A delicate muslin English dress c. 1840–45 in our School collection is a recent acquisition which featured in our 2022 exhibition ‘Our Collection by Colour: No.1 WHITE’. The textile is semi-transparent, has an open weave and is extremely lightweight. Close inspection of the muslin suggests that it was mechanically spun and woven. The skirt is decorated with six flounces, each of which is edged in a narrow white lace as are the sleeve-ends and neckline flounce. The bodice has a white cotton foundation onto which a panel of muslin is mounted and gathered so that the folds radiate up and out from the centre front to the neckline.
The muslin of the 1840s dress is remarkably similar to a piece which is also in the School collection. One end of the muslin has numerous stamps, including one (not visible in this view) that reads ‘F74’ embroidered with silver-coloured metal thread in chain stitch. The stamps shown here include the source of the muslin as ‘FINLAY MILLS, BOMBAY’. According to an early 20th century article on the mill, it was the first electrically driven spinning and weaving mill in India to be designed and built for the electric drive in 1906. It closed in the early 2000s. We had not previously realised the significance of the muslin piece in our collection before mounting our WHITE exhibition for which we also displayed 18th century sleeve ruffles and a 2022 book muslin, all hand-spun and hand-woven muslin in complete contrast to the Finlay Mills’ piece which we purchased from an Indian shop in Southall, London c.1995–6.
A portrait of Otto Marstrand’s Daughters and their West Indian Nanny, Justina Antoine dated 1857 in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, shows Justina wearing a white dress with a similar gathered bodice front and radiating folds. Her dress is either of muslin or a very fine cotton.
Text by Jenny Tiramani.