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"Bizarre" Silks

“Bizarre” silks, as they have been called since the early twentieth century, gained popularity by the early 1700s and were inspired by exotic wares imported from Asia, including Chinese porcelains, Japanese lacquer works, and Indian painted and printed textiles. Bizarre designs are identified by unique patterns incorporating strange and fantastical imagery.

Woven Silk
Woven Silk, c. 1705-10
French or Italian
Silk damask weave with silk brocading wefts bound in twill
78 x 21 inches (198.1 x 53.3 cm) Pattern Repeat: 30 5/8 x 10 1/2 inches (77.8 x 26.7 cm)
Gift of Henry P. McIlhenny, 1951
1951-98-8
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These drawloom-woven fabrics were often brocaded with colored and metallic threads against a subtle, one-color damask background; the layering of patterns and the manipulation of color, texture, and light added visual interest. Woven as luxury goods in silk-weaving centers such as Venice, London, and Lyon, France, bizarre silks were used primarily for clothing for the court and upper classes and for ecclesiastical vestments.

Naturalistic Silks

By 1735, silk design was moving toward a more romantic and naturalistic style. Influenced by new gardening practices in Europe—particularly England, France, and the Netherlands—this style incorporated images of flowers, plants, and picturesque gardens. In fact, many French fabric designers trained in the art of flower painting. The latest French weaving innovation, known as points rentrés and introduced by the Lyon designer-entrepreneur Jean Revel, made it possible to lay tones of color side by side, giving botanical designs a realistic three-dimensional look. While French silk designers rendered flowers and fruit in bold colors and disproportionate sizes, the English styled their silks with close attention to the form, color, proportion, and size of real flowers and plants. By the 1760s, however, French taste prevailed across Europe and America, with patterns combining swags of ribbon, lace, fur, and feathers interspersed with small floral bouquets.

The End of an Era

By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the European silk industry was in recession as a result of changing aesthetics and the effects of the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. As Neoclassicism gained influence around 1790, stripes, small patterns, and lighter weight silks came into vogue, although by the end of the century cotton and linen would overtake silk as fashion’s favored fabrics.

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