The Spitalfields Silk 18th - 19th Century Dress

It started in the early 1700s with the Huguenots, French Protestants fleeing persecution in Leon and seeking asylum in London’s East End, in Spitalfields.

They brought with them what they could carry and what they could do. And what they could do was powerful enough to name the streets where it happened. Fashion Street, Silk Street, Loom Court and Shuttle Street, places where brocades, lustrings, velvets, satins, paduasoys, mantuas and ducapes were woven to a standard previously unseen outside of France.

And best of all, the silk. Hand woven with a new technique that made it so glossy and so coveted that a dress made from it, this dress, would be continually altered over 100 years to keep that precious fabric in fashion and in sight. 

From its creation in 1770 through to the 1880s, this garment has been stitched, and cut, and taken in, and let out to keep it en vogue. It greets my eyes as a Polonaise Gown with bumptious bustle; its last fandango. Perhaps there was not enough fabric to craft another look. Perhaps, like Dr Who, it can only regenerate a certain number of times.

I think of it as prized within one family, handed down through perhaps five generations, fastened by candlelight over stories of where it was worn, and who fell in love.
“That’s Spitalfields silk,” whispers the eldest child to the youngest. 

The dress is part of the Joan Sleigh bequest to North East Lincolnshire Council’s museum service.

UPDATE: Thanks to my good friend @Lizziemouse for alerting me to 4 Princelet Street, a merchant's house in Spitalfields that looks pretty much as it did at the time of the silk weavers. Have a long, lingering look at the weavers' loft here

Invitation to Comment

Have you made any clothes by hand? If not, would you like to learn this skill?

What's the oldest garment or accessory you own?

Next post: The Edwardian Heart Brooch
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  1. Another illuminating and lovingly written post - thank you! The dress is incredibly and exquisitely beautiful and the history is so touching.
    It really emphasises the enormous and beneficial contribution to our society and economy that immigrant and asylum seeking / refugee communities have made. I was very fortunate to visit 19, Princelet Street in Spitalfields - a very haunting and wonderful building, home to Silk Weavers. Here is the link :

    From Lizziemouse

    Ps: I am posting as Anon as I have no idea how this works!

  2. What a wonderful post! I've never thought of clothes as heirlooms in this sort of way, not packed away but refashioned and worn over generations.
    If you go to 19 Princelet Street, also visit Dennis Severs' house (, which explores the Huguenots' experience in a different way.
    My oldest accessory (if I may call it that) is my engagement ring, made in France in the 1780s - pretty bad timing for commissioning expensive fripperies. I often wish I knew more about it and who else wore it before me.

  3. I posted this before but its not appeared

    Check Museum of London for fantastic selection and history of the Silk Industry in Spitlefields


  4. I adore vintage clothes and this dress is gorgeous! Well written!

  5. Very beautiful .. and a fascinating commentary!

  6. Thanks for all your comments - sorry for the delay in replying have been away (but managed to photograph a 1920s carousel for a future post, yay!).

    Lizzie, Punctured One and Louise, thanks for adding such brilliant content to the story, and Dana and Debs, thanks for letting me know you enjoyed my writing, this dress had so much to say I really strugged get it under the 200 word limit I've set myself on this blog.

  7. Wow amazing stuff and thanks for sharing.


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