Hand woven dress silk c.1780

After the death of Louis XIV in 1715, dress became simpler during the 18th century. The outline of gentlemen’s coats became tighter fitting above the waist and flared out over the hips whilst feminine dress always included the corset, trimmed with lace and ribbons, with an overskirt attached to the corset and pulled up on each side to increase the volume.

Highly patterned fabrics were still the fashion, some with added embellishment, with the rich brocades and velvets remaining the reserve of the rich. Many designs incorporated this look of embellishment, either within the pattern repeat, or to give the impression of detailing.  Many of these designs (being hand woven on draw looms) required great skills to create these complex patterns.


                  Doc 302, hand woven silk fabric c.1780

The fabric piece within the Archive, Doc 302, is a wonderful example of this work. The pattern displays small bunches of flowers, ‘sprigs’ which are laid in a ‘scattered’ pattern. Amongst these pretty bunches, the pattern of a piece of lace has been folded, to create a uniting repeat. The design encompasses the later 18th century interest in nature, a soft motif such as the flowers, combined with a structure, often follies or landscapes – in this case, lace. At one point, the fashion for lace became so excessive that a limit of use was passed in almost every country. Therefore, using lace as a pattern in itself became a fashionable substitute.

Doc 302 - whole piece front - lower res

Doc 302, hand woven silk fabric c.1780

The sample shown is a section from a dress corset, which has been carefully unpicked. A soft pink/lilac as the ground colour sets the more vibrant colours within the flowers, each bunch being hand brocaded into the cloth. The photograph of the back of the cloth, shows how the yarn ‘floats’ across the back of the fabric, and is reintroduced back into the design, when the weaver needed to weave more of the pattern.


    Doc 302, hand woven silk fabric c.1780

Many fabrics from this period have not survived, due to wear and tear, but also as they would often be cut up, alongside the changing fashions. The Archive has many quality samples from this period as furnishing as well as dress fabrics.

Empire: a style of change

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the BBC has produced a series of television and radio programmes that challenge well-held views on Napoleon, his strategies and the legacies left.

One such legacy of this tumultuous and stimulating period in history is the influence this fascinating man had on creating a defined style that has lasted through to the present day.

Born in Corsica during the summer of 1769, Napoleon served in the French Military and became an influential political leader, rising to prominence during the French Revolution.

As he gained ground through smaller battles, the French people came to see Napoleon as a strident force. In 1798 he commanded a military expedition to Egypt, conquering the Ottoman province. Through the discoveries made during this time, an interest in modern Egyptology was launched.

Doc 816 for web

Copper roller printed cotton, with hand blocked additional colour, c.1810, French

This interesting example depicts the highlights of Napoleon’s campaigns, with the Egyptian expedition shown top-right. These sorts of textiles were popular during their day as an alternative to positivizing political literature and were laden with clear messages to all.

Growing in power, Napoleon soon came to dominate European affairs. From 1804 he began his 11 year long tenure as Emperor of the French. The period prior to his reign and during was defined by great military might and enforced subscription became the norm, and fear, of many French families.

Doc 564 for web

Copper roller printed toile, 1800s, French

The pattern on this illustrative toile portrays dramatic scenes of countrymen going to war, leaving their homes and families behind. With its incredible detailing, the fabric expresses the negative alternative to the popular views of Napoleon’s rule, showing the great sadness of departure and the broken men this formed.

One of the greatest commanders in history, greatly travelled and with an exotic and sophisticated wife, Napoleon viewed the ‘old style’ of design, before the Reign of Terror, as representative of an unhealthy and extravagant royalist lifestyle, one which he had worked hard to destroy.

Although the emphasis on motifs and representation remained in an altered form, throughout the Napoleonic period the fashion for softer tones and a lighter palette with simpler flourishing and gold detailing came to the fore. Many designs were created to reflect the new French empire using symbols such as the wreath in a strong and simplistic manner.

Fern & Wreath for web
Fern & Wreath - hand woven silk

A hand woven silk tissue, 1840s, English

This example of wreath and fern motif originated from this period and became fashionable some years later in England. Its popularity continued throughout the 19th century and up to the outbreak of WWII. Its sophisticated and elegant shapes afforded flexibility thus helping to sustain its familiarity throughout the design world. It is now considered a classic in modern terms.

Whilst he remains one of the most controversial political figures in western history, ironically the ‘Empire’ style that Napoleon was integral in developing has conversely grown to become a symbol of elegance and taste for the well-heeled.