by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Velvet Revolution

By Roderick Conway Morris
COMO, Italy 1 April 1997
Curtis Museum
Napoleon First Consul by Ingres, 1804



The huge quantity of the finest silk yarn (and often gold thread) required, the rarity and costliness of the dyes employed, and the exceptionally high level of skill and immense labor needed to manufacture it, guaranteed that from the moment of its first appearance in the 14th century, velvet enjoyed a prestige unequaled by any other textile.

Indeed, Not So Much a Textile, More a Way of Life might make a fitting subtitle to 'Velvets', a fascinating and revelatory exhibition at the Fondazione Antonio Ratti, which traces the story of velvet, its transmutations, uses and symbolic significance from its beginnings into the 20th century. (The show will be at the Fondazione until June 22, and then, from July 1 until August 28, at the charming Villa Carlotta at Tremezzo, also on the lake shore.)

'Velvets' is the brainchild of Milan-based textile historian Dr. Chiara Buss, who is also the author of the sumptuous, lively and informative catalogue. Not the least of Buss's achievements has been some brilliant detective work, which has made it possible for her to match up surviving pieces of material with contemporary paintings and illustrations, displaying images and textiles side by side to stunning effect.

The origins of velvet are still a matter for debate, but it was certainly being woven in China, Persia and Europe as early as the 14th century, but the primacy it gained in the West way outstripped its importance elsewhere. First the exclusive prerogative of emperors, kings and popes, it was soon adopted by the aristocracy at large, and in time by the rising, prosperous mercantile classes. Venice, Genoa and Florence dominated its manufacture, and derived enormous incomes from it.

'To appreciate how precious velvets were, you have to remember that typically in wills valuable textiles came only after land, and before palaces, artworks and other goods,' said Buss. 'Velvets were passed down from parents to children, sometimes over hundreds of years, and this was possible because velvet is extremely robust. In fact, velvet became the symbol par excellence of a family's status and roots in the past.

'This is the reason why in so many portraits the sitter is not only dressed in velvet but velvet wall-hangings and upholstery are so prominent, and for a long time there was absolutely no distinction between the types of velvet used for garments, for men and women, adults and children, and those used for furnishings'.

Early velvets were characterized by large, sculpturally flamboyant patterns formed by cutting the pile, but this began to change after about 1500, when for the first time velvets were developed specifically for clothing, with more compact designs, suitable for cutting up into smaller sections. Patterns became ever more geometric in the late 16th and early 17th century.

'Spain controlled a substantial proportion of Europe, including the Low Countries, Lombardy, Naples and Sicily, and the Spanish court had a specific message to convey to the countries it ruled. The image had to be on the one hand very Catholic, and on the other of absolute secular power.

'Noblemen and women presented themselves as almost divine. Their garments covered their entire bodies except their faces and hands, and impeded them from movement, from work. When dressed, they were emblems of absolutely stolid immobility. And so they needed velvets that were very precious, obviously quite unlike any other humbler textile, but apparently almost austere and modest,' Buss said.

Changes in the type and cut of clothes in the 18th century led to further developments in velvets. Classic menswear now consisted of a coat, waistcoat and breeches, with plain velvets commonly used for the coat and breeches, and more guardedly elaborate, colorful velvets with 'miniature' patterns reserved for the waistcoat. The ensemble in terms of materials could be as expensive as ever, but in the Age of Enlightenment, where clarity of form and shape became the orthodoxy, the overall aim was to give 'an illusion of sobriety'.

The Napoleonic era saw the return of velvets 'everywhere and anywhere', on men and women and on furnishings. Napoleon had himself painted in his official portrait as 'Napoleon First Consul' dressed in red velvet, with accompanying props of table, chair and curtains all in green velvet.

'Napoleon needed signs of his power, but something different from those of the monarchy that had just been destroyed. He also knew that textiles were the foundation of France's industrial economy. So, while he went back to the Roman Empire for his insignia of authority, he also pushed velvet - which brought about a dramatic revival in Lyons textile-making - had all the palaces reupholstered in velvet, and not only had his own uniforms made in velvet, but also the uniforms of his functionaries, such as prefects and mayors, and made velvets de rigueur in women's court fashion,' said Buss.

Velvet's extraordinary adaptability in changing social circumstances without losing its aura of superiority is again shown in the show's section on the 19th century. The industrial age saw men's fashions becoming increasingly dour, with coat, waistcoat and trousers made in the same dark colors and in wool. For a time colorful velvet waistcoats survived, and indeed became the badge of otherness sported by self-conscious bohemians, artists and intellectuals, but the majority now dressed in a deliberately puritanical uniform, the last remaining possible element of color being confined to the necktie - a situation that has lasted until today.

'This meant that all the color, all the expensive design bought by a rich and successful man had to be lavished on his woman and the furnishings of his house. Hence the advent of what has been called 'the upholstered woman' and 'the dressed house' - because a rich man's wife came to be literally covered with the affirmations of his wealth and power,' said Buss.

This craving for extreme opulence in female dress and the rise of haute couture brought about a revival of Renaissance types of velvets, including ciselé (chiseled) velvet, where the pattern is formed by closely alternating cut and uncut pile, and some of the heaviest and most expensive velvets ever produced. And, ironically, even Art Nouveau, which represented a reaction to the baroque and neo-classical forms that had dominated the 19th century, still frequently felt constrained to lend its furnishings the required air of luxury, and resorted to velvet, demonstrating its perennial appeal as the crème de la crème of textiles.

Fashion cycles in the 20th century have become briefer and faster-changing, but velvets still keep turning up, observed Buss. 'There was a comeback in the 1930s and again in the 60s, and it's been in vogue again in haute couture for over a decade,' she said. 'The most favored form now is on a crepe ground, which is a very soft, transparent silk, with a pile in viscose, which is an artificial fire (it's made of wood) not a synthetic one, and produces a beautiful, luminous material. It's also extremely expensive, which well meets the requirements of the exclusivity of haute couture.

'But then, ever since it appeared, velvet has been the textile that most explicitly represents power and privilege, and it seems it still does.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023