The silver tissue dress

9 September 2011

Ah, Friday. Let’s look at something beautiful and very, very special as we ease into the weekend. This week has just flown by hasn’t it? Or at least, it has here. It might have been really slow for you. It’s a funny thing, time.

This gown is the oldest piece in the Bath Fashion Museum and is extra special not just because of its gorgeousness because it is one of a very few complete seventeenth century dresses that are still in existence. Let’s just think about that – this dress, a fragile thing in itself, has managed to survive for around three hundred and fifty years.

The gown is known as the ‘Silver Tissue Dress’ because the fabric softly glimmers in the most luxuriant manner thanks to the warp being silk and the weft silver metallic thread. The warp is the main thread that is used to weave a fabric, while the weft is the thread that is drawn through and which can therefore be of  a less strong and more luxe type.

‘The bodice is lined with linen; the sleeves with coarse cotton; the skirt hem with linen; and the front panel with silk. The bodice is heavily boned with a piece of stiff brown paper or parchment added for reinforcement at the centre back. The bodice laces down the centre back and has an off the shoulder décolletage bound with cream tape and large puff sleeves, slashed at the front. It forms a deep point at the centre front, peplum slashed and each tab is bound with tape. The skirt has a straight panel centre front from which it is pleated either side towards the back. It has a wool-lined pocket at the right side.

 It is decorated with applied parchment lace; a silk bobbin lace enclosing strips of parchment.

It’s incredible how much construction and, yes, engineering goes into these gowns that look as delicate and decorative as a butterfly wing isn’t it? While the artistic vogue of this period was to be depicted in a sleepy eyed sultry haze with gorgeous shimmering silks and satins draped beautifully but somewhat pointlessly about one’s person, there’s also plenty of examples of women wearing dresses very similar to this one in their portraits.

It’s not known who originally wore this grand and amazing dress although they were clearly a woman of some standing at the Restoration court of Charles II, perhaps his sister Henriette, who was just sixteen when her brother mounted the throne and she paid her first visit to England since being forced to flee as a toddler during the Civil War. This could fit as due to the small size of the gown, it seems likely that it was made for a young woman or girl, possibly for a ball or her wedding or maybe for a court event. Whatever the occasion, she must surely have been the cynosure of all eyes as she walked into the room, her beautiful silver dress glimmering softly in the candlelight. Did she steal shy looks around the splendid company as she slowly approached the King or was she confident, bold and fully aware of the dazzling power of her outfit?

The silver tissue dress is on permanent display at the Fashion Museum in Bath. Many thanks to everyone there for sending me the extra information for this post.