It WAS incredibly interesting! I'm only able to paraphrase a tiny bit of it here - but this is where the notion of "catching a chill" comes from. It's not so much that being cold leads to illness, but that being chilled means that you don't perspire properly, keeping all those evil things (we'd probably call them toxins) inside. Another side of those obsessive 18th c. purges & enemas - 'evacuation' was all-important. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to report this symposium. It really sounds fascinating. I don't think I'd like the women's clothes but there is something about a man in satin and lace weilding a sword-- swoon.
Thanks for the informaiton about pockets in breeches.

Wendy La Capra said...

This blog series has been so wonderful, thank you for sharing all of your insights and information.

Such an interesting note about perspiration & health!

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