French silks made in Lyon set the fashion for all Europe in the 18th century. Luxurious patterned silks designed by well-known artists, made of the finest materials (silk and precious-metal thread) and using highly developed production techniques, illustrate the high point of this art form.
One example featured in the current exhibition has a repeating pattern consisting of a conch-shell cornucopia brimming with lilacs and other flowers. Its plant motifs are depicted in the naturalistic style of Jean Revel (1684-1751), the greatest Lyonnais silk designer of his day. Blossoms and leaves are meticulously shaded using colour hatching, a technique that produced a naturalistic three-dimensional effect more painterly than anything seen before in woven textiles. The large scale of the design can be attributed partially to the fact that such complex shading was easier to do on a large surface.
Naturalistic silks of the 1730s show an overwhelming multiplicity and intensity of colour, achieved through the technique of brocading. In this case, a simple tabby ground (the most basic of weaves) is enlivened by brocading wefts in many colours of silk used only in limited areas, where necessary for the design. This technique ensured that the finished textile remained light enough for the wide-skirted, draped-back dress of the period that required many, many metres of fabric.
In contrast to the multicoloured naturalistic plant motifs, the silver conch-shells or rocailles (the scalloped shellwork or rockwork that gave the rococo style its name) emphasize the plant motifs' plasticity and painterly effect. The shells are linked together into asymmetrical serpentine scrolls by means of a lacy silver ribbon; silver thread used throughout adds the touch of luxe and sparkle required in formal court dress of the period.
This panel of silk comes from the back of a woman's sacque dress or robe a la francaise, which had back folds falling freely from the shoulders and ending in a train. Composed of full widths of silk seamed together with minimal cutting, this style of dress allowed for later re-use of the costly fabric. In the 18th century, the cost of fashionable clothing lay almost entirely in the material: tailoring and sewing was still an elementary business and consumed only a small fraction of the total cost.--A. L.