Saturday, January 20, 2018

White Muslin and the African Slave Trade

From Racked:
In 1783, portrait artist Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun painted Marie Antoinette in a simple cotton gown known as a robe de gaulle. The thin white fabric is airy and loose, cinched at the waist with a sheer golden sash. Full sleeves and a softly ruffled neckline add volume to the otherwise unstructured shape. She doesn’t wear any jewels or embellishments, just a wide-brimmed straw hat tied with a ribbon band, topped with a few relatively modest plumes.

The painting has a graceful and arcadian feel to it, at least to the modern eye. The scene is refreshingly natural when compared to the ornateness of the typical Rococo-era portrait. The gown gives off “an aesthetic of rustic simplicity,” writes Katy Werlin in Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion From Head to Toe. Despite its humble appearance, though, Marie Antoinette’s portrait in the plain cotton dress had an impact that reverberated through the world in ways no one could have foreseen. It flipped the textile industry on its head, lighting the fuse laid out by a fast-changing world of exploration, Enlightenment, and rebellion. It caused cotton, and the institution of slavery it stood on, to explode. (Read more.)

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