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English, the dress, ca. 1760; the silk, ca. 1735

During most of the eighteenth century, women and men of means visually proclaimed their wealth and rank through opulent dress. Richly brocaded floral-patterned silks were immediate signifiers of high fashion and an elite lifestyle. Woven on drawlooms in limited quantities over a period of many weeks—hence their elevated cost—these silks represented a substantial investment on the part of the client.

In the early 1730s, an innovation in the preparatory drawings of silk designs allowed for painterly, three-dimensional depiction of motifs with sophisticated gradation of colors. Credited to Lyonnais designers who were widely regarded as leaders in the production of high-end silks, this naturalistic aesthetic was quickly adopted by their counterparts across the Channel in the London-based weaving center at Spitalfields. Increasingly large and vividly hued flowers, foliage, fruits, and other elements decorated the surfaces of woven silks, and were shown to particular advantage by the rounded feminine silhouette created by the pannier, or hooped petticoat. In this closed robe with a fitted back, the twisting sprays of realistically rendered blossoms and berries are shown at their peak, spreading their fully-opened petals and leaves with delicately curled edges. Against the pale mauve ground, overlapping wefts of bright red, pink, blue, citrus, and apple green are combined with muted shades of soft brown, peach and dusty rose, with outlines and details in black. When worn, the swaying skirt would have given the impression of a gently undulating floral parterre.

It was undoubtedly one of these luxuriant silks that Mary Pendarves (later Mary Delany), the scrupulous observer and recorder of court fashions, purchased to wear at a ball held to celebrate the wedding of the Princess Royal to the Prince of Orange in March 1734. In a letter to her sister, she identified the fabric of her gown as “a brocaded lustring, white ground with great rampant flowers in shades of purples, reds, and greens. I gave 13 shillings a yard; it looks better than it describes and will make a show.” For men and women in court circles, attendance at formal, public occasions demanded a suitably ostentatious display of finery and provided the opportunity for sartorial competition.

Floral Brocaded Dress (detail)

A number of factors—including the price of the fabric, its weight, the tightness of the weave as well as the scale of its pattern—ensured that there was minimal cutting on the part of the mantua-maker. The skirt is constructed from six selvage widths, carefully matched at the seams so that the pattern is continuous. In order to maximize the inherent value of such expensive silks, gowns were often altered at a later date. In this example, earlier pleat marks and stitching lines indicate that the dress was re-worked, primarily to narrow the back to a more up-to-date appearance. The wing cuffs, with metal weights sewn into the lining, date to the original incarnation of the dress. As an alternative to the more formal robe à la française with its loose pleats and separate petticoat, a one-piece gown with fitted back was especially popular among English women throughout most of the century.

This dress was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion (May 3–September 4, 2006).

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