pages 14-15 pages 18-19 

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Whitework Sleeve Ruffles
Whitework Sleeve Ruffles (detail)

These particular ruffles are composed of separate bands of gossamer-light cotton mull embellished with a most unusual pattern of feathery strands of seaweeds, shells, sponges, and other aquatic life. Spiraling conch shells have decorative fillings of basket-weave, zigzag, stripe, and checkerboard patterns; delicate chain stitching forms the branches of seaweed and delineates the marine creatures. As if viewed in a rippling tide pool, these underwater motifs are complemented by the fluidity of the sheer fabric. Finished with a gently scalloped border of geometric Dresden work and a fine edging of twisted thread mesh, these unique accessories are a superlative artifact of eighteenth-century fashion history.

pages 14-15 pages 18-19  

English, mid 18th c.

Sleeve ruffles (commonly referred to in French as engageantes) were an indispensable component of eighteenth-century ladies’ dress. Meant to fall gracefully over the elbows, these shaped frills, often of lace, conformed to the style of the sleeve for which they were intended. In the middle of the century, to which period these ruffles date, gown sleeves were close fitting and finished with self-fabric flounced cuffs. These cuffs were narrow in front but fell into deep tiers towards the back. Separate sleeve ruffles were typically sewn into the dress of choice, and removed for subsequent attachment to a different garment; like cuffs, these delicate accessories might have been of single, double or triple layers. Rarely do complete ruffles remain intact as they were so often taken apart and reconfigured to suit the wearer’s ensemble. One layer of this two-tiered pair is slightly longer than the others, indicating that there were originally three flounces in each configuration.

Not only do these ruffles demonstrate the superb quality of materials and workmanship, but also the decorative spirit of the rococo age. So-called “weeping ruffles”—most often triplelayered assemblages of diaphanous muslin or gauze—were an extravagant addition to dresses of the 1750s. Dresden work, a counted- and pulled-thread embroidery technique of the type seen here, successfully imitates the intricacies of lace and was considered just as fashionable as its more complicated counterpart. This form of whitework originated in Saxony but was so admired throughout Europe that it soon surpassed its regional associations; though floral patterns predominate in Dresden work, chinoiserie themes, birds, insects, and other motifs of the natural world were popular until the late 1760s. At court in 1740, Mrs. Delany, a skilled needlewoman in her own right, noted the embroidered decoration on the Duchess of Bedford’s petticoat: “the pattern was festoons of shells, coral…and sea-weeds....”

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