Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.


Copyright 2002 by the author(s). Used by permission of TSA.


This appears to be an age of silk. The correspondent of a country paper, writing from New York, says that men are becoming very luxurious, and their... wardrobes and repositories for personal belongings display tastes more costly than those of women.... [as they put on] underwear of the softest, richest knitted silk.

During the last quarter of the 19th century affluent men of leisure and fashion had many hours every day to "loiter at the various clubs and discuss matters of taste." Those who displayed an exceptional interest in fashion were labeled "swells." This research was inspired by a fictional character in an article that examined a day in the sartorial life of Mr. Montgomery Montmorency who was "a howling NY swell by environment and inclination." At the start of day Mr. Montmorency's butler "makes his own selection of his master's suit of silk underwear and has chosen a medium weight texture in proper comport with the atmosphere. On this occasion the suit is of a fetching shade of electric blue"- compatible with the business suit of slate-blue mixed which he wears to Wall St. The age of silk for ultrafashionable Victorian men affected their most intimate clothing: underwear. This paper will discuss the qualities of silk fibers, cloth structures and manufacturers of underwear worn by fashionable New York "swells" under their sturdy and sober tailored suits. Silk underwear was chosen to improve the drape of trousers as well as for warmth, hygiene and health. Trade journals and fashion industry publications were studied and etiquette books, dyers sample books and silk swatches from the textile collection of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology were examined,

The American Silk Journal, 1885 reported:

Silk underwear for gentlemen ... is coming extensively into use. A few years ago it was so rare that it was but seldom found in the furnishing stores. Many of the sex now wear it all the year round ... silk underwear cost $18 for a shirt and $16 for drawers, or S34 a suit. Some gentlemen order three or four suits at a time.

In the Brooks Brothers Catalogue 1901, underwear from Allen Solly and other makers in all weights and qualities including silk were offered in prices up to $15.00. In spite of its high cost, silk had unique properties which made it the prestige fiber for underwear. It had a soft hand, good absorbency, and wicking characteristics; the fiber is strong and resilient; Because of its absorbency, it is appropriate for warm-weather wear. Silk's low heat conductivity makes it also suitable for cold-weather wear.

Silk underwear was manufactured from both spun and reeled silk.

If the filament of the cocoon can be unwound from it in a continuous fibre, it is 'reeled' and known in commerce as 'raw' silk [but]...if the cocoon through any cause be pressed, broken or injured so that its filament cannot be 'reeled,' then it must be 'spun'

as characterized by the American Silk Journal. Spun silk was also classed as "waste" and included refuse or product thrown off in the process of reeling. Samuel Lister discovered silk waste by accident in a London warehouse and the owners were happy to sell it for rubbish. "It was neither agreeable to the feel, the smell, nor the touch; but simply a mass of knotty, dirty, impure stuff, full of bits of stick and dead mulberry leaves." Lister recognized the commercial viability of manufacturing spun silk fabric that could compete in appearance with material from the perfect cocoon.