Thursday, January 10, 2013

Chintz Gowns at the V&A

In an earlier post, I mentioned there were some beautiful chintz gowns in the India rooms at the V&A. There were three on display, two of which I have seen before. The third, the embroidered gown on the right in the picture above, was new to me. I think it's my favorite of the three. It has tons of darning and patching, which I always love to investigate.

First, a printed fabric from South-east India, made up in the 1770's. 

I'm curious to whether the white "stomacher" is original to the dress. It didn't say. 

It is interesting that of the panels, which hook across the bodice, five are printed and the sixth (middle left) is all white. Was this a later repair?

In the picture below, you can't really see anything, but in person, I had a view of the inside of the hem, inside the dress. The few inches I could see were a different print that the outside. I don't know if the skirt is lined, the hem is lined or the reverse of the fabric was a different print.

The print looked like a beige or tan ground, with a small floral print, in a darker shade.

The hem of the dress is encased in net, which I'm assuming is a museum thing. Anyone know?

This next dress, my favorite of the three, is not printed, but embroidered in a very fine chain stitch. You can't tell it's not printed until you get right up to it.

This dress has a ton of piecing and patching and darning. One reason for the piecing: the fabric dates from the 40's and the dress from the 80's. Perhaps the fabric was a dress in the 40's and remade in the 80's, accounting for a lot a of the piecing. The darning? Well worn, I guess.

The center front, shown below is pretty much riddled with some stitch or patch or piece. The arms as well, further down are pieced quite a bit. Unfortunately, as all museums have dim light (good for the exhibits, bad for the photos), the detail is hard to make out.

The third gown was made up in Holland, while the first two were english. This gown also has some interesting piecing across the front of the bodice, as you will see further down.

The fabric is a painted chintz, over printed with little gold dots. The sign below explains a little further how that was accomplished.

Below, you can see some of the piecing across the front. You can also see how one side has tabs and the other does not. When this dress was put away, were the tabs coming off or being put on?


  1. I love the chain-stitch embroidered gown! The patches in the front look like repairs for pin-hole weakened spots, don't they?

    The dress with the white stomacher has been photographed several times for fashion books over the years. I'm pretty sure that the stomacher is a modern replacement, though I'm not certain about the singular white tab. The gown has occasionally been displayed in the past with a kerchief wound through the tabs on the front and no stomacher.

    1. I was thinking the same thing about the pins holding the front!

      I have seen this dress before. I like when the kerchief is put through the tabs. There was a blue dress at The Met's Dangerous Liason's exhibit that was shown that way. Very pretty!

      I wonder, was it just worn right over the stays like that? No stomacher?

    2. I imagine it would have been worn with a stomacher, but there are at least a few 18th century English paintings that show visible stays in the open bodices of 18th century gowns. Hallie Larkin had one on her blog a few months ago, but I can't remember precisely when. So maybe both? Throw in the kerchief look and this suddenly becomes a really bloody versatile dress!

  2. The net is classic conservation technique to protect the hem while it is on display. I suspect as well that the stomacher and the additional white tab are also the work of the V&A's conservators. You can probably contact the conservation department to check, it should be in their records. Lovely photos! The third dress is especially stunning with the gold dots! I wonder how they were applied to the fabric?

    1. It said something like the gold dots were applied over the already printed fabric with the aid of gum arabic.

      I think I also heard recently that gum arabic was a period way of helping fabric from unraveling, such as on pinked trim. I forget where I heard/read that, though.

  3. These could have been gowns that were worn by a wealthier woman originally, then passed down or given to a servant, or even sold at one of the rag markets (though probably not the latter). That would account for the mending and signs of wear. Women who could afford to wear the latest fashions in those days would not wear a gown past a season, and often gave them to their maids. These look fashionable enough to have had that kind of use.

    1. All good points! In the 18th century, the fabrics were so precious that often, no matter your social status, gowns would be reworked to accommodate changing fashion. Often, even the most sumptuous gown would be pieced together to make use of every bit of the precious and expensive fabric. There wasn't a stigma about piecing then.

      It seems that it's more of a 19th century idea to show your wealth by the amount of fabric you can afford for a dress. This is part of the reason you see a lot of big scale prints and plaids in mid 19th century gowns. They show, very obviously, when the pattern isn't lined up properly and there wasn't enough fabric.

  4. i am glad to see a site like this with so much detail and information on these dresses,i recently visited the museum and found this by accident on my way to the fashion section, i was in awe of the design and my jaw dropped open as i read the design was actually stitched not printed, it is truely worth a visit just to see this display. kim