Sunday, September 9, 2012

Fashionably Aping One's Betters, c 1780

Sunday, September 9, 2012
Isabella reports:

I've written here (and here) before about remade gowns, 18th c dresses whose often-costly fabric was recycled into something new and fashionable. Those examples were most likely family pieces remade by the next generation or two, a practice that was both thrifty and possibly sentimental.

This remade gown, however, could have been considered darkly subversive in its time. When this gown was originally made in the 1740s, it would have had a sack back and folded-back robings, much like this gown. The flowered silk brocade satin is what made it special: a lovely, multi-colored design by Anna Maria Garthwaite (1688-1763), woven by one of the master-weavers of Spitalfields. The silk would have been expensive, and was likely the reason the gown was put aside and saved. The gown was then remodeled in the 1780s, and that's the version which has survived.

But the curators of the Victoria & Albert Museum, which owns the gown, believe this makeover is the work not of a family-member or professional seamstress, but of a style-conscious servant. Outdated clothes were customarily given to servants (especially lady's maids) in the 18th c. as a perk, and old clothes were also offered as mementos to favored servants when the mistress died. In addition, London's second-hand clothing market was a thriving one, and this gown might have been purchased by the new owner.

Servants, apprentices, shop-clerks, and other members of the lower classes had been quick to join the burgeoning consumerism of 18th c England, and eagerly followed the fashions set by the upper classes. On their days off, maids and footmen dressed to impress in re-styled hand-me-downs as far as their means permitted - and sometimes beyond. Apparently they did it so well that the upper classes they were copying became very uneasy. Servants dressed as their betters broke down the proper barriers of rank and society in a way that seemed both deceitful and disturbing, and the papers were filled with indignant whining like this:

"In former times, dress was deemed one of the most palpable distinctions in rank. Ladies then took there precedencies, and understood their respective stations, by what they wore, and their manner of wearing it. This ancient and easy mode of discrimination is no longer known in society. The very servant not only apes but rivals her mistress in every species of whim and extravagance. All sorts of people are consequently confounded or melted down into one glaring mass of absurdity or superfluity. The lower orders are intirely lost in a general propensity to mimic the finery of the higher; and every woman we meet would seem by her gesture and apparel to posses at least an independent fortune; and no difference at all in this respect is left to tell the mere spectator, whether her circumstances be narrow or affluent."
    --from 'Strictures on a Young Lady's Dress',  The European Magazine & London Review, April, 1784.

Somehow I doubt the young woman who wore this gown worried about being part of the "glaring mass of absurdity or superfluity," any more than her modern counterpart does carrying a knock-off Gucci handbag.

Above: Gown, Spitalfields, England, 1740s (made) 1780s (altered). Brocaded silk satin. Victoria & Albert Museum. Photographs: Victoria & Albert Museum.


Elizabeth said...

I love your updates on these redesigned gowns and has led me to do much digging into some of your back articles for these beautiful pictures. I grew up visiting Williamsburg so much but really only remember the Governor's mansion, the candle-makers and the apothecary but cannot remember this place! Just a good excuse to go back there.

Isobel Carr said...

Clearly the writer would have been a fan of sumptuary laws, LOL! Oh, for the 16thC when such things were not permitted.

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