The Fabric in Fashion Exhibition

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New York City— One of the top five fashion capitals, by Paris being the first. As Fashion Week comes to a full circle , we are reminded that it is not the end of the jaw-dropping garments and couture in New York. As a celebration of the 50 years of the FIT Museum, an exhibition, Exhibitionism: 50 Years of The Museum of FIT, has opened for the next two months. The garments vary from the 1800s to recent time. The Museum also has another exhibition which opened this winter on the Fabric in Fashion, includes a variety of fibers and fabrics such as, cotton, wool, silk, and knits. This exhibition focuses on the last two and a half centuries and explores the cultural history of textiles in Euro-American women’s fashion. Along with extravagant styles made from couture textiles and feminized fabrics.

The museum welcomes visitors with the Fabric in Fashion exhibition on the first floor, as the visitors walk in through the double doors and enter into the dim room, they are welcomed by four dresses made from sheer fabrics that create a light, diaphanous appearance. Within that exhibition there is beauty, sophistication, style, and class. As you make your way through the dim exhibition, there are garments made from the same fabric placed beside each other that are distinctly from different periods in time. Pieces in history that tend to represent the time accurately in the exhibition is the White silk empire-waist evening dress from 1810 and the Yellow Silk jersey evening dress from 1940.

Part I: White Silk Empire-Waist Evening Dress, 1810

The first garment was White silk, patterned knit jersey empire-waist evening dress with pink fringe and cord from England in 1810. The garment is knitted in white silk from top to bottom with pink cords on the shoulders and in the chest area, along with three pink fringe rows at the bottom of the gown as seen on the right. This dress is an example of women’s fashion in England during the early 1800s. However, the open knit work and with layers underneath were styles criticized as immodest and impractical.

Knitting by hand was utilized all over the world for thousands of years, then in 1589 it was mechanized in England and industrialized during the mid-19th century. England in 1810 was the start of the Regency Era. The Regency Era took place in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland when King George III was unfortunately unfit to rule, and his son ruled as his proxy as Prince Regent. Once King George III passed, Prince Regent became George IV. During this era women’s dress was all about the empire silhouette and lightweight fabrics. Empire dresses had fitted bodices that end just below the bust to achieve a high waist that defines the silhouette, as shown in the silk evening dress. Once the empire silhouette was created, the dress flowed out in a loose-fitting manner. Necklines were predominantly low and sleeves would be long or short. Embellishments were very popular in England and began the first decade of the 1800s. The pink cords from the evening dress were used as tiny piping to finish seams which had a main goal of the desired effect to be one of simplicity. White was the most popular color and any trimmings were used sparingly, along with embroidery and details that did not interrupt the aesthetic flow.

Just as lightweight fabrics were popular in England, silk was the ultimate luxury fiber for millennia and inspired a demand in Europe that gave rise to the trade network that would connect all the Old World. As silk originated from China, soon after became the backbone of the French textile industry. As it was centered in Lyon from the fifteenth century, it helped Paris become the Western world’s fashion capital.

Part II: Rose in the White Silk Empire-Waist Evening Dress

This period had a combination of romanticism, ballet, and love which explains the delicacy of the dress. A person like Rose, thin, high class, ghost-like skin, with a shade of pink cheeks would roam around in this evening dress. Due to the knitting of the dress and material used it showcases that it is high fashion which would only be worn by women of high class. With some exceptions, knitted clothing was not well known in Western high fashion, apart from undergarments and small accessories until the 1920’s, almost 100 years later. As Rose is a high class woman, around her early 30’s she perfectly suits this evening dress. The origin of the dress is from England, during this time, what looks like a nightgown today is considered an evening dress. Rose would wear this light weight fabric to formal events in the evening. Although most knitted textiles stretch to the body’s contours, this dress has a flowy silhouette.

Part I: Yellow Silk Jersey Evening Dress, 1940

Over a hundred years after the silk empire waist was created, silk could still be woven into an airy, plain weave chiffon that floats away from the body, as shown on the Yellow silk jersey evening dress inspired by the Grecian style. The designer, Madame Gres, also known as Alix was a leading French couturier of her generation and costume designer. The designer also founded the former haute couture fashion house “Gres” as well as the perfume house, “Parfums Gres”. The pop of color dress came from circa 1940, France and completely different from the empire-waist evening dress, the evening dress displays a much modernized look, with a low v-cut back and the delicate sheer silk is showcased by the dramatic gathering at the shoulders and back waistline. The gathering at shoulder is similar to Ancient Greek Ionic Chiton, a rectangular shaped fabric draped and pinned at the shoulders and fastened at the waist. Although this modernized dress has no sleeves, the gathering at the shoulders is similar to the Ionic Chiton which used pins called fibulas to keep the lightweight fabric in place at the shoulder. Same with the dramatic gathering at the back waistline, the Ionic Chiton was also belted at the waist.

During the time the Yellow silk jersey evening dress was created, France had the Battle of France, also known as the Fall of France. This was when Germany invaded France and won in a matter of a month. From the start of the war women’s fashion was affected by having to rationalize fabrics which cut dresses to knee length in the 1940s. The war also affected the top of the dresses with less skin showing at the top and more fabric to cover the chest and arms. However, the only exclusion to this were evening dresses which were long and revealed shoulders and chest with mild cleavage, something women could not do during day time. During the war women changed their style to a more masculine look with the invention of the shoulder pads. Later in the 1940s after the war, more fabric was available thus, creating more styles. In order to forget the war, the women of France decided to embrace colorful patterns with contrasting trims. The material they used was light and airy, usually rayon which was a newer synthetic invention. With the colorful dresses and material, the silk jersey evening dress from the exhibition with its pop of color, yellow, is a perfect example of the time it was created in.

Part II: Josette in the Yellow Silk Jersey Evening Dress

The pearls, gloves, handbags, and makeup… “a couture girl”, walking through the open brick sidewalks of France towards the fashion house “Gres”. Running her slim fingers through the bright colored luxury fabrics, illuminating her pale face and powdered nose. Josette catches a glimpse a a silky bright yellow fabric and tries it on. The low v-cut dress exposes her chest and hugs her waist, then drapes like a waterfall to her thin, ballerina-like legs. Josette does not think twice on the price, as she does not have to worry about the money but more on the looks. She purchases the couture dress, hemmed to her height, and is ready to wear it to the next ball.

Overall, the Fabric in Fashion exhibition hold decades of history behind each garment that is on display. It varies from the style of that year it was made to what technological advances were created during that time to help make the garment. Each piece tells a story and exemplifies the lifestyle of the time. Whether it was made from silk, cotton, wool, or knit, the fabric used is a foundation to creating the silhouette and aesthetics. Silk created an airy look that floats away from the body throughout the decades. This exhibition provides viewers with perfect example of how fabrics can be shaped for a final design and where they took place in history.

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The Fabric in Fashion Exhibition. (2021, Apr 08). Retrieved December 4, 2023 , from

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