The Place of Fabrics: Silk

Everyone is aware that silk is a fine fabric.  However, I believe that it was worn by a slightly broader section of society than it is generally represented as.  Lady's maids received cast-off clothes from their mistresses, and even other servants and the lower middle classes could afford second-hand silk clothing.  Women could be scorned for dressing above their station if their silk clothes were deemed too fine, however.

Some types of silk I have come across in advertisements: Taffeta/taffety, lustring/lute-string, alamode ("a sort of silk or taffety"), bridges, Granado, Naples, organzine, pole, satin, sarcenet, syper, Bengal.

(NB: I've also gone through and reformatted the other fabrics posts, so that they (mostly) link to the quoted page, and the quote is a picture of the page rather than a retyped version.)

An advertisement in the Whig Examiner (1710) runs:

Daniel Defoe's The Complete English Tradesman (1726) is a collection of letters of advice for young tradesmen.  In one section, he discusses the way a tradesman's wife should dress.

In a letter from Bellmour to Lysander, near the end of Letters on Various Occasions (Elisabeth Rowe, 1729), the writer explains what he finds when he wanders around a house.

In Daniel Defoe's postscript to Servitude: A Poem (Robert Dodsley, 1729), he again defends the wearing of silk and fine clothes by the less-than-wealthy.

A prologue to a play in The Weekly Amusement (1735) bemoans the fact that women are spending all of their money on expensive clothes.

From a description of France in Geography Anatomiz'd (1735).

An Abridgment of the Publick Statutes (John Cay, 1739) lists, among other things, the laws regarding the importation of cloth, which was heavily legislated at the beginning of the century.

In The German Spy (Thomas Lediard, 1740), a gentleman describes how a woman attempts to seduce him.

In Samuel Richardson's Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), Pamela is writing to her parents in dismay that she cannot return home in the clothing she has been given by Mr. B without arousing comment.

Later, she describes more changes to her wardrobe:

The Scots Magazine (1745) contains an article on the laws against imported India goods. 

Lovelace, the villain of Clarissa (Samuel Richardson, 1748), writes a notice for the paper in order to find Clarissa after she runs away from him.

A maid, Jenny, in The History of Tom Jones (Henry Fielding, 1749), is extremely clever and learns Latin from a schoolmaster.  This causes her neighbors to become jealous, and passions erupt.

Eventually she comes before the housekeeper, and confesses (falsely).

 In The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (Eliza Fowler Haywood, 1751), the heroine's adoptive sister goes to the mercer and has the mantua-maker come to make her some new clothes.

John Hill notes, as an aside, in The Adventures of Mr. George Edwards, A Creole (1751), that clothes make the woman.

In Henry Fielding's Amelia (1751), the hero stops a thieving young servant.

In "Henrietta," in The Critical Review (1758), a beautiful young woman enters a public coach and transfixes the other travelers.

A woman advertises for a runaway young lady in what sounds more like a novel than real life, printed in the Annual Register (1759).

When Susannah, a maid, learns that her mistress's son may be dead in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Laurence Sterne, 1759), she immediately imagines that her mistress will give up all of her fine clothing when she goes into mourning.

In essay sixteen from The Idler (1761), the author describes a man whose business is booming.

Thomas Joel wrote humorously about occurrences in country churches that he considered bad mannered and indecent in Poems and Letters in Prose (1766).

In The Polite Lady (1769), a collection of letters of advice for young women, the author describes one that she finds admirable.

The author of "A Fortune with a Wife no ungenerous Demand in a Husband" (The London Magazine, 1770) defends men who wish to be assured of a reasonable dowry in their future wives.

More (probably exaggerated) complaints about maids dressing as well as their mistresses appear in The Monthly Miscellany of 1774.

A dentist in a story from The Weekly Miscellany (1776) explains where he has procured the teeth to put in another man's jaw.

A woman who was tried at the Bailey was described in The Gentleman's Magazine (1777).

The first printing of Sheridan's School for Scandal (1777) lists the costume of each character.


In An Introduction to Merchandize (Robert Hamilton, 1779), cotton's price is directly contrasted with silk's:

Samuel Peters tells an unlikely-sounding anecdote about the practices of Weathersfield, CT, in A General History of Connecticut (1782).

In A Vindication of Gen. Richard Smith (Joseph Price, 1783), the author notes the change in dress from the time when people commonly wore linen and stuff (and perhaps cotton garters).

According to The Life of Mrs. Bellamy (extracted in The Annual Register, 1787), when she met the Duchess of Queensberry, that lady gave her some advice.

A section of the poem "A Country Conversation Piece" in The County Magazine (1787) treats on the silk clothing of a country miss.

A young woman in "The Little Actress" (The Lady's Magazine, 1789) works out what she will wear to appear in a play.

Mary Tyler recollects, in Grandmother Tyler's Book (1925; the section of her memoir is dated 1789), the clothing of a family of her acquaintance in New York.
There was one circumstance in that family, Mr. Thompson's, I mean, which I often think of since; it was the paucity of the young ladies' wardrobes compared with the present time.  Each of them had one silk dress for parties, one white muslin for afternoons, and one calico for morning dress.  These were all I saw during the nine months I terried there.  Dining parties were frequent, and Miss Thompson was always invited when Mrs. Gerry [her sister] was, and then she generally wore her own dress, which was a dark sea-green gown, with a long trail, with a tight waist, and the skirt of the dress plaited almost all behind, that is, coming forward only to her hips, and tastefully trimmed.  This was worn over a rich white watered lutestring skirt, flounced with three flounces of softer gauze, trimmed and looped up with bows of ribbon the color of the dress.  There was a white stomacher to the dress tastefully trimmed with deep ruffled cuffs of silk, and lace ones inside.  It was a very elegant dress, and set off her fine figure, tall and majestic, to great advantage.  She wore kid gloves or lace if she chose.  Helen's dress was much less elaborate.  She was just beginning to go into company, and sometimes wore some of her sister Gerry's dresses to the balls and assemblies.  Her dress was a lilac-colored lutestring, made plain for the mode.
In The Statistical Account of Scotland (1791), Sir John Sinclair addresses the fact that servants can afford to dress well.

In an article on the modern tradesman in The Lady's Magazine (1792), the author describes the tradesman's wife's dress at a dinner party.

In a letter from Fanny Burney to a Mrs. Locke in 1793 (Diary and Letters of Madame D'Arblay), she describes a socially pretentious family who are hoping to have a French top-captain pay a call.  At last he comes:

"An Account of the Journey ... of the Princess Caroline of Brunswick, and of the Marriage Ceremony ..." in The Universal Magazine (1795) describes the princess's traveling dress.


  1. Yes I think far too many people have the notion that only the upper class dressed in silk. I reenact in Illinois near St. Louis at a French fort that served as protection for several French villages, and even though the area was settled by farmers and trappers and their wives, silk gowns are listed in several inventories from the early part of the 18th century! And this was as far as you could get from civilization at the time but they were asking for silk shoes, ribbons and handkerchiefs to be sent up from New Orleans! Clearly creature comforts an finery were high on the list for even the low people on the totem pole in the 1700s.

    1. That's very interesting! I should find out if there are inventories like that around here, they could be quite helpful.


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