My first full day in Williamsburg dawned cool and rainy. I met up with a friend and went to a talk at the art museums called “Fashion Fanatics.” The museum expert guided a group through different exhibits examining what art and textiles can tell us about a time period. The talk ended up in the textile storage room where the group had access to viewing the textiles in some of the storage drawers.
The time period discussed was mainly c. 1750s. We examined two paintings and learned how paintings are not a true representation of a person. Both paintings of wealthy ladies were painted with an odd perspective with the head and neck not in alignment with the body. This is NOT because the painter painted the body first and added the head later. Sometimes the subjects of paintings wear the same outfit! If a painter had a specific dress he was very very good at painting, he would simply have his subject wearing that dress. The style may not be up-to-date for that time period. Sometimes women wore jewelry and other times not. Paintings are a representation of a person but not a true likeness.
Mrs. Booth (left) has an oddly broad torso, a dress that wasn’t in fashion yet and no one is sure why she is holding a cloth in her hand.
Mrs. Carter was the wife of a very prominent man, yet she is dressed in a mostly plain gray silk gown with similarly odd sleeves as Mrs. Booth’s dress. She shows her wealth only by the lace at the cuffs and neck of her gown and the little pearl broach. Again, no one is sure why the blue cloth. Shawls were not worn yet in the 1750s.
I loved seeing the period outfits on display in the British Textiles exhibit. British textiles were considered the best in the world. People all over the world wanted to wear British textiles. If you could afford to wear silk, you purchased silk cloth woven by silk weavers in Spitalfields in London’s East End. Throwsters, Winders, Weavers, and designers were all needed to make one piece of fabric. By 1774 English silk manufacturers imported £130,000 worth of silk to the American colonies, their most important market.
When styles changed women sometimes made over their old gowns into newer styles. This gown on display was originally made in the 1750s and remade in the 1780s! Sixty years later this type of fabric was popular again and the dress refashioned to suit the styles of the day.
If you couldn’t afford silk you would likely wear a woolen gown of the same style, like this read and gold one. This one is made from worsted wool, combed wool fibers that were tightly spun and woven. Worsteds were light and suitable for ladies’ gowns. The worsted industry was centered around Norwich, England.
Cotton gowns were also very popular. Some cotton printed textiles were imported from India beginning in the 16th-century. Read more about that at Willow & Thatch (the picture of the sign I took came out too blurry to read). By the 18th-century, the region around Manchester, England specialized in spinning, weaving, printing lightweight, colorful, cotton and cotton-linen textiles. Men also wore these types of fabrics for informal wear. These cottons are not only beautiful, they are serviceable and easy to clean.
As demand for cotton printed fabrics grew, silk and wool weavers protested in Parliament until Parliament passed a lawn in 1721 prohibiting the sale, wear and use of cotton printed calicoes. The British government regulated the sale of cotton textiles until 1774 when it passed another act to legalize the printing on all all cotton fabrics.
Women’s shoes featured high heels, ribbons, buckles and were made from silk or wool textiles with covered wooden heels. Men’s shoes were typically made of leather. The components of the shoes: wooden heels, textiles and bindings were exported to American shoemakers. By the late 17th century shoes were fastened by buckles. Strings didn’t become common until the late 19th century.
During this time, 1750s, stockings were knit flat on frames and sewn together. This was a much faster process than knitting by hand. In Nottingham in 1719 there were over 9,000 frames in operation. Linen, cotton, wool and silk stockings were exported around the world.
To be continued…