In 18th-century Western Europe, prior to the Industrial Revolution, textiles were constructed entirely by hand, making them much more highly valued than the machine-made fabrics of today. Clothing from the period was also assembled by hand, either by specialist tailors or by the wearers themselves, making fabric selection the first—and arguably most important—decision.
The wealthy patrons who bought or commissioned these delicate fabrics chose what to purchase based on several factors, the most important being the quality of the design, technical execution, and type of material. The rest of the population could not afford to buy fine textiles, yet they had a great deal of firsthand knowledge about techniques and materials, as up to one-third were involved in making fabric. This labor-intensive process spanned all levels of society and included many steps—from raising sheep for wool, growing flax for linen, and spinning and dyeing threads to designing patterns, making lace, weaving, embroidering, and block printing—all of which had to be done before the fabric could be sent off to merchants and markets to be sold. The collaborative nature of making fashionable textiles also extended to the global trading network that brought silk from China and cotton and cashmere from the Indian subcontinent.
In the early 18th century, the most fashionable men’s and women’s ensembles were made of richly colored silks and translucent lace, but by the early 1800s lighter cotton textiles, both plain and printed, became more common. The increase in Europe’s taste for cotton textiles gave rise to intense international competition for technical innovation and control of worldwide markets, which produced a wide variety of beautiful fabrics.
In a portrait by Jean Baptiste-François Désoria, Constance Pipelet wears an elegant gown similar to a white cotton muslin dress from about 1800 (above), both simple garments that belie the complex global networks necessary to supply Europeans with imported fabrics like Indian muslin or Chinese silk. Drawing upon the Art Institute’s permanent collection, Fabricating Fashion illuminates the artistry that enabled the creation of these intricate textiles and garments. Presenting these works alongside portraits and prints from the period, this exhibition highlights the rich legacy of their mostly anonymous creators and tells a fuller story of the people who made and wore fashionable textiles in Western Europe between 1700 and 1825.
Image credit: Portrait of Philippe Coypel and His Wife, 1742