Modernism and Fabric: Art and the Tirocchi Textiles


American admiration of French textiles had been shaped over many years before this creative ferment. Even prior to the American Revolution, when Americans still considered themselves Englishmen, France had been perceived as the capital of luxury, and the English had acquired or copied many Parisian fashions and textiles. A glance at eighteenth-century English terminology gives an idea of the number of fabrics and trims of French origin commonly used in England and America: "French alamode," or black taffeta from Lyon, ordered by Samuel Sewall of Boston in 1690; "serge desoy" for men's coats and waistcoats; "florence légère," fancy silks for sale in the United States in 1797; "jaconot muslin," an inexpensive cotton first made in India but popular in France in the early eighteenth century and ordered by Virginia merchants in 1768 and 1771; "marseilles" for quilted petticoats and coverlets; "siamoises," ordered by Thomas Jefferson as furnishing materials in 1790.(1) Even today, fabrics such as corduroy (corde du roi), manufactured in Rhode Island as early as 1789; piqué (piqué), first imported to the United States in 1779; organdy (organdi), described in a French commercial dictionary of around 1723-30; and the ordinary, but now ubiquitous, denim (de Nîmes, originally serge de Nîmes), from which Levi Strauss made his work clothes for miners during the nineteenth-century North American Gold Rush; all are so familiar that their French origins have been forgotten.(2)

At first, American colonials acquired these luxuries through London, but by the end of the eighteenth century, merchants in the United States were dealing directly with France. John Holker, whose father had a factory for the production of "siamoises" in Rouen from 1752, as French Consul-General had them imported to Philadelphia in 1779 for use by the U.S. government.(3) In 1792, Providence merchant Welcome Arnold advertised the inexpensive woolens, silks, and cottons that he imported from England, but when it was a question of a special dress for his wife Patience, the brocaded fabric and passementerie trim were ordered from Paris.(4) From the colonial era to the present, Americans have looked to France for innovative fashion and other luxury products. Through fashion plates and ladies' magazines, women in America have stayed in touch with Paris, some even traveling to France themselves in search of high-fashion textiles and apparel made to their measure by its couturiers.



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