The Empress of the French, In her Bridal Costume
The invention and proliferation of the sewing machine is a milestone in the history of textiles and dress. The pace of industrial change during the nineteenth century was such that from its date of conception in 1846 it took only twenty years for machine stitched garments to all but replace the more labour intensive alternative. The speed at which stitches could be made gave way to an increase in the number of stitches required in a gown:
“As soon as lovely woman discovers that she can make ten stitches in the time that one used to require, a desire seizes her to put in ten times as many stitches in every garment, as she formerly did.” (The English Woman's Domestic Magazine, October, 1867)
Although the first machines designed to stitch fabric and other flexible materials had first appeared as early as 1804 the technology was not commercially successful until after 1846, when Elias Howe (US) first patented his lockstitch machine.1 Previous to Howe's patent that was registered in 1846, the Frenchman Barthelemy Thimonnier had patented a machine that produced a chain stitch and that was used in the production of army uniforms as early as 1830. As with many technological advances around this time, it is difficult to pinpoint the earliest appearance of a particular innovation and numerous patents and designs appeared simultaneously. Howe is widely recognized as the principal inventor as it is his lockstitch machine that endures today.
Machine stitches on silk could be produced at a rate of 550 per minute compared to 30 by hand – one of the obvious advantages of rapid stitch production was the opportunity to employ more of them in each garment. Mass manufacture was a concept that had been applied to clothing but only to a very narrow range of products – mainly to slops and to military clothing. The improvement in the machine itself and the quality of its stitches meant that the trend for voluminous skirts at the moment of the lockstitch machine's invention was fortuitous for both the new technology and the fashion industry.2 This is exemplified by Empress Eugénie depicted here by the Illustrated London News, wearing her State wedding gown. The gown has been described by observers as velvet and the voluminous layers of lace aptly termed (in German of which there is no English equivalent) 'duft'.3 The main component of the gown was in fact 'velvet épinglé', an incredibly fine corded silk, of the same weave family as velvet.
“The dress for the religious marriage was made by Mdme. Vignon; […] with a train, and covered with point d'Angleterre; the corsage à basques, decked with diamonds. Point d'Angleterre was chosen for this dress, on account of the veil, which could not be obtained in point d'Alençon.” (Illustrated London News, 5 February 1853)
The multitude of layers would have been extremely labour intensive even if stitched by machine. Eugénie's later renown for extravagant changes of dress and demand on her dressmakers would have taken on an altogether different meaning had she been reliant solely on hand stitched techniques.
Zoe Viney 2010
Image: The Empress of the French, In her Bridal Costume. Taken from the Illustrated London News, March 5 1853