Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Made in America: A Stylish Silk Gown, c. 1780

Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Isabella reporting,

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.

Day Dress, anonymous maker, c.1780. American made of English silk. Fox Historic Costume Center, Drexel University. Top & bottom left photos ©2015 by Susan Holloway Scott.  Right photo by Monica Stevens Smyth.


Unknown said...

The short sleeves would have had ruffles attached- possibly lace. They are known as engageantes.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Christina ~ These particular sleeves didn't have any further embellishments (no tell-tale pin or needle marks in the silk) - they're just a kind oversleeve that appear to have been popular at the time. It's my understanding that engageantes (or flounces, as they were called in Britain and America) were attached to the hems of sleeves that ended just below the elbow. So the mystery continues...

Unknown said...

Interesting. I have not come across any paintings or illustrations depicting this short sleeve. Perhaps someone can direct me to a reference?
Thanks Isabella.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Christina, I don't know of any portraits with the short oversleeves, but they're definitely in fashion plates. I linked to this one in the text:

Here are some others:

They seem to appear only in the French plates. This was the first garment I've ever seen with them, too, which makes me suspect it must have been a short-lived trend.

Unknown said...

Thanks Isabella. I saw the link you referred to in the text and noted that the short sleeves have ruffles attached. Perhaps I should have been clearer in my comment.

I will look at the Pinterest links.

Cassidy said...

Thank you for the pictures! I'd just seen snippets of this one on Instagram from the installation.

Hmm. I think, with the deep point in the back and lack of pleating in the bodice, that the dress actually dates to just after the war years. Maybe 1783-1787?

I had to go back into the Galerie des Modes to corroborate, but the term they used at the time gor short oversleeves was "mancherons", in French, anyway.

ista said...

The short oversleeve seems common on robes a la turque/circassiene/levite though aren't on all, and the minute you claim something did NOT happen, there's an extant example disproving the certainty.

Christina Mitchell - the ruffle trim (only on the first of those fashion plates) isn't an engageante is the ruffle attached to elbow length sleeves (more as a false sleeve concept).

Unknown said...

I take your point ista. What threw me was the blunt sleeve which looked like it must have had a piece of lace or some trim. The overall look and balance of the proportion of the sleeve just made me think something was missing. It actually to my mind looks very contemporary - obviously it isn't. It was interesting to go down this research route.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Many thanks for all the interesting comments on this dress! I love deciphering the mysteries of a garment like this. One of the most fascinating aspects of fashion history is that there are no "absolutes" - clothing and taste are so personal that just when you think you can safely date or describe a certain style, up pops another example that's completely different.

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