Today’s guest post is courtesy of historical fashionista Andrew Schroeder, who brings us a brief (and highly illustrated) history of 18th century fashion. In today’s article, in honor of Isobel Carr’s eloquent guest post about the allure of 1780s style and my most recent review and giveaway of “Ripe for Scandal,” he mainly discusses the many facets of late 18th century ladies’ fashion.
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“The fortunate few of the eighteenth century dreamed and lived and danced in one of history’s most glorious periods.” So said Diana Vreeland in the introduction to “The Eighteenth-Century Lady,” and her declaration is not without merit. The elegance and style of these fortunate few have been preserved for posterity by the likes of Boucher, Fragonard, Le Brun, and Watteau, transporting us into one of most beautiful ages of fashion the Western world has ever known.
Rococo style grew out of a reaction to the heavy oppression of the Baroque aesthetic. Artists and designers looked to natural elements, such as the shell, from which the term “rococo” takes its name, to create ornate, fanciful designs that ambled and meandered in s-shaped curves. These new modes were reflected in women’s dress of the period. This rigid yet hyper-feminine trend gradually gave way, toward the end of the century, to a more natural inspiration, spurred by Rousseau’s writings and an increased emphasis on the individual.
Undergarments of the eighteenth century were complicated but ubiquitous, being worn by all members of society. A woman’s most intimate garment was the chemise, which was made of linen and served to protect the clothing from the body’s oils, as well as protecting the body from the stays. These were the eighteenth century version of the corset. Stays were not worn to constrict the waist, but to give a conical shape to the torso and perfect, erect posture. By the 1780s, a more natural shape was achieved through the use of less boning, creating a “prow” front and a more pronounced bust. Women could then tied a pocket around their waists, which could be accessed by pocket slits in their skirts and petticoats.
Skirt supports of the era varied. Incredibly wide panniers were popular up until the 1740s, after which they were increasingly used for formal or court wear. Pocket hoops were also used to give hip emphasis, with the added bonus that they could hold personal items in them. From the 1770s onward, wide skirts were generally eschewed in favor of padded rolls called bum rolls, which instead gave definition to the posterior and created a softer silhouette.
The most popular dress style of the eighteenth century was the robe à la française, or sacque. It developed out of the earlier robe volante, which itself was derived from a style of dressing gown worn at the end of the previous century. It was characterized by a fitted front and large box pleats in the back which were stitched down at the shoulders and flowed freely to the floor. The skirt was usually open at the front to reveal a decorated petticoat, and the torso was covered by matching stomacher. The wide skirts were supported by pocket hoops or panniers. The sacque went through only minute changes throughout the duration of its wear, although by the 1780s it was only being worn for very formal occasions. A shortened version of it was also worn and was called a pet-en-l’air.
The other main style of dress was the robe à l’anglaise, or mantua. This style featured a fitted back which was initially cut en fourreau, with a length of cloth reaching from the shoulders to the hem and stitched down in pleats which were let out in the skirt. Later in the century, the bodice and the skirt would more often be cut separately, with the back having curved seams which provided visual interest. When the skirts of the robe à l’anglaise were bustled up in swags by the use of cords, it was referred to as a robe à la polonaise, which was worn during the 1770s and 1780s. The front of the bodice could feature a stomacher or, later, could be closed edge-to-edge or be a cutaway “zone” front.
Sleeve styles and necklines underwent changes during the period. Earlier, sleeves were half length and ended in cuffs, or later in pleated frills and lace engageantes. Later, they were cut three-quarter or full length, often in a pronounced L-shape. Necklines were earlier square, but later became more round. The chest and bosom was covered with a fichu or kerchief of sheer fabric during the day or when in public.
Trimming could consist of ruched or gathered fabric that was often pinked and scalloped. Lace was extensively used, as was fly fringe, which was created by intricately knotting colored threads. Bows were often arranged vertically on stomachers and were thus known as échelles. Toward the end of the century, simplicity in trimmings became the mode. Jewelry was always kept to a minimum. Shoes were defined by the well-known Louis heel and usually had jewel-encrusted buckles, whether genuine or paste.
The redingote was a popular tailored riding and traveling style starting in the 1780s. It was derived from men’s fashion, and featured large lapels and often false waistcoats with large buttons, reflecting a military influence.
The chemise à la reine or chemise dress was popularized by Marie Antoinette after she abandoned the court at Versailles in favor of her retreat the Petit Trianon, and her model village the Hameau. It was initially scandalous as it was basically a fuller version of the female undergarment, but it was quickly adopted by many women and eventually morphed into the classical dresses of the Empire and Regency periods. It was usually made of fine, sheer materials such as muslin, and featured gathering at the waist and neckline. A sash was often tied around the waist.
Jackets were initially utilitarian clothing worn only by the working classes, but starting in the 1780s they were adopted by upper class women as well. There were many styles, such as the casaquin, caraco, and pierrot. These were paired with complementary petticoats, which sometimes were complexly quilted in floral designs.
Many different types of fabrics were utilized in the eighteenth century. Silk was never unpopular and was used to make taffeta and satin, as well as brocades, damasks, and as a base upon which floral designs were painted and embroidered. Linen was extensively used for many different garments, as was wool. Imported fabrics became popular, specifically block-printed cotton chintzes from India, which were called indienne prints. Stripes were favored for garments such as the robe à l’anglaise, where the back seams provided an opportunity for chevrons.
Hair was almost as important as clothing was. Hairstyles grew vertically over the decades, reaching astronomical proportions in the 1770s, as popularized by Marie Antoinette. This was achieved through padding and false hair pieces with powder, and was decorated by any number of ornaments, even model ships or other scenes reflecting current events. Starting in the 1780s, the hedgehog style became popular, characterized by width rather than height, created through frizzing and curls. This style lent itself to the huge, lavishly embellished hats which were worn.
The trend of excess was abolished with the coming of the French Revolution in 1789, although it had already been waning by this time. Dresses soon became simpler, with waistlines rising in anticipation of the changes to come. However, in the lengthy proceeding period, fashion reached a penultimate epoch of opulence and refinement which has seldom been matched since.
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Andrew Schroeder is an aspiring costume designer who one day hopes to be the next Walter Plunkett. He is a freshman costume design student who posts absurd amounts of historical fashion at Fripperies and Fobs. His own measly attempts at art can be found at his deviantArt page.