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A Dress Of Spitalfields Silk

March 28, 2019
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

11 Responses leave one →
  1. March 28, 2019

    Stunning! Of course the Huguenot weavers created elegant and top quality silk as well – they were the finest group of refugees ever to find a new home in exile. I examined every piece of Huguenot silver that they made in Britain, and later I found bits and pieces of silver as well.

  2. March 28, 2019

    I mean “silk as well”.

  3. Candida Cook permalink
    March 28, 2019

    Beautiful dress. and history: I am curious however that the stomacher and long skirt panels show the pattern cut, losing part of the embroidery. As a bespoke dress of that period, made for a one-off occasion of importance, I would have expected each panel to have been embroidered to fit…unless this was cut from lengths?

  4. March 28, 2019

    Reply to Candida – the pattern pieces were pleated, not cut. Pleats were ubiquitous during this period and the English style court gown (as that’s what this is) were no exception. What I find remarkable about this one is the almost-perfect pattern matching in that pleated back. No mean feat, and notable in an age when pattern matching (as with finished interiors) was not really “a thing”.

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 28, 2019

    Extraordinary dress, amazing workmanship and fabulous colours but it must have been a nightmare to wear!

  6. March 28, 2019

    Thank you for this most fascinating article. For readers who would like a similar story about the international dimensions of the material culture of Spitalfields silk, I recommend the book “Portrait of a Woman in Silk : Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World” by Zara Anishanslin.

  7. gkbowood permalink
    March 28, 2019

    The weight must have been unbelievable- unbearable even! Perhaps, they slipped a stool underneath the vast skirt so she could prop herself up at the very least!

  8. March 28, 2019

    I don’t think this dress is rediculous. Dresses like this were worn at formal state occasions long after they were deemed as fashionable. I think she would have been proud to pay homage to the trade that made her family’s and status – this of course was the time of the growing ‘trade’ class and their progression in to gentry. Portraits of her husband and son are about to go on display at Valence House Museum in a display about Parsloes Manor House.

  9. Jen permalink
    March 28, 2019

    Interesting post, interesting comments!

    I was completely surprised to read ^^ that pattern-matching and interior finishing were not really a “thing” for this time–had the mental image of beautifully tailored garments, so wrong!

    I am curious to see a photo or two of the inside of this garment, but doubt anyone has taken one. Maybe looks like the inside of some of the garments I’ve sewn, ha!

    I wonder if, in addition to the garment being all about the presentation, less interior finishing was done because garments were often picked apart and refashioned, and interior finishing would 1) make deconstruction more time-consuming, and 2) possibly reduce the amount of recovered silk (just thinking about French seams, e.g., requiring a larger seam allowance which is then subject to the ravages of additional stitching, etc)?

    Same for pattern-matching, perhaps, as it wastes so much fabric, especially for large-repeat designs, in addition to being very challenging and time-consuming.

    My Claisse/Leman extended family (no, not THE Leman of Spitalfields silk design, as far as I can tell!) has one extant sample of Spitalfields silk that was passed down, currently in the possession of a descendant in New South Wales. It is a relatively unremarkable floral, not nearly so, er, lively as the exemplar in this post!

  10. Connie Unangst permalink
    March 29, 2019

    I forwarded to all my reenactor friends. I’ve never seen this gown before. It’s lovely, thanks for sharing this Spitalfield treasure. I love part where you explain the insides aren’t finished so great. That’s how I sew my gowns too. Lol

  11. Marcia Howard permalink
    March 29, 2019

    Exquisite and sumptuous – whether you like it or not. I can’t believe it can have been very comfortable to wear. An interesting story

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