Ribbed silk satin evening dress, Madame Vignon

Ribbed silk satin evening dress, Madame Vignon

Evening dress
Madame Vignon
Paris
1869-70
Ribbed silk trimmed with satin
Museum no. T.118-1979

Vivid magenta-coloured silk gives this dress a rich and flamboyant appearance. It was probably dyed with one of the new synthetic colours produced from the late 1850s onwards, although intense hues could also be created using natural dyes. The artificial forms of magenta were very popular and a battle for patents began as dyers sought to distinguish their inventions from those of their competitors. In reality many of the dye samples from different manufacturers looked exactly the same, and it was only the exotic names, claims on colourfastness and improved visual quality that set them apart. Other disputes arose over the health risk posed by the wearing and production of garments coloured with synthetic dyes. In the early 1870s a German chemist found traces of arsenic in fabric dyed with magenta, which could leak out in washing, rain or perspiration. There were also reports of serious skin conditions caused by exposure to aniline dyes, and a dye firm in Switzerland was forced to close in 1864 due to arsenic pollution.

Brightly coloured fabrics also led to words of advice from the fashion magazines. The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine of March 1868 recommended that there should be no more than 'two positive colours in a lady's toilet' and that 'very bright tints' should be toned down with white, black or grey to prevent a gaudy appearance. Two shades of the same colour were considered very fashionable, particularly if the trimmings were of a contrasting fabric. (In this example, the difference in colour between the thread and material may have become more evident over time.) Satin bows and pleated bias-cut trimmings complement the ribbed silk of this dress perfectly, while delicate puffs of tulle inserted into the sleeves soften the impact of the dramatic colour. These details reveal the skill of eminent couturiers such as Madame Vignon, the maker of this gown, who was also patronised by the fashionable Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III.