Digital Tour – Vivid View: The Art and Science of Paint Analysis

Silk Shoe Fibers, The Clermont Foundation

Image of fibers from a silk shoe in the collection of Clermont Farm

Photo by Dr. Susan Buck. Courtesy of The Clermont Foundation

Silk fibers from an eighteenth-century lady’s shoe appear to float in inky darkness. Subjected to analysis under cross polarized transmitted light at 200 times and 400 times magnification, these silk fibers were taken from the degraded satin-weave textile remaining on the shoe’s heel. This image of the fibers reveals them to be smooth and sinuous, lacking a central lumen indicative of plant fibers or a scale pattern indicative of wood. Now degraded to a dark brownish color, these silk fibers were originally pink.

This delicate lady’s slipper, on display in the gallery, was discovered in a small closet below the stairs at Clermont (c. 1755) in Berryville, Virginia. In 1788, the closet was closed up, locking the shoe inside. It was not until a recent historic structures investigation that the closet was reopened and the shoe discovered. Stylistically, the shoe’s design and fabrication – its shape, height, construction of the toe and delicate heel, the satin ribbon along the edges, and the remnants of the strap to secure it – date it to the 1780s period. It closely resembles a black satin-covered shoe in the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s collection produced in Britain c. 1785 worn by a member of the Glen-Sanders family in Scotia, New York.

While the striking image of the fibers provides evidence of the shoe’s origin, it gives little information about why such a delicate and stylish lady’s shoe ended up alone in a closet just a few years after arriving in rural Berryville. Likely belonging to Frances Washington, the young bride of an early owner of Clermont Farm, its presence is illuminated by a European folk tradition dating to the middle ages. According to this folkway, any space that was going to be closed up should be provided with a single shoe or other personal item for good luck.

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