pages 14&15 pages 18-19 

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Indian-Woven Cotton Day Dresses, English, ca. 1794-98

English, ca. 1794–98

In their silhouette, fabric and color, these two gowns exemplify the late eighteenth-century style illustrated in the plates of Niklaus von Heideloff’s Gallery of Fashion, published in London between 1794 and 1803. The incipient neoclassical influence on women’s dress is evident here in the high-waisted, slim line and the use of sheer white cotton. During the last quarter of the century, cottons—both plain and patterned—increasingly replaced the rich silks that had dominated women’s wardrobes for most of the period.

Found together and of the same size, the dresses likely belonged to the same elegant wearer. The blue-sprigged gown is in the form of a robe à l’anglaise, an open gown with a fitted back worn over a petticoat that was especially popular in the 1770s and 1780s. The wrap-front closure of the pink-and-white zigzag brocaded gown derives from eighteenth-century informal styles, including the robe à la turque of the 1780s. Both gowns show a transitional style of construction characteristic of the 1790s when the waistline rose from its natural placement to just below the bust. Before the adoption of a one-piece garment around 1800 with separately seamed bodice and

Indian-Woven Cotton Day Dresses, English, ca. 1794-98

skirt, dressmakers continued to use traditional techniques to fit these narrower gowns to the body, especially in the upper back where a range of pleating forms appears. In these examples, the fullness of a single width of fabric is arranged in widely spaced inverted pleats that release into soft folds below the high waist, falling into a slightly trained skirt. In addition to their functional aspect, the finely shaped pleats also serve to lengthen the line of the gown and add visual interest, creating a diamond shape at the center back. The tight-fitting, elbow-length sleeves were a recently introduced detail that anticipated the short sleeves of the fully developed neoclassical silhouette.

Indian cottons, considered the finest, were in great demand among elite consumers. The Gallery of Fashion, whose list of subscribers included members of English and foreign royalty and aristocracy, illustrated many stylish gowns of Indian muslin, dimity and calico. While all-white was clearly a popular choice, simply patterned cottons were also widely worn. The gossamer light Indian mull used for these day dresses would have been recognized as exotic, expensive and highly fashionable.

pages 14-15 pages 18-19  

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