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1 Oct 2020

The tale of a silk dress: part 1 – A journey from Canton to Montrose

Written by Vikki Duncan, Curator North
A blue silk dress with a floral pattern hangs from a padded coat hanger in front of a plain grey background. The short sleeves are finished with lace wide cuffs, and the bodice opens slightly at the front.
An 18th-century silk and lace dress
In the form of an imagined diary written by the dress itself, we’ll explore the history of a beautiful blue silk dress over the course of 3 stories.

I do not carry a name and yet I have a great story to tell. I know that, at present, I do not look fit to be seen in polite company but I hear that this is about to change. Until very recently, I was wrapped in layers of soft tissue, laid down with a gentle hand into a deep, dark box, forgotten for so long.

A curator has assigned me a number to give me an identity and to distinguish me from my sister gown, a beauty of the palest pink sprigged* silk (*decorated with a leaf or floral pattern). It seems that my life story has been reduced to just 4 digits for an inventory, and so I want to right the balance and tell my tale.

My story began in a far-off country and brought me to these shores. Many years ago, I was considered beautiful and rare and I was shown to great advantage on the lady I was made for. Later, I seemed to lose favour; I was altered, of course, as most of us are – it is indeed rare for a gown to remain untouched during its lifetime.

In the middle of the 18th century, Europeans coveted Chinese imports and developed a passion for Chinese porcelain, tea, luxury items and silks. These items were known as chinoiserie. Wealthy people throughout Europe prized Chinese silks, which were exported in massive numbers by Spanish, Portuguese and British traders. It was a Scottish gentleman who probably commissioned me for an adored wife, sister or daughter.

European merchants imported thousands of bolts of cloth to make both fashionable gowns of the day and Eastern-style clothing. Textile manufacturers in the north of England learned Chinese dyeing techniques and began printing cloth with Oriental motifs such as pagodas, temples and dragons.

A long vertical panel of turquoise silk with a painted floral design is displayed against a plain grey background.
Length of painted silk, mid-18th century, Chinese, possibly Canton, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I was considered luxurious in the extreme because, whilst printing techniques could be learned and copied, it was difficult to replicate my delicate hand-painted motifs. The subtle boughs and stems that feature green leaves, vibrant flowers and hudie – you know these as butterflies – are almost as vivacious as they were 270 years ago. These astound historians today.

My memory is that I began life as a bolt of pale blue silk onto which were painted these still-life scenes, almost certainly in Guangzhou, in the old Canton province in south China. It was probably a group of women who painted directly onto my silk, as their smaller hands enabled them to wield the brushes deftly. This may have been during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1735–96), during the Qing dynasty (1636–1912).

Next week, find out about my journey to Scotland’s shores, my brief rest in London, and then my travels up to the small port of Montrose. But for now, I must rest.

The conservation of this dress has been made possible through the generous support of the Cedar Trust.

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