Coat FrontThe Victoria and Albert Museum
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.
Coat RearThe Victoria and Albert Museum
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.
Coat FrontThe Victoria and Albert Museum
Each appliquéd flowerhead is formed from a tiny blossom of fabric, attached with a French knot with silk. The elongated stalks are of thick silk thread, held down with couching stitches, with feathery leaves stitched with silk thread.
The embroidery extends down the velvet sleeves from the gathered shoulder, either side of a slash of the lace from the elbow to the wrist.
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.
The coat may have been made in Paris, or perhaps licensed from Paris to be made in London. Its attention to detail is comparable to that of garments made by Parisian couture houses, such as the House of Worth.
Photograph albums from the House of Worth archive at the V&A show that the House produced evening cloaks with similar embroidery inspired by rambling natural forms.
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 store also ran a reputable Model Costume room, supplying the many types of garments needed by upper-class women to function in the London season, from ball gowns to walking suits to undergarments.
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 embroidered evening coat shows the filtered-down influence of the Arts and Crafts movement – championed by William Morris among other 19th-century artists and designers – and 'aesthetic dress', identified closely with the Liberty store, around the corner from Oxford Street, on Regent Street. In their paintings and publications, artists and writers such as Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti rejected the constricting, fussy and artificial trappings of contemporary fashionable dress, and instead encouraged the use of richly coloured, draped fabrics, which emphasised the natural shape of the body.
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.
May Morris was a talented designer, who managed the Morris & Co. embroidery workroom between 1885 and 1896, and expanded the company's range. She developed unique art embroideries such as the Fruit Garden hangings, worked in silk thread and with a specially written poem by William Morris.
Small and ephemeral objects such as pin cushions and this nightdress sachet were worked with a simple range of stitches, and could be embroidered at home, making Morris & Co. products affordable for middle class people.
Rough sketch for an embroidered bodice (1890-01-01/1939-01-01) by Morris & Co. Art Workers LtdThe Victoria and Albert Museum
Occasionally, May designed embroidered panels for dresses, such as this drawing for a bodice worked with marigold flowers. She often incorporated simple wildflowers into her designs, and strongly advocated that embroiderers should study nature and draw flowers at first hand.
Matching jacket and skirt (1967-01-01/1967-01-01) by Mary QuantThe Victoria and Albert Museum
Morris & Co. fabrics were generally intended to be used for furnishings, rather than dressmaking. In the 1960s, Arts and Crafts designs were revived for interiors, while designers like Mary Quant applied them to fashionable clothing.
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.