Fabric and Women’s Fashion During the 18th and 19th Centuries

Since I’ve been scrolling through the photos on my phone of museum exhibits that I’ve gone to over the last few years, one thing’s for certain, I really do like looking at historic fashions. My phone is filled with pictures of beautiful gowns that span across centuries and I want to share them with you. Today, I thought we would revisit the Fabric In Fashion exhibit that was held in the Spring of 2019 at The Museum at FIT.

As usual, I’ll be focusing on dresses from the 18th and 19th centuries. We’ll specifically look at how fibers such as silk and cotton, as well as various weaves, influenced fashion’s aesthetic qualities and silhouettes. And, we’ll see how the origins of certain textiles and the desire for them, were tied to the politics and culture of the time. So sit back with your favorite beverage and let’s look at some gorgeous gowns and talk about what they were made of.

We’ll begin by looking at silk and touch on its history. By 100 BCE, the Han Dynasty in China formalized its trade network to export silk westward. The routes were collectively knowns as the Silk Road. Silk cultivation spread across Asia and the Middle East and by the 13th century, European traders regularly imported expensive, handwoven satins, velvets, damasks, and brocades from the Far and Middle East. Eventually, silk weaving also spread to Europe. By the mid-18th century, France, England, and Italy led in production while supplementing with imports from Asia. Silk textiles signified wealth and aristocratic rank within royal court circles, as well as the Catholic Church. Western motifs began to predominate, but Europe’s recurring obsession with Asia would continually influence fashionable silk textile designs.

Silk brocade taffeta robe l’anglaise, England, c. 1760. The Museum at FIT

This 1760 gown’s colorful silk brocade fabric was likely hand-woven on a complex draw loom in Europe. During the late 18th century the basic silhouette of women’s fashion had not changed significantly for about a hundred years, however by varying a gown’s textiles, colors, trims, and motifs – all showcased on expansive skirts – one could appear current with fashion. It was one of the reasons you see such amazing fabrics and trimmings on clothing during the Georgian era. You needed to find a way to show you weren’t wearing your grandmother’s gown. Keep in mind, you might find gentlemen following along with the same textiles used in their suits. However, as the 18th century started to draw to a close, that silhouette started to change as did the fabrics used for women’s gowns. Now some fabrics, such as sheer silks and cottons, were specifically reserved for women.

The following three, 19th century dresses that I’m going to show you are made from sheer textiles that create a light, diaphanous look which was desirable for women. Although the dresses have a similar silhouette, they are made using different treatments and/or fabrics. By looking at them in succession, you’ll be able to see how the choice of fabric effected the way the dresses would drape along the body.

The first dress is made of cotton. Historically, the use of cotton is tied to the political and cultural climate of the time. Europeans used very little cotton cloth before trading companies, like the British East India Company, began importing large quantities of it during the 17th century. However, it wasn’t until the early 18th century that cotton began to be used in women’s fashion. When Britain invaded India in 1757 and made it a British colony, it outlawed cotton manufacturing there which forced Indians to purchase cotton fabric from British mills. During the late 18th century, cheaper raw cotton and mechanized production led to the Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, even though it made it even easier for people to buy cotton, working conditions in the textile factories of Northern Europe were horrible, especially for children. In the United States, it was not any better. In the 19th century, cotton became a dominant cash crop in America. Cotton agriculture relied on enslaved African Americans and, because of that, the enslaved population in the southern states increased by 500% between 1800 and 1860 as the demand for their free labor at cotton plantations soared. While it’s a wonderful fabric that was much in demand, there is a lot of pain associated with it.

The cotton “silver” muslin gown you see below was made in the United States around 1795. The dress features a new silhouette, marking a major fashion shift from previous wider styles. The late 18th century French fashion for white muslin gowns was inspired by colonial Caribbean styles and was further popularized by Marie Antoinette. But it didn’t stop when Marie and her husband, King Louis XVI, were overthrown. Post-revolution France set trends in women’s fashion for simple, white cotton gowns that represented the new Republic and egalitarianism. Muslin also mimicked the drapery on Ancient Greek sculpture, speaking to the popularity at the time for Neoclassicism. The style made its way around Europe and across the ocean to the United States. With dresses like this being considered the height of fashion, early 19th-century dressmakers favored cotton muslin, which was produced around Europe and exported to the United States.

Courtesy of The Museum at FIT
Courtesy of The Museum at FIT

In addition to cotton, silk remained a popular fabric for women’s gowns in the early 19th century. This ivory silk organza overdress was woven with a floral pattern and dates from around 1825. It’s believed the dress might have possibly been made in the United States. The gown’s textile is woven so finely that it’s translucent over the under dress and the long, smooth silk fibers provide a subtle sheen. It would have accentuated a woman’s form as she moved in candlelight.

Courtesy of The Museum at FIT

The treatment of the final gown in this trio was a surprised to me when I first saw it. Aside from something like mittens or a shawl, I didn’t think much about knitwear during the Regency era. I certainly never saw a knitted dress before. My first inclination was to assume the gown was made of lace. But, guess what? This one was knitted out of fine silk yarn.

White silk, patterned knit jersey empire-waist evening dress with pink fringe and cord. England. c. 1810

Knitting goes back thousands of years and was first mechanized in England in 1589. During the mid-19th century it became industrialized. Most knitted textiles stretch to fit the body’s contours, creating possibilities for fit, ease of movement, and performance that were not historically available in woven textiles. With a few exceptions, knitted clothing was not prominent in Western high fashion, outside of undergarments and small accessories, until the 1920s. That makes this dress an exceptional find!

Courtesy of The Museum at FIT

Its grid-like pattern of openwork knit is a strikingly modern alternative to lace and takes transparency to the fashionable extreme. It’s worth noting that even with under layers, these styles were criticized at the time as being immodest and impractical. Just think of the scandal this gown must have caused! I can’t help but wonder about the woman who owned it and what the reaction was when she showed up wearing it.

Courtesy of The Museum at FIT

The final dress we’ll look at today is an example of the shift during the Victorian era that moved away from those delicate sheer gowns. Throughout the 19th century, advances in textile production led to a consumer revolution. Luxurious fabrics such as velvet, satin, and tulle were more accessible and affordable than ever. Within the rapidly urbanized Western society, women’s clothing began to show off a greater variety and volume of textiles.

The popularity of the historical revival style during the 1840s may have inspired the maker of the dress below to use this lovely late 18th century fabric. While silk brocades like this one would have been worn by both men and women during the 18th century, in its second life this textile was now only appropriate for women’s wear. Notice how the waistline is much lower from the earlier empire style we saw earlier. Long corsets were also used now, altering the silhouette. And, as the Victorian era moved forward, the waistlines would get smaller and ladies’ bottoms would appear bigger

Pale pink and yellowed striped dress made of late 18th century silk brocade. USA. c. 1840.
Courtesy of The Museum at FIT

I hope you enjoyed this look at Fabrics In Fashion. If you’re so inclined, make sure to follow my blog so you don’t miss any of my upcoming museum exhibit flashbacks.

  • The information provided in this article was compiled from the Fabrics In Fashion exhibit, held in 2019 at The Museum at FIT. If you have an eye for fashion, I highly recommend a trip to The Museum at FIT if you are ever in New York City.

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