I Can See Sheerly Now

Let’s get transparent together, and explore the see-through art of fabric-making.
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1 – Welcome to #ThreadTalk: I Can See Sheerly Now.

Yes, sheer fabrics: Organdy! Voile! Tulle! Aerophane! Somehow symbolizing both the virginal & the most scandalous.

Prepare for layer cake 🎂gowns & kimonos 👘galore.

(below: Tulle & taffeta ball gown, 1858, via Boston MFA.)

Bright pink tulle and taffeta dress; taffeta underdress; (a) bodice widely flaring neckline, short puffed sleeves, tightly fitted waist, sharply pointed center front and back, laced down back, trimmed with ruffles of blonde lace and bows of pink brocaded gauze ribbon, (b) skirt with five flounces trimmed with brocaded gauze, fullness evenly spaced all around, two garlands of artificial flowers tacked at sides of center front of skirt. - From BMFA, 1858, American or French

2 – The allure of sheer fabrics is ancient. Veils have long been signs of chastity, mystery & wealth. And making sheer fabric isn’t easy.

Gauze (likely named for Gaza, where it was made) is a loose open weave (bottom R), which gives it that airy quality.

3 – Muslin is also in the sheer family & that’s already been addressed at length, so we’re going to focus on some of the other sheers in the family.

But first: Salome. Perhaps the most famed sheer fabric wearer & dancer of all. Here in a 15th C rendition.

The Dance of Salome. Exhibit in the Hyde Collection - Glens Falls, New York, USA. - Salome dancing at the end of a table, blond hair and a dress of sheer white. Four men sit before a long table, with long columns between them.

4 – Sheer fabrics are basically netting, but on a micro level (more on construction later). Until modern techniques, this was done on a hand loom & required a tremendous amount of labor.

The high-end stuff was mind-numbingly expensive. Early gauze was made with silk, too.

Bildnis Katharina Margaretha von Griesheim (geb. von Bülow) (1722-1762) - woman in the 18th C swathed in a gauze veil, wearing a blue taffeta dress, in an oval frame. She looks sus. Public domain.

5 – Chirimen is my personal favorite, and it’s a raw silk gauze made in Japan for summer weight kimonos. (h/t to @IsVittra for the links)

“Ro” and “sha” are the fabrics, and using different adjustments can make drop-dead gorgeous sheer patterns. (Images via Yasuda textiles)

6 – The kimonos you find as a result are absolutely diaphanous. This one (2nd half 18thC) contains a poem:

Front:
Celebrating old age, turtles
live for ten thousand years,

Back:
and the offspring of cranes
for a thousand years—
flourishing in their long lives.

This light, unlined robe (hito-e) is designed for summer. On a blue background, flowers and plants of the four seasons appear in landscape settings. Spring flowers are represented along the hem; above them we see wisteria and other summer plants; toward the middle appear autumnal maple leaves; and around the neckline and on the sleeves are winter pine-sapling motifs. Met museum, public domain.

7 – This purple silk gauze kimono is from the same period as above, but it makes use of a far more simple design–using the pattern within the weave, along with metallic thread. Gold on purple remains one of my absolute most-adored combinations.

This elegant summer robe features a cooling design of grasses and drops of dew. The large circles reserved in white contain lightly painted peony crest patterns; however, from afar, the peony designs are not visible and the circles resemble the full moon above a grassy field—a classic autumnal theme. Met museum, public domain.

8 – Before we leave Japan, this is from Artist Kitagawa Utamaro I (Japanese, early 1750s–1806) ca 1795–96 – “Woman Holding a Piece of Gauze Before Her Face”. This is precisely what I would do. I love how the artist captured the pattern and translucency.

An ink drawing of a woman with a high bun and ornate hair pin holding a transparent textile before her face, looking through it. Boston MFA.

9 – So let’s talk tulle. It’s netting that began in silk, and we now know it most commonly in bridal veils and puffs. It’s named after Tulle, France. Originally found in embellishments, it made its way to the big time in the crinoline age (we’ll get there). 1815, below, French.

White, high waisted tulle dress with short, puffed sleeves, low, square neckline, and drawstring closure which ties at back; trimmed with four bands of blue-white satin, tulle, and cream silk cord (single band of same trim at neckline and cuffs). Wide decorative border at hem; two rows of satin loops formed into crescent shapes with silk cording, tulle rosettes, and cream silk embroidered with three-lobed leaves; single continuous band of rouched ribbon between two rows of cording; scalloped net at hemline embroidered with three-lobed leaves,
(white satin slip not original, see inscription) - Boston MFA, public Domain

10 – Tulle, as in this purple people eater of a dress, coupled with Chantilly lace and moiré faille, can add softness when used as an accent. It’s rather festooned, I say, with bows, and whew. A LOT going on. 😮😮😮1860s, but of course, because… I mean. Look at it.

Royal purple moiré faille, boned evening bodice with tulle, lace, and periwinkle trim. Royal purple moiré faille day bodice trimmed with black silk bobbin lace and carnival glass buttons. Royal purple moiré faille, skirt trimmed with black chantilly lace and purple bows. 1860s, American. Boston MFA.

11 – This 1880s gown is a perfect crossroads because it uses piña cloth (our next sheer) which is made of pineapple leaf fiber and is from the Philippines. It’s got tulle ruching on it, but the piña is also combined with silk netting for a truly gorgeous ensemble.

12 – Of course, it became a colonialist trend, but piña, aka “pineapple silk” is a cultural heritage. This Early 19th C shirt is called a barong tagalog. You can see the subtle design between and through the stripes. Truly stunning.

ca 1850. Met Museum. Orange and white striped shirt with subtle floral design. High collar, long sleeves.

13 – If you, like me, fell in love with piña, you can learn much more about it, and the maintaining of this heritage art, with this video:

14 – One of my fave finds is aerophane. Typically seen in embellishments, it’s a crisp silk gauze that works great in 3D & shows up particularly in the early 19th century onward. This dress is ALL up IN the aerophane. And I love it. 1827, from LACMA. Also the color is 💯.

15 – I will say, it’s hard to tell from pictures, which sheer is which. There’s a chance the flowers on here are aerophane. But the description just says “silk, cotton.” So it’s anyone’s guess.

Either way, yes please, I will wear this gladly. This dates from 1855, & is American.

A dress from 1855, but not on a mannequin form. It looks like a sheer floral bathrobe. It has yellow flowers on it.  Met museum, public domain.

16 – Voile is another sheer fabric you may see (from the French for veil). It is semi-transparent & is often made of cotton, but sometimes silk. Lightweight, it bears similarities to both chiffon & muslin. This 1868 example is silk voile–so light and airy! MAAS Museum.

Cream silk voile dress with floral panels & pink stripes. Full, tiered sleeves to elbow & cream net to wrists. Trimmed with rose coloured satin bows at neck & sleeves. Four deep frills on trained skirt. c. 1868.(LC). - MAAS Museum

17 – And let’s not forget crepe fabrics and mourning. It was A BIG THING. This is a silk and cotton blend sheer crepe (I think?) judging by the crimping, and knowing how popular crepe was for mourning. 10/10 would totally wear this today. (Nandor approves.)

Black mourning dress; thin, almost transparent fabric; short sleeves; top of silk and wool material with two rows of like material sewn on with piping and hemmed at edges; off the shoulder neckline; hook and eyes down back; lined with glazed cotton; pleated at waist in front and back; seven whale bone stays in lining; skirt gathered at waist; bell shaped; bottom bound with black woven tape. The donor of the dress said the garment originally belonged to a woman from Simsbury who attended the Litchfield Female Academy.  Litchfield Historical Society.

18 – This mourning hat is barely translucent, but just manages to let in a little light. It dates from 1918, though, so pretty late on the public mourning spectrum. Still pretty impressive, though. I love the puckered patterning here. From the Boston MFA.

19 – Then on the other side of things we have organdy. It’s another cotton or silk fabric, often stiffened, and we see it in bridal wear today still. This dress was altered by the original owner, and was once a bridesmaid’s gown. I think it’s absolutely stunning. 1872.

Dress with long bell sleeves, white underskirt, many pleats in off white. Deep v neck, likely to have another insert at some point. Met Museum.

20 – Keep in mind I’ve mostly shown you large pieces, but just like with our lace #threadtalk, average people had small bits of sheer to wear as collars, cuffs, hats, that sort of thing.

Or, for little humans. Like this organdy dress from France in 1959.

Girl's sleeveless sheer white (organdy) dress with small Peter Pan collar. Decorated at bodice and hem with blue embroidered dots and flowers; white cotton underslip edged with lace. Blue silk velvet ribbon belt. Three button holes closure up back, one button missing.

Tie belt of blue velvet ribbon which goes through two slender waist loops at side seams. - Boston MFA, public domain

21 – This is by NO MEANS exhaustive. The list of sheers is long. So let’s gaze at some more gowns.

First: more piña. 1855, super flammable crinoline. Love that purple, though. Still colonizer bullshit. That’s a LOT of yardage. No details from the Met on this one.

Princess style dress (think Rapunzel from Disney) -- bell-shaped gown, purple bodice, drop shoulder, puff sleeves. One ruched line down the center on the horizontal (sound weird, but that's what it is). Tassel from the waist V.

22 – Whitework muslin for this Regency nerd. I pretty much love everything about this gown, and especially the bottom. I could never be trusted within a 10 mile radius of it, of course, because I would absolutely stain it somehow. But it really is absolutely charming. V&A, ofc.

This sheer muslin evening dress demonstrates the survival of neo-classical elements of women’s dress into the early 1820s. While heavier fabrics in brighter colours appeared in day dress, white remained fashionable for evening. This particular example may well have been for summer wear. It would have been worn with an under-dress of silk, possibly in coloured fabric. The off-the-shoulder neckline and short sleeves were appropriate evening styles. By the early 1820s, skirts shortened to ankle length and decorative flounces appear at the hem. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

23 – We couldn’t talk chiffon without mentioning the Edwardians. And this had me at “green chiffon over pink satin” because yes PLEASE. This is just a delight, and I love the additional draped chiffon down the length of the skirt. Boston MFA, 1918.

Evening dress; skirt, pale green taffeta, full with deep pouf in center back and open down center front to show green chiffon over pink satin underskirt; bodice, with deep V in center front and back, of green chiffon; wide band of silver glass bead embroidery over pink satin running around lower bodice; short sleeve formed by square of green chiffon with bead tassels on lower corner; green tafetta belt; label on belt: Farquharson and Wheelock, 724 5th Avenue, New York.

25 – This Doucet ball gown from 1910 uses chiffon and crochet to create a doily of a design. All those layers are rather yummy, I think, & it almost looks comfy.

Also looks like it would taste like vanilla ice cream.

Also a good time to remind you never to lick the costumes.

Label: Doucet, 21 Rue de la Paix, Paris. Cream-colored silk chiffon and white cotton crochet; hook and eye closure; white silk satin twill-lining.
Bodice (a): highnecked with full, elbow-length sleeves and a two paneled skirt. Condition: good; extensive discoloration of lace at neckline; splitting in lining.
Skirt (b): the upper part of the skirt that lies under the lace panels of the skirt is made only of the white silk chiffon over the lining fabric. Condition: good; extensive splitting of the weighted silk lining. Boston MFA.

26 – Yo, the 1850s never let me down. I think this might even be paisley? But there’s sheer fabric! And layers! Plus ribbons! And my eyeballs are floating in my head now! I think I have entered another dimension.

A dress in two parts, of light grayish green taffeta; (a) bodice fitted and boned, coming to deep point center front and back, elbow length bell shaped sleeves, hooked down center front, trimmed with bands of geometric motifs brocaded with red, white, and green silk on a sheer black silk ground, (woven in one with the gray-green taffeta as can be seen on the skirt ruffles), tabs to increase dimension of bodice, trimmed with brocaded black ribbon which has been added in center front, and similar ribbons combined with black net have been added at elbow of sleeves; (b) skirt very full with fullness pleated to waistband except at center back where it is gathered, three deep gathered flounces of the brocade on sheer black silk as described above around skirt; bodice lined with glazed white cotton, skirt lined with crinoline. Said to have been worn by the Parker ladies. Boston MFA.

27 – And this… is a thing… that happened. In the 1860s. On purpose.

Wondering if this is more piña cloth? It looks very similar, but the Met has no details. Just [no medium available] which makes me very grumpy. More hidden paisleys in the ribbons, too…

A smocked dress from the 1860s, tiny waist, long sleeves, long layers with contrasting blue satin ribbon. Big big skirts, layers.

28 – And of course the 1820s have their own jam. Via @Fashion_Museum: “…1829 gauze & satin evening dress with its giant puffed ‘gigot’ sleeves.”

I’m personally rather obsessed with those sleeves. I think I’d feel like a dragonfly in them. Just need a cool hat to go with. 🐛

29 – And that’s a wrap, ha ha. Just the beginning, really!
First sources:
https://thedreamstress.com/research/the-great-historical-fashion-and-textile-glossary/
https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Royal_Lady_s_Magazine_and_Archives_o/NXEEAAAAQAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0
https://teachyoutosew.com/aerophane-fabric-history-properties-uses-care-where-to-buy/
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Crepes_(fabric)
https://sewport.com/fabrics-directory/organza-fabric

https://sewport.com/fabrics-directory/chiffon-fabric

30 – Second sources:
https://historicalsewing.com/fabrics-for-undergarments
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veil
http://www.gbacg.org/finery/2015/sheer-delight-sheer-dresses-of-the-crinoline-era/
https://www.newhanfu.com/6890.html
https://yasuda-tex.jp/en/karami/

https://www.thetextileatlas.com/craft-stories/pina-cloth-philippines

31 – Also:
https://thedreamstress.com/2012/08/terminology-what-is-aerophane/
A few notes:
– Gauze/Gaza is contested (I left the “may” out of my tweet”
– I fudged some of my terminology on Japanese silks, check the comments for clarity

One more: 1850-56. Netherlands. Rijksmuseum

32 – Thanks for joining me for another #threadtalk! May your own threads be as precisely transparent as you would like them to be…

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London - The dress is trimmed at the hem with padded black satin rouleaux and rosettes. The bodice has a low, square neck and fastens at the back with tapes. It is very short-waisted with slight fullness eased in at the front. The gored skirt is attached smoothly except for a wide panel of tight gathering at the back. The epaulettes are wired and, like the cuffs on the long sleeves, made from satin with an applied cord decoration.

Originally tweeted by Natania Barron (@NataniaBarron) on June 22, 2021.

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