Luster. Shine. Sheen: The Visual Lexicon of the 18th Century Elite
Mid 18th century paste stone and silver shoe buckles, French or English. Private Collection.
Behind me in the pit sat a young fop who continually put his foot on my bench in order to show off the flashy stone buckles on his shoes; if I didn’t make way for his precious buckles he put his foot on my coat-tails.
Carl Moritz, at a London theater, from Journeys of a German in London in 1782 [i]
Silver thread embroidery with spangles. Private Collection
Mid-18th century gold lace. Upham Family Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society
Luster, shine, sheen. Creating highly polished surfaces, adorning oneself with glittering metallic lace, silver or gold threads, or sparkling jewels were part of the visual lexicon of the eighteenth-century. Baroque then Rococo styles dominated European art, architecture, and fashion, introducing a taste for dramatic, theatrical movement and the interplay of light and shadow. As global trade expanded, new materials and ideas from foreign ports became more accessible. Designers and artisans experimented with bold palettes, active patterns, undulating lines, and S-curves. The naturalistic motifs found in rich brocades and silks were not limited to interior furnishings and textiles, but permeated all aspects of elite dress. Elite consumers could draw upon Chinese, English, and French silks, metallic threads, and trim (then known as lace), elaborate passementerie (decorative trims including tassels, floss fringe, and so on) and the softest of Spanish and Moroccan leathers.
In keeping with the aesthetics of the era, Americans, too, sought to create dramatic effect through a lady or gentleman’s hair, dress, and accessories, particularly for special occasions. The goal was to create a sense of movement and a play of light by employing shimmering silk damask and brocade for ladies dresses, petticoats, and bodices; and gentlemen’s coats, waistcoats. And the accessories were no exception – shoes embroidered with metallic lace and embellished with spangles, clocked stockings worked with metallic threads, and glittering silver and paste stone buckles--some even featuring real gems, such as diamonds and sapphires.[ii] Shoes and stockings were transformed from the everyday by metallic lace, and spangles, which, in combination with glittering buckles, epitomized popular Georgian style aesthetics.[iii]
[i]Carl Moritz, at a London theater, from Journeys of a German in London in 1782, in Richard B. Schwartz, Daily Life in Johnson’s London(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 171.
[ii]Extravagant examples, such as sapphire- and diamond-laden shoe buckles dating from the mid-eighteenth century, were recently exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in the exhibition “Pleasure and Pain” (2015).
For additional information on buckles as a fashion and economic statement, see Riello, A Foot in the Past, 75-82.
[iii]For more on metallic thread, see Garside, Paul (2012). 'Gold and silver metal thread', in: Gale Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth and Maria Hayward (eds.). Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles, c. 450-1450, Brill: Leiden, pp. 237-239; Marsh, Gail (2006). 18th Century Embroidery Techniques, Lewes: Guild of Master Craftsman Publications. Paperback edition 2012, pp. 38-69.
For an example of the use of gold metallic lace on a woman's dress, see a Robe à la française (or sack back) with petticoat(English or French, 1760-65)from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: https://collections.lacma.org/node/231561 - see images above.