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A Dress Of Spitalfields Silk

March 25, 2024
by the gentle author

If you are at a loose end over the forthcoming Easter holidays and looking for an excuse for a walk, why not join me for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF SPITALFIELDS on Easter Thursday 28th March at 2pm or THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF THE CITY OF LONDON on Easter Monday 1st April at 2pm?



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. Dave Phillips permalink
    March 25, 2024

    Great info; love the hops. Looks a bit tarnished but hey, it’s aged gracefully. Thanks so Much for Your Wonderful writing. Cheers!

  2. Christine permalink
    March 25, 2024

    What an honour to wear such an item! She must have stood out of the crowd that evening! I do hope her children were there to see their Mother looked so elegant. I wonder how much it actually cost back then and the equivalent cost today?

  3. March 25, 2024

    Fascinating, thank you! Is it known who the designer was?

  4. Sue M permalink
    March 25, 2024

    That is an amazing dress. It must have looked fabulous when new. Very wide dresses was a crazy fashion. Ann must have stood out in that dress.

  5. March 25, 2024

    As far as I know, this would be considered a pannier dress. I was just researching various portraits by Velasquez, showing pannier dresses and their social significance. Wide hips were considered a plus, affirming a woman’s child-bearing role. These doorway-busting silhouettes took that sentiment to a new level. Even the headdresses and/or wigs echoed the “wide” format, and stomachers were inserted inside many of the garments to create an artificial, constrained midriff and a generous bust line. (or, “bosom”, a totally delightful word that is not used ENOUGH in my opinion……..)

    The condition of this dress is amazing – and thanks for the descriptive photos.
    Wonderful. Say YES to the dress.

  6. emmie pollard permalink
    March 25, 2024

    Thank you for the story of this dress. How interesting it is to imagine the discussion about the decoration and the evening.
    Were the gold and silver wire drawers involved in the manufacture of garments such as this?

  7. Jean permalink
    March 25, 2024

    A shift *is* underwear …

  8. polly wharram permalink
    March 25, 2024

    Isn’t that a face in the 4th panel shown? and if so, whose? It appears in the centre, about three quarters of the way down. It is a most beautiful dress however awkward to wear.

  9. Guillaume permalink
    March 26, 2024

    Imagine spinning around in that? I can. Pure glamour.

    One of my art history professors, presenting a Velazquez of the Infanta Maria Theresa, described the poor thing as looking like “a living sofa”. Rather cruel of him, I think. Poor Maria Theresa remained tone deaf about fashion, one of the reasons why navigating her husband’s court was such a martyrdom.

    Of course, nothing of the sort could ever have been said of Ann Fanshawe. That’s what I think. Though we don’t have her picture, we can be sure her wondrous gown did full justice to her beauty and charm.

    Poor Maria Theresa.

  10. Carol F permalink
    March 26, 2024

    Fascinating story: thank you. I am forwarding it to a friend whose husband was recently a Sheriff of the City of London. She & the Lady Mayoress did not need just one dress but a whole wardrobe of outfits for the number of engagements they had to attend in one year-which totalled more than 300 each!

    Regarding the width of ‘your’ dress, the building which was The House of St Barnabas just off Soho Square was built with a staircase where the rails bowed out specifically to accommodate such outfits…..I have never seen another like it.

  11. Amanda permalink
    March 27, 2024

    A wonderful dress! My Spitalfields ancestors were silk weavers and this is a beautiful example of their craft. The detail on the fabric is beautiful. But how much did it weigh? Ann must have been exhausted at the end of the evening.

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