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A Dress of Spitalfields Silk

May 26, 2010
by the gentle author

In 1752, when Ann Fanshawe was twenty-eight years old, her father Crisp Gascoyne was appointed as Lord Mayor of London, and became the first incumbent to take residence in the newly built Mansion House. Since Margaret, her mother, had died back in 1740, it fell upon Ann to assume the role of Lady Mayoress and this spectacular dress of Spitalfields silk, which was purchased by the Museum of London from one of her descendants in 1983, is believed to have been made to be worn just once, upon the great occasion.

Born in 1724, Ann was the eldest daughter of Crisp Gascoyne of Bifrons House in Barking, marrying Thomas Fanshawe of Parsloes Manor in Dagenham at the age of twenty-one. In 1752, when she stepped out as Lady Mayoress, Ann had three children, John six years old, Susanna five years old and Ann four years old. Ten years later, Ann died at the birth of her fourth child Mary, in 1762. Parsloes Manor no longer exists but “The History of the Fanshawe family” by H.C. Fanshawe published in 1927 records this couplet engraved upon one of the windows there by Ann & Thomas.“Time ‘scapes our hand like water from a sieve, We come to die ere we come to live.”

Becoming Lord Mayor of London was an auspicious moment for Ann’s father (who had been Master of the Brewer’s Company in 1746) and he saw his eldest daughter step out in a silk dress that was emblematic of his success. The design contains images of hops and barley interwoven with flowers spilling from silver cornucopia, alternating with anchors and merchants’ packs in silver, all upon a background of white silk threaded with silver. It was a dress designed to be seen by candlelight and the effect of all this silver thread upon white silk, in a dress trimmed with silver lace, upon his eldest daughter adorned with diamonds, was the physical embodiment of Gascoyne’s momentous achievement. To crown it all, H.C. Fanshawe describes a lost portrait of Ann, “which shows her to have been strikingly handsome.”

As the Covent Garden Journal of 3rd November 1752 reported: “The Appearance at Guildhall, on Thursday last, was very noble, particularly that of the Ladies, many of whom were extremely brilliant, a Circumstance which in too great a Measure lost its Effect, their being mixed with an uncommon Crowd of Company… The Ball about ten o’Clock was opened by Mrs. Fanshaw (as Lady Mayoress, who made a most splendid Figure) …”

As everyone in Spitalfields knows, the Huguenot weavers here excelled at creating silk, both in their technical finesse and elegance of design. Such was the skilful incorporation of the expensive silver and coloured threads in the cloth for Ann Fanshawe’s dress that they were only used where they were visible, with very little wasted upon the reverse. According to the American critic, Andrea Feeser, the dye used for the blue flowers was rare indigo from South Carolina, where Ann’s brother-in-law Charles Fanshawe was stationed as a Rear-Admiral and had access to the indigo dye.

When Natalie Rothenstein, the authoritative scholar of Spitalfields silk, wrote to the curator at the Museum of London in July 1983 about the dress, she authenticated the fabric as being of being of Spitalfields manufacture, but also could not resist declaring her distaste for the design.“I am sure that the dress is Spitalfields and indeed the floral style is just right for the date 1752-3. I am sure too, that the design is unique – created for one rich lady. The bales and anchors ought to refer to a merchant, while the ears of corn and horn of plenty reveal the prosperity he brought to the city as well as his family’s execrable taste.”

Commonly, silks were woven in lengths of cloth sufficient for several dresses, but in this instance the design was likely to have been made solely for this garment. A customer bought a design from a mercer and six months was the lead time for the weaving of the silk cloth, which could have been made up into a dress in little more than a week. Natalie Rothenstein describes the chain of transactions thus, “silk was generally imported by a silk merchant. It was then sold through a broker to a silkman who, in turn, supplied the master weaver with the qualities and quantities required. Either the silkman or the master weaver had it thrown and dyed. The master weaver would normally obtain an order from a mercer and instruct his foreman. The latter, based at the master weaver’s warehouse, would measure out the warp for the journeyman, who returned it when completed.” Ann would never have met the people who made her dress and they may never have seen her in it.

When the culmination of this process arrived, once the silk had been designed, the dress manufactured and the great day came, Ann had to get dressed. No underwear was worn, just a shift of fine linen, probably with some lace at the neck, then silk stockings and garters to hold them up. Next came her stays of whalebone, that we should call a corset, and then her hooped petticoat, also with whalebone and cross ties to maintain the oval shape of the dress and not allow it to become circular. At last, Ann could put on her dress, which came in three pieces, first the skirt, then the stomacher followed by the bodice. There were no hooks or buttons to hold it all together, so pins would be used and a few discreet stitches where necessary. Lace sleeve ruffles were added and a lappet upon her head. Finally, diamonds upon the stomacher and around Ann’s neck, plus shoes and a fan completed the outfit.

Now Ann was ready for her appearance, except her dress was two metres wide and she could not walk through a door without turning sideways. Getting in and out of a carriage must have been a performance too. Ann was fully aware that her dress was not designed for sitting down but fortunately she did not to expect to sit.

What can we surmise about Ann’s experience in this dress? I was surprised at the workmanlike manufacture of the garment which was sewn together quickly and presented no finish upon the inside. The quality and expense of the materials was what counted, the tailoring of the dress was not of consequence. Almost like a stage costume, it was a dress to create an effect.

Maybe Ann was the apple of her father’s eye and she was proud to become his angel that incarnated the supremacy of their family in the City of London, or maybe she felt she was tricked out like a tinsel fairy in a ridiculous dress with symbols of brewing woven into the fabric, tolerating it all the for sake of her dad? No doubt her husband Thomas Fanshawe was present at the occasion, but maybe her children, John, Sukey and Nancy (as she called them) stayed behind at Parsloes Manor and did not see their mother wearing the famous dress. Did Crisp Gascoyne, her father, get sentimental on the night, shedding a tear for his wife Margaret and wishing that she had lived to see the day?

We shall never know the truth of these speculations, but everyone wants to have their moment of glory – looking their best at a significant occasion in life – and I should like to think that, on the one day she wore it, this dress delivered that moment for Ann Fanshawe.

You can see Ann Fanshawe’s dress for yourself at the Museum of London

21 Responses leave one →
  1. Annemarie Leather permalink
    February 5, 2011

    I am in northern Germany and am currently researching topics to include in a lecture on ‘Secret London’, which I am to give in the local town hall at the end of the month. I have just discovered your site and have fallen in love with it. Your doing the most wonderful job with your articles. Congratulations! Keep up the good work!
    Annemarie, Husum, Germany

  2. Sarah Catterall permalink
    April 7, 2011

    Do we know which silk weavers created the silk for the dress. I am related to the Rondeaus of Spitalfields. I Would love to know if it was their work ??

  3. Diana White permalink
    July 9, 2011

    Could Sarah Catterall mail me about her family history and what she knows about it?

  4. Rondeau "Ron" Baker, Whitby Ontario Canada permalink
    October 27, 2011

    Hi Sarah and Diana

    I am a great great great great grandson of John Rondeau The Sexton of Christ Church, Spitalfields, London from 1761 to 1790.

    I can provide information about our Rondeau family (originally from Sedan, France). Please send an e-mail to me and let me know your connection with our Rondeau family.

    Thank you
    Rondeau Baker
    ronandger@rogers.com

  5. November 9, 2011

    I too am a descendant of Hugenot silk weavers, the family name bein g Nadal.

    If anyone has any info on this na me, I would be thrilled.

  6. Ree permalink
    November 26, 2011

    Such a marvelous dress…Surprised and pleased it has come down through the years so well…

  7. Elaine Napier permalink
    May 5, 2012

    I’ve seem this dress at the Museum of London and it is quite astonishingly wide. My 3 and 4 times grandfathers were East End orris weavers, the people who wove with silver and gold thread to make the kind of decorative trimming on this dress. So interesting to see an example of the kind of work they did close to.

    Family legend has it that the company made trimmings for the king (presumably a George), and the company remained in existence until 1921, when my great-grandfather died. They had warehouses in Knightrider Street in the City for a while and, in 1882, my great-grandfather’s ostler, who was carrying the employees’ wages to the warehouse, ran off with the money and got hopelessly drunk!

    Thank you for the wonderful things you find and write about.

  8. May 5, 2012

    Ohhhhh ! Thank you! This was a good read, indeed. I am sharing this with many of my pals in vintage and fashion.
    For us this depiction of a dress meant to be “seen by candlelight” is extreme inspiration.
    I wish for more of this kind of story.

  9. Mary Moulder permalink
    April 23, 2013

    Hello,
    I too am a Rondeau from Brick Street. Rondeau Baker and Karen Martin are my Canadian cousins and wonderful researchers. We all come from Jean John Rondeau, The Sextant. His branch arrived to the USA and moved onto Oakville, Ontario, and are very worthy of your contact. My Rondeau is Rev. William Rondeau of Rondeau Island, the brother of Phoebe Rondeau Baker, of Ontario. Rondeau island is in the Ohio River, and under Livingston Co, Kentucky. There Rev, Rondeau, The Backwoods Preacher, served as a circuit-riding minister along with a Presbyterian minister. in the woods of western Kentucky. He bought the island so his wife, Ann Arkenstall Rondeau, could be safe at home with their children and farm for their needs. The log house is no longer there. His daughter, Mehitabel Rondeau, married William M. Davis, and lived her life in Livingston Co, Ky. His son, Charles A.F. Rondeau returned to Market Drayton, England and at his death willed his estate to be divided among Mehitabel’s sons, all of whom fought for the South in the Civil War. Their uncle was greatly saddened by the war, and returned to live out his life with his wife quietly in England.

  10. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    April 23, 2013

    Gentle author – what a story! I’d be really keen to have some idea of the cost for making this dress, way back then. So, it isn’t just today, that some folk pay extraordinary amounts for items of clothing – meant to impress, of course.

    Last week I heard of a friend’s future daughter-in-law’s girl-friend, buying the couple, for an engagement gift (!) a A$1295.00 pair of shoes for her to wear to the party. I was horrified but this dress must surpass my “shoes” story by an enormous value!

    Just delightful too to check your Comments when families link up and learn more of their forebears.

    Carolyn

  11. January 6, 2014

    fascinated by the dress and how it was worn. also love the people your story has brought together through related weavers. thank you

  12. May 19, 2015

    So pleased to have clicked through the link from today’s post on weaving in Spitlefields. To learn so much about the life and society of one noble woman through the story of her dress. I hope it’s still on display at the Museum of London and if so look forward to seeing it on my next visit.

  13. Joanne Evans permalink
    September 4, 2015

    While reading a book written by Laura Frantz, she spoke of a dress being made of Spitalfield silk. Since I had never heard of it, I googled it and found all these wonderful stories. What a treat! Ann Fanshawe must have been quite a beauty in this exquisite dress. I could only dream of such!

  14. Barbara permalink
    March 14, 2016

    My grandparents were named Harper. Grandmother in census as hatmaker and her brother as a walking stick maker – in fact my father had a walking stick with a sword inside it, that I guess he made. Does anybody have same name in family tree.
    Alice Ada, Polly, Annie and others.

  15. Georgina Briody permalink
    March 15, 2016

    After the War, my father’s sister, Mabel Reader, nee Burnham, lived in Dagenham for many years. The family would often go to the Fanshawe Public House and I often wondered how it got its name, now I know! I believe the name lives on in at least one community centre. The dress is still displayed in the Museum of London and is beautiful.

    My father’s mother was a Hurlin who lived around the Bow and Spitalfields areas.

  16. Jane England permalink
    April 8, 2016

    Thank you so much for your insights and research into Spitalfields Life. I live in New Zealand and these snatches of the life of my ancestors are so valued. Thanks to the posting of a comment on one of your pages I made connections with another person from the huguenot Vendome line. My family was connected to this area of London until my grandmother met my grandfather – a New Zealander – when he served during the First World War and later joined him in New Zealand. She sent him a wistful postcard from London imagining him dipping his toes into the sea and he sent a friend over with the engagement ring. I find this dress exquisite and feel rather sad that Natalie Rothestein could be quite so dismissive of the taste of the owner – the elaborate twisting of heritage symbols make it a historical treasure. I will visit the dress during one of my next rare visits to London and in the meantime rely heavily on your pages for this valuable connection into Spitalfields Life.

  17. May 2, 2016

    I live in Australia.

    I have a Huguenot connection as well. If I could translate Afrikaans Dutch I could learn a lot more about my family.

    The direct line goes back to 1590 when Sara Vercolge (Vercoille and many more variants) was born in London (Spitalfields specifically). Sara married a direct ancestor of mine, who was also born in 1590. His name was John Smart(e). The Smart Vercolge ancestors eventually came to Australia by boat. Matilda Smart was my great grandmother.

    If only I lived in England I would be able to research the family fully. I am hoping someone may have some information.

    Thank You
    Carolyn

  18. May 2, 2016

    Sorry – I forgot to add that Sara’s family fled their homeland because of the persecution of the Huguenots. I know for certain that two of my ancestors never made it and were both publicly executed.

    So the Spitalfields connection with Vercolje : Vercolge reminded me that Sara’s father was also a silk merchant.

  19. Dorothy Unrau permalink
    May 26, 2016

    Just stumbled upon your wonderful site and really enjoyed reading all the comments. And what a magnificent dress!! My maiden name is Armes and my father said he thought our ancestors where Huguenots. Does anyone have any information on this name? Thank you

  20. June 20, 2016

    There is a dress very similar to this in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I shall have to check to see if it is the same one. Evidently the Rijksmuseum has a fashion exhibition in progress.

  21. maureen permalink
    April 5, 2017

    My grandmother’s family name was Lamy and they were silk weavers in Spitalfields. My father always claimed that the Huguenot community presented Queen Victoria with a bolt of royal blue silk for her trousseau. He told me he had seen a small piece of this silk in his mother’s possession as a small boy but, by the time he was old enough to appreciate its significance, it had disappeared.
    Is there any documented truth in this story of the presentation?

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