What can be learned from a part of a garment? Unlike a bodice or a shoe, this stomacher cannot be worn alone, there is no indication of where it was made, who made it, who it was made for, or even when it was made. Yet even without being able to put the stomacher in context with the other garments it was made to complement, this stomacher still has a story to tell. Manufactured with straw and silver, it combines a conspicuous display of wealth with the pastoral aesthetic, which opens discussions about how women navigated the line between pastoral simplicity and displays of status in eighteenth century England and France.
The choices of materials, straw and silver, that were used in the construction of the stomacher were carefully considered by the woman for whom it was made. In the eighteenth century world of made to measure garments, both women and men would frequently provide the raw materials for the making of their garments. As clothing made up a large part of the expenditure of the middling to upper sorts, this stomacher was not something to be made or commissioned without careful attention to the materials used in the making. An eighteenth century English woman, Barbra Johnson, devoted an entire journal to fashion, keeping fabric swatches, prices, and notes about the garments, fabric, and trim that were purchased. Similarly, through letters from the period, it is apparent that discussions around design and garment choices took place with great deliberation. As the materials that went into the making of the garments often made up the bulk of the cost of the garment, they too were selected with thought and consideration. It can thus be inferred that the materials used in this stomacher were carefully selected design choices made to convey a very specific aesthetic.
Using straw, a simple rural material, in combination with the silver and silk embroidery exemplifies wealth, taste, and learning, by demonstrating the wearers grasp of the pastoral aesthetic.While straw is a by-product of cereal and conjures images of shepherds and sheep, this stomacher, given the silver and trim, cost more than that shepherdess would have made in a week. The average agricultural worker in southern England would have made about 12 pence a day. Silver was quoted as twenty five sols an ounce for resale by embroiderers by Saint-Aubin, embroiderer to King Louis XV. Considering that Saint-Aubin gives the daily wage of a woman embroiderer in France the same twenty five sols per day it is unlikely that someone not belonging to the middle to upper sorts would use silver to decorate a stomacher.
The fact that real silver thread and paillettes were used should also be remarked upon. During this period in Paris there were shops that sold imitation gold and silver braid that were advertised as, ‘in comparison to those which are of (real) fine gold and silver, makes no concessions except in terms of price.’ The choice to use real silver thread and paillettes, then, certainly speaks to the intended quality of the stomacher. Women of the upper sorts were often spending up to £100 on a court gown; eighteenth century writer, Lady Louisa Stuart, commented that a court dress could cost £70, with a regular ball dress only costing £24. Consequently, the use of straw in the stomacher was a deliberate choice that had little to do with household economy and everything to do with conveying pastoral ideals.
When combined with silver and silk embroidery, the presence of straw demonstrates the fine line that the middling and upper sorts had to navigate between pastoral and provincial. While perceived provincial morals were highly regarded, to be provincial in fashion was considered as social ruin. In London the beau monde set the styles, and to be able to demonstrate knowledge of what styles were in good taste was one step to becoming a member of the group. Gertrude Savile and the Countess of Strafford were both women who have left records of their attempts ‘to be made aqquented with the World…(or) be made fit to converse with the Beau-Mond.’ These attempts included much consideration into the decoration of their homes and their garments. The French court took fashion just as seriously, if not more so, using the nuances within the ‘visual prestige’ to show their position to the king at court. Even the names of popular colours of the time, such as ‘queen’s hair’, ‘king’s eyes’, or ‘Paris mud’ would have required insider knowledge or at least an implied knowledge of the court and capital.
Another design choice that speaks to the pastoral is the silk embroidery that appears on the stomacher. Floral patterns were in abundance in the eighteenth century from Spitalfields silk to Robert Furber’s The Flower-Garden display’d, in above four hundred curious representations of the most beautiful flowers … from the designs of Mr. Furber and others … With the description and history of each plant and the method of their culture, etc. published in 1732. The decision to embroider cornflowers, most commonly associated with the growing of cereal crops, on the stomacher was equally carefully thought out. According to some sources ‘(t)he cornﬂower has also been used as a symbol of tenderness, of ﬁdelity, and of reliability.’ Additionally, cornflowers are ‘an annual that germinates more or less together with cereal crops, and has been particularly prevalent in rye fields on the European continent.’ During this time, cornflowers would have certainly been associated with the growing of crops and a familiar sight to anyone travelling through the countryside in the summer, and their connotations with pastoral were inherent. This imagery illuminates the dichotomy of pastoral perception, as a farmer of the eighteenth century would consider the cornflower a weed that reduced crop yields and was thought to blunt the scythes and sickles used in harvesting,demonstrating that the pastoral ideals of the eighteenth century ran counter to the reality of country life.
Social historian Daniel Roche discusses this juxtaposition between pastoral and wealth in France, as ‘the passion for the natural and the simple was more expensive than ever.’ The straw stomacher certainly falls into the category of natural, and within the context of the styles of the period, it may be considered as “simple” as well. Roche also states that ‘informal garments, fantasy and exoticism appeared only amongst the very richest…’ and that ‘the norm was more natural, and aristocratic women adopted a more popular air, whilst working-class women indulged in a little aristocratic fantasy.’ These statements about trends in French fashion present an image of the upper sorts that is more in keeping with someone who would be interested in personifying the pastoral in the form of a straw embroidered stomacher.
Pastoral was more than an agrarian ideal, but also a moral standard in the eighteenth century. As the following quote from poet William Cowper demonstrates:
‘We are polished now. The rural lass, Whom once her virgin modesty and grace, Her artless manners and her neat attire, So dignified, that she was hardly less Than the fair shepherdess of old romance, Is seen no more….’
By bringing pastoral elements into her clothing, a woman of the eighteenth century could help to create an image of morality for herself.The people of the eighteenth century spent considerable time debating, personifying, and creating the pastoral. In a time where debates on luxury raged, pastoral could be perceived as a tasteful way to indulge luxury.During the eighteenth century these debates changed focus from ‘the vices of luxurious excess to embrace modern comfort and convenience, enjoyment and sociability, taste, aesthetics and refinement…’ Pastoral was associated with simplicity, innocence, and morality, so what better form to emulate when creating tasteful luxury?
The pastoral life was never perceived as truth but rather an idealised existence. Artists in portraying the pastoral had to navigate this idealised truth, illustrating the world of the pastoral not as it was: filled with sheep, mud, and long hours, but as the urban audience wanted it to be: filled with sheep, sunshine, and bucolic bliss. These pastoral ideals helped to create an aesthetic that displayed both virtue and wealth. While the specifics surrounding this stomacher may have been lost to time, the discourse awakened by the pastoral aesthetic of the stomacher with its straw and silver embroidery demonstrates that this stomacher still has a unique role to play in discussions of society in the eighteenth century.