Friday, January 20, 2012

The First Fashion Blogger?

As further proof (other than Downton Abbey) that privileged Englishwomen had little to occupy their time, here comes "A Lady of Fashion: Barbara Johnson's Album of Styles and Fabrics". Sounds like one of the housewives of Wisteria Lane, doesn't she? No, Barbara Johnson lived from 1738-1825 and during her lifetime compiled a scrapbook of fabric samples and descriptions for myriads of garments that had been made for her. The book is a facsimile reproduced at actual size and will set you back a cool $466.56 for a new one (used copies starting at $99.31).

Where did I see this? While trolling around under "Fashion Style". There are over 11,000 listings. This was on only the 25th page. Thank goodness. It is not a new book (as an old book) either, having been published in 1987. The editor, Natalie Rothstein, was affiliated with the Victoria & Albert Museum. Inside the "oversize quarto" (library speak for coffee table book) is page after page of fabric samples, illustrated clippings from magazines of the day and handwritten descriptions of the clothing. There seems to be an extensive introduction as well.

Miss Johnson began her lifelong project at age eight in 1746 and continued until her death in 1825. Natalie Rothstein was able to identify that Barbrara was the spinster daughter of a clerical family and moved on the fringes of London society. She spent time in London, Norfolk and Bath.

From "The Study of Dress History" (2002):

This is a curious object because it is simply an old accounts ledger, but one in which one woman pinned samples of fabric of all the dresses she wore and then noted alongside details of price, date and occasion for which the dress was made. Even more astonishing is the fact that Miss Johnson did this over a period of nearly eighty years... 

The album came up for auction at Christies in 1973 and after some desperate fund raising it was purchased for the Victoria and Albert Museum. Turning over the pages of this album is almost like hearing Miss Johnson's voice speaking about her clothes, whether they were for weddings, funerals, or visits to smart relatives in London and Bath. The note written carefully in black ink alongside a small sample of medium-weight cotton printed with a tiny speckled repeat design in grey and mauve, reads: 'A Stormont Cotten gown and petticoat, ten yards, two shillings a yard. April 1788, mourning for Aunt Johnson.' This modest little print is indeed in the exact etiquette-correct colours of half mourning. 

Another mourning fabric chosen twenty years later is described as 'a black Chambery muslin, seven yards, half a crown a yard. Made in Bath. June 1808, mourning for my dear friend Mrs. Wodhull.' This little note tells us that even when elderly, Miss Johnson was still keeping up with the latest fashion fabrics by turning to the lighter silk and cotton materials fashionable in the early nineteenth century." 

Oh please let there be a garage sale in my neighborhood where I will pick up this little treasure for a song!

1 comment:

  1. You can find this book at