In the 1780’s new fabric fashions appeared in France which were quickly adopted by men and women of other European nations – that of wearing clothing made from striped fabrics and even animal prints! Stripes had appeared on garments before this date but they dominated this decade, and although horizontal ones were worn, vertical stripes were considered more flattering.
It is almost as if, in the decade that ended in the bloodshed of the French Revolution, Fashion had one last crazy, exuberant party before settling down and following the austere dictates of the new Republic. Despite being the architect of The Terror, Robespierre, the ‘Sea-green Incorruptible’ in Carlyle’s phrase, was a terrific dandy.
Although female dress recovered and became yet more feminine and frilly and fussy from the Romantic period, male clothing settled into a well-tailored sobriety throughout the 19th century. Men’s dress was never, sadly, to regain its Ancien Regime peacock flair; it was now democratic, not aristocratic – a fundamental difference in intent.
But back to the 1780s…
Here are two typical silk day dress coats from the decade in the Wallis Collection, one of them at least is French. Notice how in both examples the vertical lines serve to accentuate the long, lean, youthful look that the last quarter of the century desired.
In weaving, a single throw of the shuttle that carries a bobbin of weft thread is called a “shot”. So-called “shot silk” is a fabric created when the vertical warp and horizontal weft thread differ in colour. Known in France as changeant (changeable) silk, it changes colours when seen in different angles and lighting conditions. Beautiful in sunlight and candlelight.
This coat is made of silk with two-colour silk-satin stripes. The dominant colour is an orangey-red warp but with undertones of a golden-brown weft. The coat seems never to have been worn and I recently discovered two spare buttons, yoked together, in the pocket. This green coat from 1785 is also of silk but carries three-colour silk-satin stripes – an expensive textile. Furthermore the gentleman instructed his tailor to give him the fashionable ‘Mariners’ cuff.
Louis XVI’s zebra proved a source of inspiration for textile designers: “Coats and waistcoats imitate the handsome creature’s markings as closely as they can. Men of all ages have gone into stripes from head to foot, even to their stockings” (Mercier quoted in Ribeiro’s Dress in Eighteenth Century Europe). For hundreds of years fauna and flora had been rich sources of inspiration for embroiderers of clothing and, by the Age of Reason, the more exotic the better. So why not zebra-striped clothing?
I don’t have an example of zebra-inspired clothing but I do have two examples of what at the time were called ‘tyger stripes’. Here is a stunning coat (breeches not shown) that recently entered the Wallis Collection. Although bought at an American auction it had been deaccessioned from a museum collection and is bound to have been made in France circa 1780. God knows what waistcoat he would’ve worn with this ensemble!
And other wild beasts’ natural markings were used for clothing in the decade. I have seen coats and suits in collections made from fabric that, from a distance, looks like a leopard’s spots, although I don’t own an example (yet). Here is a French chine silk coat in my collection, which is also inspired by a tiger’s stripes:
Thanks for reading. I have to close the Wallis Collection now but will display more objects soon. I’m thinking that the subject of my next Blog could be three-hundred years of men’s purses. What do you think?