Sometimes you’re a jerk without meaning to be, usually because you can’t see past your own limited self. I was that jerk on Friday, when my obsession with a missing package led to unfortunate words with both a supplier and worse, my sweetheart, about an unexpected length of fabric lately arrived from India. Would that my brain would work faster, for by the time I’d figured out what to make of it, the conversation had turned, and an additional 300 miles lay between me and the recipient of my confusion and dismay.
Despite my best intentions and resolve, I am a sentimentalist. This instinct sometimes conflicts with a devotion to honesty, for kindness often lies in elision. Confused? Short story: I don’t wear yellow, but a package arrived Friday with a dress length of printed Indian cotton, red and green flowers on a yellow ground.
“But Kitty,” you say, “Don’t you crave the hideous, the clashing, and the correct? You applaud Our Girl History’s choice of 1770s fashionable pink, though she prefers blue. Yellow is the haute couleur of the 18th century, fashionable everywhere, even in North America. You should leap at the chance to wear it.” (I was not thinking fast at all on Friday evening.) What made me bend my resolve– what will always makes me bend my resolve?
Sentiment, of course, backed by research.
April, that cruel month, brought obsessive searches for Indian cotton print appropriate for the 18th century, as I looked at sample books and extant garments, searching for material to create frankly annoying clothing. Orange and green check with clashing Spencer and bonnet lining isn’t enough: I want to push my representation of the fashion sense of the past closer to truth. People in the past weren’t as matchy-matchy as we are, and their ideas of stylish, attractive, and fashionable were very different from ours. Loud was ladylike, and that’s a style statement I can get behind. Along the way, I ordered fabric in a pink and green (a departure itself) floral print on white ground, yardage now long overdue.
A friend has been dabbling in these same waters, and made up a new gown for Mount Vernon, satisfyingly loud and clashing with our modern sensibilities about the past. Our mutual friend, also at Mount Vernon, assisted her in choosing a dress length for me, and reader, I was confused and lacking when it arrived. But like any good curator in a social history museum, it was the story that got me. How can I resist a gift from a fellow enthusiast in a pattern chosen by my sweetheart, on the grounds that I don’t wear the color? Reader, I cannot.
Think of Cranford, of lengths of dress muslin requested and never received, and the sentiment embodied in that fabric. Think of women in Providence craving an India print gown, of lovers, husbands, sons, ordering dress lengths at trading ports thousands of miles and long months from home. Think of the affection and thoughtfulness embodied in textiles brought back months after they were requested. Complex meaning is woven into that cotton, giving this dress length interpretive meaning before it is even a garment.
Now what? Now I have to decide which century/event this gets made up for: 1812-1817, 1778, 1804, 1768. There are many choices, but with the meaning embedded in the fabric, I’m most inclined to make something I’d wear often– not that this is particularly housekeeper-appropriate.
And about the research you ask? Yes, small floral print on colored ground is documentable to the 18th century. While early and European, here’s an example of an Indian motif translated by Dutch makers for printing in Sweden. Rhode Island merchants traded in the Baltic, so given the early date of this fabric sample, its arrival in North America could predate 1788 and John Brown’s first ship to China and the far east trade. Possible? Yes. Probable? We can have a lively discussion, in which I will point out the Brown’s love of all things French and French translations of bright, small motif print patterns. The printing factories in Sweden ran until 1771 and produced at least two relevant prints. Would my successful Presbyterian farmer have bought something like this for me in New York or Philadelphia? Would I have worn something so bright and loud? Am I overthinking this? Perhaps, but yellow is a new thought for me.
With especially fond thanks to Miss N and Drunk Tailor, to whom I also owe an apology.