On the third day of Christmas, my true love sent to me,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a partridge in a pear tree.—“The Twelve Days of Christmas”
For the third blog in my Twelve Days of Christmas at Clothworkers’ series I’m going to focus on this fichu (a small triangular covering worn over the shoulders). It may not feature hens—which star on a number of our pieces—but it is French! I chose this object not only because it’s French, and because this series will feature many a bird, but also because lace is one of the major strengths of the V&A’s textiles and fashion collection. And lace is popular with Clothworkers’ visitors. This very piece was requested recently, for a group appointment.
This fichu is an example of needle lace worked in linen thread on a ground of net. It was made in Alençon around the beginning of the nineteenth century, when bobbin lace and machine-made net dominated the French lace market. Needle lace did, however, have its advocates. Particularly notably, Napoléon Bonaparte (the French statesman and military leader who was the Emperor of France between 1804 and 1814, and briefly in 1815) supported its production by insisting that French or Brussels needle lace was worn at court. Napoléon was probably drawn to needle lace largely because one of it’s well-known varieties—Alençon needle lace—was strongly associated with France.
The fichu in question is connected to Napoléon in more ways than one. It is decorated with bees, and Napoléon selected the bee to serve as his emblem. He was inspired by Emperor Charlemagne’s emblem—a cicada which Napoléon mistook for a bee. Nevertheless the bee served Napoléon’s purpose well; this insect has long symbolised industriousness.
Further still, this fichu has been cut from a larger piece of lace, and may be related to the bee-adorned bed hangings which were made for Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoléon’s first wife and therefore the Empress of France, early in the nineteenth century. It would be apt if this object was indeed closely connected to a set of bed hangings; both can simultaneously be associated with modesty and something rather different. Bed hangings provided privacy yet were found in bedchambers, and fichus were used to cover women’s necks, shoulders, and chests, yet lace ones revealed at the same time as concealing.
If you’re interested in making an appointment to view textiles and fashion objects at the Clothworkers’ Centre, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.