Next month CHS is kicking off December with chocolate. To me, this sounds perfect! I love chocolate and the idea that you can come to a museum (CHS of course!), learn about history, shop, AND taste chocolate…sounds like the perfect way to start the month. That’s all I will say about the event, (we’ll let marketing take over from here!), but if you want to find out the details, just check out THIS link. But as I started looking forward to the event, I started thinking about my favorite aspects of chocolate, that it is smooth, rich, and delicious. What else combines all of these wonderful attributes….chocolate colored velvet of course!!!
Over the last few decades of fashion, velvet has become less and less popular. However, it remains one of my favorite fabrics and I always feel that if it is done right, then it is absolutely beautiful. The difficulty of velvet usually comes in the way it is created. Velvet is woven on a specific loom that makes two pieces of velvet at a time. When the two pieces are cut apart, a densely woven fabric with a thick pile is created. The pile, or soft fibers sticking up from the surface, are what give velvet its smooth texture and also provide a thickness to the fabric that makes it perfect for use in cold-weather garments (but can also make it difficult to manipulate). Historical velvet is always made of silk. There is, however, a version made of cotton referred to as velveteen. So, if you ever see these two words, now you can determine the fiber content just by which term is used!
Now, before you start to think that velvet is a lush fabric used to clothe the feminine form, take a look at these two vests. The one on the top dates to the 1850s, while the one on the bottom dates to the 1860s. Prior to 1800, male clothing was just as elaborate, if not more so, than female clothing (but that is a topic for another day). As male clothing became more and more somber and emphasized fit more than expensive embroidered silks, the vest remained a place in a man’s wardrobe where his personality could shine. These two vests, while simple in appearance, would have created a brilliant effect as firelight bounced off the velvet pile and exposed their splendor as they peaked from beneath a jacket. In the early 19th century, it was even common (among the elite) to wear more than one vest at a time in order to show off one’s style and wealth.
Everything from entire garments, to bonnets, to trims, and even quilts, were made with velvet, especially in the 1880s. Velvet also served as a popular accent fabric, for the very reasons men wore velvet vests…the firelight, and eventually gas lights, would be reflected by the velvet pile and produce a quite striking look. Small embellishments of velvet would also help to distinguish a fall or winter garment from a summer one. Combining brown silk with deep chocolate brown accents, the dress above would have been an elegant statement when worn by Mary Warner Pierpont as she wed Charles Sommers Miller exactly 130 years ago tomorrow (November 22, 1883…if you don’t want to do the math!).
Velvet has a reputation for being a “fancy” fabric, rather than something you might wear every day. However, do not be fooled by its use in Mary’s wedding dress. This time, in the early 1890s, brown silk was again combined with rich brown velvet to create a beautiful and striking day dress. A dress of this nature would have been worn by a woman of the upper or upper-middle class for daily activities such as receiving or making calls, running the household (mind you, she was supervising a servant or two), or casual dining inside or outside of the home. Again, the use of silk velvet helps to determine the class (lower classes relied on cheaper warm fabrics such as wool), and the time of year…helping us begin to crack the code of the object’s story.
Over the years, velvet and velveteen have fallen to the wayside in our fashion routines. But every time I see velvet exquisitely executed on a historical garment I think to myself, “They just don’t use velvet like the used to….” I certainly hope I wet your appetite with this blog post for smooth, rich, and delicious chocolate…whether in the form of a tasty treat, or a beautiful garment.