This is the story of a mid-18th-century silk dress – and of the designer of its pattern, the weaver of the fabric, the American owner of the dress and the artist who painted her wearing it.
Not much is known about these four lives, which suits Zara Anishanslin fine, because biography is not her main preoccupation. She is concerned with patterns of production and consumption and with what ‘things’ can tell us. Through four people linked by one object, she triumphantly undertakes a complex exercise in the exploration of material culture and ‘hidden histories’, complete with socioeconomic digressions and extrapolations – most of them relevant, and most of them instructive and entertaining.
She starts at the very beginning: ‘One piece of English silk mingled the physical remains of thousands upon thousands of dead silkworms’ cocoons.’ Although England had the best weavers (and not all of them Huguenots, as is commonly believed), the silk itself was never English. We had the wrong sort