Swipe to spin


Day dress

Wood-block printed cotton

British, textile Indian

Follow the thread


Western fascination with the dress of eastern cultures encompassed the art and textiles of the Ottoman Empire, India, China and other Asian territories. London was among the first European cities to take an interest in painted and printed calicos during the 1600s. By the mid-18th century, printed Indian cotton dresses were very fashionable.

Calico is a plain-woven fabric made from unbleached cotton, most often used for fashion and furnishings. Strong and hard-wearing, it is cheap to produce owing to its unfinished appearance. It originated in the city of Kozhikode in south west India (Calicut in English) and was made by the caste of traditional weavers known as Saliyar or Chaliyan. The raw fabric was dyed and painted in bright hues.

Painted and printed calicos were not enthusiastically received in Europe at first. Customers declared the strongly-coloured motifs to be excessively ‘Asian’. During the 1640s, East India Company agents were instructed to select fabrics more in line with British tastes. In the 1670s and 1680s, British craftsmen were sent to India to train local artisans in skills that would better meet British expectations.

Social Culture

The exotic and fabled luxury of eastern dress particularly captured the European imagination in the 18th century, owing much to the introduction of the masquerade ball from Italy. Until the end of the century, Indian cottons, although popular, were worn only for the most informal of occasions. It was Marie Antoinette who popularised a simpler feminine look fashioned in muslin, heralding a shift to neoclassical styles.

Craft Skills

Before going on display, this dress had several areas of soiling and damage, including long tears on the skirt which had been very roughly sewn together with thick cotton thread, damage to the back neck edge and splits in the pleats on the front of the bodice. We decided that it would benefit from wet cleaning in our textiles conservation studio.