Victorian women in dresses with bustles, The Gallery of HMS Calcutta (Portsmouth) by James Tissot (1876)
When you think of a Victorian woman, she is likely wearing a dress covered in a pretty print. That dress was likely made of calico, which took the newly industrial world by storm. But was the pattern on her dress pirated? It’s possible—and as Lara Kriegel writes, battles over bolts of fabric shook Britain during the nineteenth century.
The problem was in the prints that covered the textiles. Calico itself—a bright kind of cotton cloth—was ripped off from Indian weavers, and once it began to be produced in Britain it “sparked a fashion craze.” Suddenly, women could wear fabrics of all colors and patterns—and in turn, manufacturing that cloth helped change the country’s landscape. Soon, mills dotted England, and many of them produced miles of printed calico.
But the designs they printed were often stolen from one another. Country calico makers ripped off city printers, and industry turned to government to beg for regulation. “Honest printers found themselves daily at the mercy of pirates who could foist designs on the market with staggering and unprecedented speed,” writes Kriegel. It was the nineteenth-century version of Forever 21 knocking off designer clothing....MORE