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27 Oct 20

Woven air: Reviving a regency dress


When this lovely example of Regency fashion entered the collection in 2018, the NGV Textiles Conservation team went scrambling for their history books and Jane Austen novels. This essay will explore their discovery of Regency fashion and the process of preparing historical garments for display.

Handstitched in whisper-thin white muslin, this recent acquisition to the NGV epitomises the refined elegance of British Regency fashion. Characteristic of this era (c.1815), it is cut with a fitted high-waisted bodice and floor length skirt. Although simple to behold, this dress represents a radical and important shift in fashion history and was made during a turbulent time in European culture and society. This dress as a material object worn by a real person, gives direct insight into this era.

Since the 1700’s a fascination with antiquities and classical aesthetics had been emerging in Britain. This influence is reflected in the form-fitting bodice and flowing Grecian style drapes at the back of the Regency dress. The absence of restraining undergarments and the emergence of the ‘natural’ body echo these classical ideals. Heavy, excessive fabric and ornamentation, popular during the previous Rococo era, are replaced by understated cotton, signalling the shifting social values set in motion since the French Revolution. Shockingly for the 1800s social norms, the form of women’s legs could be seen for the first time in hundreds of years. Kashmir shawls, a popular accessory of this era, and the muslin fabric itself, tell the tale of increased global travel and communications, colonisation and mechanisation. Unassuming as it seems to the modern eye, this dress signifies a departure from the old world and a bold step towards modernisation.

What is most noticeable about the dress is the fineness and translucency of the cloth. Despite not being entirely suitable for the changeable English climate and being rather expensive, ’Indian cotton muslin’ was the very height of fashion in the Regency period. Jane Austen could not help but make fun of the obsession that fashion-conscious ladies had with muslin fabric when she published Northanger Abbey in 1817:

It would be mortifying to the feeling of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire, how little it is biased by the textile of their muslin.

This incredibly fine and almost transparent plain-weave cloth had been hand-woven for thousands of years in India and imported into Britain in increasingly large quantities in the eighteenth century. However, by the early nineteenth century, technological advances enabled ‘India cotton’ to be woven on an industrial scale in Britain. The trade of cotton so relied upon in India to sustain their economy, all but collapsed. In Britain, the centuries old home-based weaving industry was so threatened by mechanisation that rebellions sprung up to fight it.

The fabric was described in its day as ‘woven wind’ or ‘evening dew’. It was so delicate that nowadays nothing comparable is commercially available from industrialised machines. Under magnification it is astounding how much ‘air’ has been woven into the cloth. Each woven warp and weft are extremely fine, measuring a miniscule 1/8 of a millimetre thick. When these gossamer-like cotton fibres are woven with much space between them, the result is “literally” woven air. The original linen stitching on the dress complements the fineness of the fabric, with each intricate stitch measuring less than a millimetre in length.

A distinguishing feature of this dress is the unique embroidery decorating the front skirt and entire hemline. By the 1810s, the simple white muslin dress was starting to be embellished with decoration, reflecting a move away from the Neo-classical to a more Romantic-influenced style. This dress demonstrates two differing techniques, which have been implemented to convey the theme of the embroidery: French knots in the centre of the flowers; and long and short stitches for the remaining embroidery. The vibrant embroidery has been undertaken with two differing wool threads. The original embroidery is stitched with a fine single-twisted yarn measuring about 0.5 millimetres wide. Perhaps because of its delicacy, some of this embroidery has broken and worn away with time. At some time in the dress’s history another thicker embroidery yarn was used to embellish the stitching and replace lost embroidery. This yarn is double the thickness of the first, as it is 2-ply construction and about 1 millimetre in width.

In 2019 NGV textile conservators examined the dress noting several alterations which greatly compromised its appearance. Most noticeable was a complete lining of heavy white cotton fabric which had been stitched inside the dress. Additionally, several repairs, restorations and linings had been carried out with a transparent but ill-matching yellow silk organza. Although visually upsetting, these alterations had not caused any damage to the dress. In fact, these repairs and linings might well have been responsible for the dress’s survival, as wearing such a fragile dress without the support of lining or petticoats would have inevitably caused damage.

The linings and restorations were unlikely to be original to the dress, however textile conservators, where possible, use knowledge of technological developments through history to help determine timelines for any possible alterations. The existence of machine stitched seams used to construct the heavy cotton lining is a classic example of this. As the sewing machine was not used until the 1860s, the lining must post-date this period. Developments in weaving and thread construction are more subtle but equally useful dating tools. When the selvages of the fabrics used to line the dress were observed under a microscope, it was seen that both were woven on shuttle-less looms and therefore could not have been available until the second quarter of the nineteenth century. 1JJ Vincent, Shuttleless looms, The Textile Institute, 1980. Additionally, although cotton thread used to stitch the lining was beginning to be employed in dressmaking in 1815, the threads used in the dress had a ply and twist which were not available at that time. 2Philip A Sykas, ‘Re-threading: Notes towards a History of sewing Threads in Britain’, in Mary Brooks (ed.), Textiles Revealed: Object Lessons in Historic Textile and Costume Research, Archetype, London, 2000, pp. 123-136. These findings supported the theory that the lining was added many years after the construction of the original dress.

After consultation with NGV Fashion and Textile curators, the decision was made to remove the linings and restorations and return the dress to its original transparent appearance. Textile conservators removed the yellow silk linings and the restoration shoulder panel, recording their existence with photography and archiving the material removed in the dress’s conservation file. The only repair fabric found to be transparent enough to use with the dress was an un-dyed silk crepeline. The weave of any other available fabrics appeared crude and opaque when compared to the gossamer-like muslin. Using silk crepeline, the shoulder panel was carefully remade and stitched into place, ensuring that the linen gathering cord was still functional. Areas of damage were carefully patched with silk crepeline, using a stitched technique and an almost invisible polyester thread.

Display gives life to fashion, enhancing the sculptural element of the garment and inviting the viewer to understand and imaginatively engage with the artwork. Once conservation was undertaken to stabilise the garment and return the construction of the dress to its original appearance, it was evaluated to determine the most appropriate display technique. Display of such a garment requires special care and consideration due to the extreme delicacy of the fabric and its age. Historical garments often require display underpinnings which are fundamentally simulations of original undergarments.

Underpinnings have multiple purposes: they support the integrity of the garment by providing structure, allowing it to rest without strain and re-creating the correct silhouette which orientates the dress historically. Importantly, underpinnings also highlight key design elements, in this case the flowing drapery at the back of the dress and the embroidery details. Measuring and observing the nuances of the garment reveals information about how it needs to fit on a mannequin and what supports are required. The NGV has a suite of historical Kyoto Fashion Institute (KCI) mannequins. For display of this dress, an early nineteenth century empire-line mannequin was chosen. This mannequin, designed to simulate the Regency epoch, has a high, divided, full bust and slender back, enabling the creation of the correct silhouette.

Underpinnings designed for this dress are light and sheer to highlight the embroidery and compliment the ethereal nature of both muslin fabric and silhouette. The tube petticoat is a structure created to simulate legs on torso-only mannequins, as without it even the lightest dress will cave inwards and appear lifeless. The delicacy of this tube is achieved using tulle and soft plastic boning, stitched in at the hemline. Two thicknesses of fine lawn create the petticoat, which is cut with the same construction as the original dress, straight at the front and deeply pleated at the back. This underpinning provides enough structure to support the dress and recreate the silhouette yet remains hidden when on display.

Who would have worn such a flimsy, delicate and revealing garment? Although resembling undergarments from a previous era, this dress would have been worn by a respectable woman of means. Portraits and fashion plates of the time show very scantily clad women wearing this fashion, demonstrating the nude or natural aesthetic. Diversity of this style was reflected in the different ways fashion was worn according to age, taste, status and means. Strenuous activities would not have been possible due to the cut of the dress, in particular the fitted bodice and the armholes. The deep set of the armholes along with the curved back seams achieved the highly fashionable slender back of the garment, but also restricted arm movement.

Correct attire, appearance and respectability were intertwined in polite society. Such finely woven white muslin would have required care both in wearing and laundering. The laundering was a skilled task undertaken by household staff or a costly external laundry service. Assistance would also have been required when dressing due to the fine nature of the securing strings and the social requirements to change outfits throughout the day. It required hours, and many people, to look so natural and effortless. There are numerous areas on the dress that have been skilfully darned. Although hard to determine when the darning was undertaken or by whom, it reveals the high value of this dress to its owner, and the care required to maintain it.

The Textile Conservation team marvelled that such a delicate dress survived in such beautiful condition, despite its use over at least two centuries. Perhaps the high importance Regency ladies placed on ‘India muslin’ fabric, which so amused Jane Austen, contributed at least in part to the survival of this wonderful piece.

Ellen Doyle, Textiles Display Specialist, and Kate Douglas, Conservator of Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria.

Notes

1

JJ Vincent, Shuttleless looms, The Textile Institute, 1980.

2

Philip A Sykas, ‘Re-threading: Notes towards a History of sewing Threads in Britain’, in Mary Brooks (ed.), Textiles Revealed: Object Lessons in Historic Textile and Costume Research, Archetype, London, 2000, pp. 123-136.