May 13, 2015

At the Met: When Men Were Dandies

Embroidery Sample
All images are silk and metal threads on wool or silk, French, 1785-1815.  

 During my last visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I learned that there was a date when men's fashion turned from fancy plumage to solemn attire: in 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars
the formal dress that was required at French official events fell out of favor for all but the most traditional of ceremonies. At the same time, the European market for ornately embroidered fabrics diminished as men adopted versions of the sober monochrome suit that remains the standard to this day.
But before that time, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, there were gorgeously embroidered fabrics to be had, and French textiles were the height of the art. I often like to wander down to the small gallery attached to the Antonio Ratti Textile Center; the exhibition there, titled Elaborate Embroidery: Fabrics for Menswear Before 1815, is full of examples of beautifully precise imagery, magically conjured with needle and thread.

A detail from the Met's website

The artists had a sensitive eye for expressing the movement of natural forms; petals and leaves have a delicacy as in life. There is even the illusion of transparency in the petals of the peony.

The use of metal threads made some of the fabrics sumptuous. Clothing with such rich embroidery must have been for the nobility.

These less extravagant examples were still designed with elegance and grace, and with an inventive approach to natural forms. There was no information as to who did the designing of these samples, or who did the sewing of the fabrics. There was one image showing a man cutting cloth for a suit and women sitting at tables sewing. It is likely that working women wore out their eyesight making these embroideries for the rich upper classes.

This sample, of oak leaves and acorns, show that flowers were not the only imagery for fabrics.

I love the fluid curves of the above samples, based on natural forms, but interestingly abstracted.

Imagine wearing this lush garden as part of your clothing.

I am awestruck by the craft, and by the loveliness of the imagery in these textiles. I am sorry for the unsung makers of them, sorry for the inequality that brought them into being, yet I am very happy that they exist.


  1. Incredible textiles.
    I walk in the woods and occasionally bracket fungi on a rotting log make me long for a vest made of the colors and textures. Just a vest. Not so much to ask.

    1. The wall label at the exhibition did mention that the only colorful garments men now wear are vests.

    2. I can't help quoting here my favorite verse from "Peter Piper's Practical Principals of Plain and Proper Pronunciation":

      Villiam Veedon viped his vig and vaistcoat.
      Did Villiam Veedon vipe his vig and vaistcoat?
      If Villiam Veedon viped his vig and vaistcoat,
      Vere are the vig and vaistcoat Villiam veedon viped?