Thursday, March 17, 2016

Use of Cotton in Fashion Plates

This is an overview of a research topic that I've been working on. Part of what sparked the idea for this research topic was, a) discovering how much I love fashion plates, and b) how much I wanted to recreate them, but being discouraged at how expensive it would be. I assumed that everything was made of expensive silk, which is usually upwards of $14 a yard. Then I figured out that cotton did exist in the historic fashionable world! Cotton can be anywhere from $3-$15 a yard, which is much more affordable. Cotton was used quite a lot, but more concentrated in certain types of garments during specific times of the year. You probably wouldn't want to be wearing a thin cotton dress while tramping through the snow, but for a hot day in July you wouldn't want to wear anything else!

1857 December Godeys: Fig 4, evening dress for a lady just come out of organdy

I've been searching original Godey's Lady's Books, Les Modes Parisiennes, Le Moniteur de la Mode and Le Follet for the fashion plate description and looking for certain key words, between the years 1840 and 1865. I used Cunnington's Englishwomen's Fashion in the Nineteenth century as a reference for different fabrics; there is an index in the back that has been invaluable. My list of key words include: cotton, muslin, batiste, cambric, mousseline (French for muslin), organdy, tarlatan (the spelling varies), gauze, voile, India muslin, jacconet muslin, Swiss muslin and book muslin. A couple different fabrics came up in which Cunnington conflicted with different opinions, so both percale and foulard are question marks in terms of whether or not they are cotton, although I found the context to not match the rest of the cotton genre.

Le Moniteur de la Mode 1851: Fig 2, of Swiss muslin. The same exact plate appears in Godey's in 1853, but as a course wood-cut plate instead of steel.

A couple different things came up while searching that I wish I had known before. First of all, original Le Follet and Les Modes Parisiennes are my favorite way more than say Godey's or Peterson's. The sketches are more individual, and in terms of fashion they are straight forward and the descriptions are easier to find. Speaking French is a huge plus, although you can find some that are already translated.

Le Moniteur de la Mode 1851: Fig 1, muslin morning dress

The other thing I learned is that, year to year, not every magazine is the same. I started with Godey's in 1865 and worked backward; from about 1865-1856 everything was going well, and the layout was the same as the year before, but as I got further into the early 1850's and the 1840's the descriptions were more sporadic and harder to locate; my usual keywords of "steel plate" with the month started to not work. Part of that was because, in Godey's earlier years, fashion plates weren't always made with steel. As the steel ones became more popular they even mention in the description how expensive it is to use the detailed steel plates.

Godey's 1853 woodcut fashion plate: compare this plate to the very first plate, which was French, published in 1851, and steel printed.

I also couldn't even find a copy of Godey's between the years 1844 and 1847, so there is a small gap, but I was getting frustrated with the 1840's anyway. Sometimes they would say something like, "This months plate is so simple we will not trouble our fair readers with a description"; others were more blunt and said, in a nutshell, "even a simpleton would understand what is going on in this picture."

Godey's 1840: Fig. 2, dress of white figured cambric

What I found out was not exactly surprising, but still interesting. Between the years 1860-1865, cotton in fashion plates comes up almost wholly between June and August for day dresses, and evening dresses in cotton were found the most often in the winter. The 1850's were quite different, and because of the vast amount of ruffles lighter materials were preferred in general, so cotton was used in day dresses between March and October, again with cotton still being used in the winter for evening dresses. I have less to say about the 1840's; between the less than helpful descriptions and the several year hole in research, I would say that cotton was used during the day more year-round than the 1860's, but less than the 1850's.

Godey's August 1863: Fig 1, of French muslin. I do not know what is up with the floating lady in the background...

In terms of color, about half of the dresses were white, while the other half were printed, striped or a color of some sort.

Godey's August 1842: Fig 1, dress of India muslin

Of the evening dresses, I would say 1/15 was not white, and of the white ones the description usually makes a point of saying that they are for young or very young ladies. Most of the evening dresses I saw that used cotton had a layered skirt of some kind, whether it was ruffles, tiers, or a mixture of both depending on the current trend. Most of the late 1850's and early 1860's evening dresses are incredibly "cupcake-y", while the early 1850's ones are my favorite.

December Godey's 1859: Fig 4. Of tarlatan for a young lady; the full description here.

Compare the style of the dress in the above plate on the right to the below dress on the left, which is made of taffeta. Because of the thinness of the cotton, layered effects and profuse usage of ruffles and the like were more common in cotton. Cotton is less expensive, so if you were in need of a ball gown you would be in the market for something expensive; in other words, spend the same amount on a crazy amount of cotton yardage and use it all, or less on more expensive silk.

Le Follet, 1863 (actually it might be of moire instead of taffeta, I can't remember)

I also discovered a trend in terms. Muslin and tarlatan is the favorite fabric in the 1860's, while during the 1850's the different kinds used were much more broad.

Les Modes Parisiennes 1862, Fig 2. of blue tarlatan

It is a common reenacting mistake, especially in Civil war reenacting, to think that cotton was only used for work or summer dresses. It is true that work dresses were most commonly made in cotton, but even a ball dress could be made in cotton! It depends completely on the fineness of the fabric in question, and also the amount of trimming to determine the suitability of the style. PLEASE, don't take this to mean that quilting cotton from Joanns will work. As I mentioned before, most cotton evening gowns were very elaborate and I've seen quite a few reenactors make the mistake of making it too plain. There are a lot of very simple original ball gowns floating around on Pinterest, but all of them are silk. Or, if they are cotton, they could have even been a girl's plain day dress. The dress below is a confusing example: ball gown? Girl's party dress? We might never know. 

In other words: if you want help finding a fashion plate description, come to me. If you are interested in just looking at the way I document stuff, check out my Pinterest boards. I know a lot of people say Pinterest isn't research, but it is if you use it as a way to archive and organize stuff. By not saving it to the computer, it is easier to share and you can access it on any device anywhere.

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