The fashionable materials in the Victorian Age
Throughout the years, fashion influenced societies especially the clothing patters. With the voyages of Christopher Columbus, who discovered the West Indies, and Marco Polo, travelled in the Middle East and especially in Antique China, European empires appeared new products.
In fashion, the bug change was in terms of materials in order to design clothes. However, these materials were not widespread during the Renaissance Era but the late 18th century and the Industrial Revolution enabled merchants to sell these materials through the European continent and also in America with the Triangle Trade.
During this period, Victorian fashion became an important matter in the upper classes. Wealthy people tended to spend their money in order to find fancy clothes with rare materials whereas some materials were handmade and the designers needed a lot of time in order to create these materials. Moreover, the result was that these designers did not earn a lot of money.
Silk was well-known in Asia especially in the Antique China for many years. Afterwards the Emperor Justinian sent two monks in order to bring back some silkworm eggs but the big summit was when Marco Polo got back from Asia and shared his stories about his trips.
In the 19th century, it existed two types of silk: the first one had a good quality and the other one had a bad quality. The first one was made in order to resist about dirt, but also it enabled women to maintain a good temperature when they wore the materials. Wet silk could dry much faster if the quality was there. There were some medical proprieties like silk could prevent women from being sick (the material could stop insects and parasites).
The origins of the silk weavers came from the city of Lyons and many lived in the cities of Derby, Dublin, Manchester, Coventry and Macclesfield. About the process of the fabrication of silk, in England, the industry employed a system of home manufacturers. They employed several hundred weavers and each person had his won loom and workshop. However, the climates conditions were not compatible for the culture of the material so they had to import from their colonies like India or Bengal.
In the Victorian era, if people wanted to have a quality about silk, they had to spend a lot of money in order to own. Hence only the upper class could afford this material and this material became a sign of wealth. However, the decline of silk happened when the cotton appeared because they were completely different in terms of production and costs.
Cotton was produced in factories and they required less human labours and also less time in order to sell it whereas silk needed to have more time and more human labours in order to produce it. Therefore, the profitability was more superior in the cotton industry than in the silk industry.
During the 19th century, there were a multitude of new materials which were brought in the Victorian society. It was due to the colonisation of the European countries like France or Great Britain. When these colonies were under their control, some persons travelled through these places in order to learn about their society, their resources, their languages etc. About the lace history, we could distinguish two types of lace which appeared in the 19th century during the Victorian Era. First we will discuss about the English lace and then we will talk about the lace who was and is still produced in the North of France.
- English Lace
The English lace was firstly discovered when the English settlers put their pace in Asia more specifically in India. When they saw this new material, they were fascinated and enhanced. This new discovery was considered as a perfection of this lands. Some samples of this new material were shown in London on a fine pillow. It was coloured with gold and silver and people noticed that there was cotton. Afterwards Great Britain imported this wonderful discovery in the country and it is at that moment when the profession of lace maker was born. In the book written by George Elliot, Mill on the Floss, Maggie received a dress by her aunt and she noticed that the lace would look beautiful on her arms. Here is the passage: « Oh, never mind that, aunt; send us the dress," said Lucy. "I don't mean Maggie to have long sleeves, and I have abundance of black lace for trimming. Her arms will look beautiful. »
In this passage, lace was described as a beautiful material for women dresses. However, the profession of lace makers was not profitable because it was handmade and it needed a lot of time to finish a template.
The main place where lace, which was produced in England, was the city of Nottingham. This city was the leader in the lace market during the 19th century and also this area was well-known. Following that, William of Calverton invented the knitting frame in order to facilitate the work of the lace makers. That is why by the 1840s the production of lace was turning to a point. At first it was supposed to be a domestic industry and turned into an international export hence there was a peak of the production because of the fame of the material.
However, there was some smuggling in the lace market because it existed a competition between the English lace and the lace made in France.
- French lace
The French lace was fashionable in the 16th century during the Renaissance Era. Only the wealthy people like the lords or the ladies could wear lace because they could afford it. When Louis XIV reigned on the country, his minister, Colbert, travelled in Italy and convinced some Venetian lace makers in order to teach people to make. They also built schools in order to speak they know-how. About the way they produce lace makers, it was handmade by thousands of people in their own houses and workshops. However, throughout the years, as the French lace was only bought by the rich persons, there was some smuggling of France. They imported from England because the material could not be commercialised in France. Because of the several wars and embargos between France and England in the 19th century, a lot of lace makers had to flee to France in order to save their business. The demands of lace reached a big peak because women were interested in this materials. So they had to establish some lace fabrics in order to produce it. However, as the numbers of the fabricants increased and the development could not follow the markets, there was a overproduction so the workers smuggled this material: it was called the Luddit Revolt. The increasing numbers of the small production, in the centre of Calais, forced the new fabricants to move close to the city in the neighbourhood of Saint-Pierre-les-Calais. In 1860, Napoleon III made a treaty with the British Prime Minister, Cobden, in order to put some taxes on lace.
Fashion especially the new materials, which were coming from other continents, influenced. These new materials did not influence male fashion but mostly female fashion because women coming from the upper classes had the tendency to be very extravagant and they wanted to have the last new material or the new trend. Hence the birth of the consumption society appeared because it created new needs and also the wealthy women needed to be entertained. The new materials contributed to the history of the Victorian age. Most of them were jobless so they had to find a way to spend time while their men were at their jobs, earning this money in order to buy more and new clothes.
‘Early Victorian Undergarments; an introduction and about slik by R.S Fleming, 2012
‘Lace makers’ by Sandra Byrd, 2015
‘The Lace Market’ by the official tourism website of Nottinghamshire
‘Lace – history of lace-making by hand and machine’
‘The history of silk’, The Silk Association of Great Britain’
‘Silk in England’ by Alison Baird, 2002
The website of the museum of Calais on lace
Figure 1: Handbag, about 1870, England, Velvet and silk.
Figure 2: Bodice and uncut length, France, Jacquard-woven silk.
Figure 3: Collar designed by Josef Storck, Vienna, Raised needle lace.
Figure 4: Wedding Veil, needle and bobbin lace, Brussels.