Length of dress fabric, Lyon, 1760s, , Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Length of dress fabric, Lyon, circa 1760s, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Textile pannel, Lyon, 1730-1735, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Textile pannel, Lyon, 1730-1735, ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The designer and the merchant: names, reputations and the language of innovation

PI2: Lesley Miller, UK

The HERA project concentrates on transmission of creative ideas across Europe. Individual Project 2 is based at the V&A which is ideally suited for such a study. Most national design museums in Europe have concentrated on collecting the art and design of their own country. In contrast, the V&A has always collected objects made and consumed throughout Europe and in several Asian centres of design and production. Conceived and constructed forty years ago, the galleries showing art and design in Europe 1600-1800 will be reformulated from 2010 onwards as a priority project in the Museum’s Future Plan. This reformulation will be both scholarly and practical, involving in its first phase substantial original research into museum objects and their original context, to which the CRP work will contribute. In its second phase, research will include wider audience research and the application of all research to gallery narratives and interpretation, and to the resources made available beyond the gallery spaces (e.g. via publications, the museum website or via wi-fi). The CRP research will provide important data and data analysis to help us illustrate the circulation of people, ideas, and objects around Europe and between Europe and the rest of the world, demonstrating commonalities and differences in codes of behavior and taste in European states/societies. The role of innovative objects and creative practices will be core to this mission ensuring that the CRP’s research will have a significant impact on the eventual displays and their interpretation.

Traditionally, many Anglophone fashion histories have built arguments about circulation, dissemination and adoption of fashions from study of paintings and printed images. The role of the Parisian fashion press and the later English fashion press still dominates many approaches to fashion. McNeil will continue this work on print culture in IP3, providing a complementary set of data that will feed directly into this IP. Yet, there is much to investigate about the other mechanisms by which innovations were introduced, marketed, adopted or rejected in parts of Europe geographically distant from the assumed innovators – and indeed, to examine what innovations were occurring in those countries but not elsewhere (e.g. the adoption of ‘national’ dress) as discussed in  IP5.

The V&A project focuses on bringing together objects, texts and images in order to interrogate the ways in which they were used to translate knowledge of innovation from one location to another. It will also address the role of some of the intermediaries in this process, many of whom travelled extensively (designers, merchants, their agents/commissionaires). As now, long-distance communication between manufacturer and consumer was essential in introducing innovations. In a pre-internet age, it took longer, yet still moved comparatively rapidly. Given today’s virtual reality, it may be timely to assess how both actual objects and words informed fashion innovation. In the early-modern period, commercial correspondence and tools such as sample books relayed fashions, even before the fashion and commercial press became agents in dissemination. The second approach in this strand of the investigation is to build up a body of data from primarily commercial tools: textiles sample books, commercial correspondence, the commercial press (Almanachs de commerce, Affiches, trade cards), and reference to purchases in the stocks in shopkeepers’ inventories and in wardrobe accounts. Importantly, these sources allow an investigation of the fashion industries, at a time when textiles and accessories, rather than style, generally determined the novelty of dress – possibly because textiles and accessories were more portable. While there is a substantial corpus of work on Anglo-American sample books, there is still no listing of surviving books for this period in archives and museums across Europe. Such a survey would allow comparative analysis of objects and vocabulary, as well as a more rounded assessment of how fashions were disseminated, other than via the printed word.

This HERA partnership would allow a preliminary survey for the countries involved in this project, to ascertain how similar books created in different countries were, whom they served, etc. They may aid understanding of how manufacturing reputations were built in this period, the extent to which a place rather than a person might have had the power of a brand (e.g. Genoa velvet, Lyon silk; toile de Jouy), and how manufacturing words translated into retailing words. While the silk-weaving guild of the city of Lyon seemed confident of its reputation in silks without attaching any marker to its products (other than seals), there is some evidence that the printing or weaving of manufacturers’ names on selvedges or fabric ends was already beginning at the end of the eighteenth century in places such as Stockholm and St Petersburg. The implications of such developments are worthy of analysis. Finally, commercial correspondence, sometimes accompanied by textile samples, sometimes written in a language other than the merchant’s, also offers insights into how personal relationships were established long distance and how social networks built reputations.  The data collected by this (and the other IPs) will be used to inform gallery displays and web-based information that can be accessed by visitors to the galleries and to those browsing the Museum’s website.

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