A luxurious embroidered evening coat inspired by Arts and Crafts style
This dramatic evening coat is made from a silk velvet of regal purple, and embroidered with tall sprays of Sweet Cicely – an English cottage garden plant.The coat's stunning design is influenced by the Arts and Crafts style, which frequently drew on botanical forms, sometimes stylised or abstracted. It was retailed by high-class department store Marshall & Snelgrove.
Hand embroidery was often used in the late 19th century to bring a sense of luxury and individuality to expensive couture dresses and outer garments. Worn for making a grand entrance, or a sweeping exit, the coat is designed to draw attention to the wearer, although it would be seen only briefly, as she took a few steps from her carriage to the ball or opera, before discarding it to reveal a ball gown underneath.
The coat is constructed from five long, flaring panels of velvet, joined by narrow sections of machine-made lace backed with a cream silk. The embroidery is carefully placed so that it emphasises the coat's symmetrical, vertical lines, while the repeating pattern of the lace echoes the clusters of the embroidered flower heads.
Small sprays of Sweet Cicely are embroidered on the underside of the high, fluted collar, which is wired to stand up, framing and illuminating the wearer’s face. Like much fashionable dress just before 1900, the coat draws on details borrowed from historical dress – the collar recalls Elizabethan portraits. Yet its elongated silhouette also anticipates the sweeping fluidity of the Art Nouveau style of the early 20th century.
Marshall & Snelgrove
The embroidered evening coat is labelled ‘Marshall & Snelgrove, London’. This was one of Britain’s biggest department stores, occupying a large site on the north side of Oxford Street. Founded as a draper’s shop in 1837 by James Marshall, the firm opened branches in spa towns and cities in the north of England.
The company flourished until the First World War, enjoying the patronage of the royal family, and employing thousands of hands in its various dressmaking departments. Debenhams bought the company in 1919 and redeveloped the site in 1974.
The V&A collection includes an interesting group of fashion dolls connected with Marshall & Snelgrove. These were dressed by Mrs J. A. Latter Axton, who worked for Marshall & Snelgrove as a 'designer of styles'. Axton donated the dolls to the Museum in 1930, explaining that the miniature garments were copies of dresses made for Queen Victoria’s grand-daughters.
The artistic style of dress associated with the Arts and Crafts movement was originally known as 'Pre-Raphaelite'. This influenced a more commercialised form, 'aesthetic dress' – a theme in mainstream fashion during the 1880s. Liberty’s dress department opened in 1884, designing and making aesthetic dress, under the direction of the architect-designer Edwin Godwin.
These dresses, made by the Liberty dress studio for a member of the Liberty family, are overtly historical in style, and are likely to have been ‘tea gowns’, worn only in private, at home. Rich velvet, enhanced with simple embroidered details, or contrasting with lighter or patterned fabrics, was a staple fabric for aesthetic dress. Simple summer dresses of light Indian silk, often softly gathered or smocked, were also worn.
William Morris’s second daughter, May, was well known in her own right from the 1880s, as an author and teacher of embroidery. Formal portraits show that she styled herself inventively, wearing dresses she may have made herself – sometimes out of velvet, sometimes with long open sleeves inspired by medieval clothing – presenting an alternative version of female beauty.
Reflecting the trend towards nostalgia for the past, which dominated dress in the later 1960s and 1970s, printed floral fabrics based on ‘vintage’ patterns were promoted by labels like Biba and Laura Ashley. The flowing lines and historical collar of this Laura Ashley dress are reminiscent of the Marshall & Snelgrove evening coat.