Day and Evening Dress, 1800-1805


History of Costume I 1800-1899

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These four goddess-like figures represent the peak of the classical fashion that gripped the western world at the beginning of the 19th century. The cult of classicism had started much earlier but it was not until the French revolutionaries tried, rather optimistically, to begin again from the earliest era of civilisation in Europe that clothes fell into line with the general trend in culture. Greek and Latin were already essential to a cultivated man and his interest had been developed by being dragged round Europe on the Grand Tour. As the curiosity of the rich for the glories of the past became more competitive a sudden busy digging and excavating arose in Greece, Italy and Egypt, which was intensified during the Napoleonic campaigns, often by opportunist adventurers anxious to turn a mummified Pharaoh for a dishonest penny from a rich collector. The Louvre owes its brightest antique exhibits to the curiosity and acquisitiveness of the clever little Emperor of the French who employed several wily travellers to find and buy these treasures for the glory of the Empire. As more and more graves opened with their rich hoards of Greek and Etruscan remains, and slabs of temples were uncovered, artists took as their models the pure decoration and forms of the classic originals. While Angelica Kauffmann designed ceilings and wall decorations with airy nymphs and garlands, Flaxman and the busy collector-draughtsmen, William Hope and Moses, copied the figures from vases in a fine engraved line which they believed to be replica of the model. While lacking the touch of inspired genius of the Greek vase-painter it has remained, to this day, our impression of the Classic Age far more than the original. These designs 1uckily took the imagination of the fashionable world who got busy with their tailors and dressmakers to fit themselves out in clothes suitable to adorn their pagan palaces. So deep was the impression made by these engravings that it was almost a disappointment to find thot male figures in Greek vases did not wear tight buckskin breeches to match the perfect copy of the women’s clothes; so man had to content himself with wearing his garments tighter and tighter to show the natural lines of his figure. There was a wild, glorious muddle of styles as architects brought in Eastern influences and the rebels turned to Gothic as a complete contrast from the prevailing classicism. Glorious, still, because the patrons were learned and full of courage to launch out on the grand scale. Even the small houses and furniture of the early years of the century bear witness to a refined taste. The one thing lacking, in all the borrowing from Rome, was the drainage system, which has taken over a hundred years to equal in importance the visible structure of our houses. The English country gentry’s dress was already popular on the Continent through the Anglophobia of the Duke of Orleans, Phillipe Egalité, who, while out of favour at the French court, spent much of his frivolous time in the company of the Prince Regent. Up to the time of the Revolution the high coachman’s hat and the soft muslin gown tied simply at the back with a fichu or sash were to be seen on all the aristocrats playing at farming at Versailles or in the French countryside. The revolution that had swept away the old regime and hoped to create a brave new world on what it fondly believed to be a perfect democracy – that of Ancient Greece – hardly changed women’s clothes in the first few years of the new order but, under the Directorate, the soft muslin dresses became less voluminous and even the men, for a short time, were expected to wear a short classic tunic in public office. With the more general knowledge of the Classic line the English dress, which was a full straight garment gathered at the waist and neckline by drawstrings, became less chemise-like. The neckline slipped straight across the chest and the shortened sleeves were set in, on a narrow band, over the shoulder making a square decolletage, while the waist, if it can be so called, shot up under the armpits, tight under the breasts to lift them in the approved Grecian line. Corsets, when worn, were mere brassieres with long straight fronts, the only pinching being at the bust line. To effect the sweeping long line, from breast to floor, very thin materials had to be used, and the East Indian merchants of both France and England did a busy line in muslins, silks, gauzes and cashmeres to satisfy the fashion market. As petticoats spoilt the clinging line they were discard ed and the excessively fashionable woman introduced tights or went without underwear. ‘Sans culotte’, from being the necessity of poverty, became the vogue. The lively women of the Directorate took full advantage of the licence prevailing to show their undoubtedly beautiful bodies to the full, appearing with bare bosoms and slits up the sides of skirts to show lithe long legs in embroidered stockings and high-laced Greek sandals. The most voluptuous of them all, Pauline Bonaparte, Princess Borghese, allowed herself to pose (with as little persuasion as clothes, we feel) as Venus, for the sculptor Canova, while portraits of Josephine and Madame Recamier emphasise the bosom nearly falling out of the little straight bodices. It was the prudish little Emperor who, like all upstarts, became a stickler for the conventions and put a stop to the most outrageous fashions – if not the behaviour – in which he himself played a small discreet part. It is doubtful if these early fashions were ever popular in England which was cut off from French influence for so long. The 1790’s muslin dress was a good basis for the new Classic line and although the caricaturists Gilray and Rowlandson slashed the new styles with their acid-loaded pens it was more the frailties of the human body in the revealing fashion that bore the brunt of their satire. Madame Recamier, in 1802, would hardly have caused such a stir in Kensington Gardens (as we read from the reminiscences of the Countess of Brownlow) clad in clinging muslin à l’antique with a Greek chignon lavishly oiled and topped by a floating veil, had these styles been worn by many fashionable London women. The French, always more adventurous, were a little caustic about the appearance of the women of the Island Race, after the lack of contact during the war years. The main jibe of the French critic was against the low waists and badly ut skirts of the Englishwoman. It still takes a year, or more, for fashion details to filter through from the fountain-head of Paris to our own ready-mades and on to the woman in the street, and it is understandable that, going by hearsay alone, the English­ woman made do with a few simple alterations to her comfortable, becoming gown by shortening the sleeves and gradually raising the waist. In 1800 the dress was still made all in one piece with a straight front skirt breadth and the fullness gathered to the back. The swept-back line was achieved by the weight of material dragging on the ground in a train. Apparently, Napoleon decreed that over­dresses and tunics should be worn from about this time, possibly because the double thickness of material was less body revealing. The skirts of the earliest fashions in Plate I are still full, showing them to be English styles, our ancestresses being reluctant to show a limb until the last possible moment of dowdiness. Late 18th century muslins with tiny sprig designs, em­ broidered or hand-printed in India, were still worn and – we have it on the authority of no less a person than Jane Austen – could be bought for as little as five shillings per yard. With the coming of over-dresses and tunics, borders of gold or silver thread in Greek or Etruscan pattern added the authentic classic detail. Later, for evening, the under-skirt is slimmer and a train has been added in a different colour from the robe, at first fastened to the back of the bodice and tied with cords under the breast. With a diadem and feathers the resemblance to a Roman matron was complete. In the first excitement of the return to the spring of civilisation women seemed to have braved the climate in their almost sleeveless gowns, but a cold spell or two soon muffled them up in shawls and scarves, with their Indian patterned borders, that so obligingly carried still further the classic mode, being draped like the Greek chlamys or himation. The most glorious of all can be seen painted by Ingres on his Madame Riviere, snugly settled in her soft cash­ mere. Decorative as these accessories must have been, the active woman must have found it irksome to pose all day as a goddess and it was then that the short jacket first made its appearance, borrowed in the first place from the tail-less coat, worn by men, called a Spencer. The story goes that the Earl of Spencer, a great buck in the 1790’s, losing most of the sleeves and the tails of his coat in a hunting accident, wagered that he would make the remains fashion­ able – quite successfully, as it turned out, for the short-skirted jacket was suitable for town or country wear and was easily adapted with a high waist as a female fashion. The Englishwoman has never really come to terms with the prevalent climate of her country but this little coat was her brainchild and apart from being a comforter became popular as a very chic garment when spiced up with high collars, frogged fronts and the tight sleeves of a hussar’s dolman. This single burst of invention would seem to have dried up all further ventures into fashion design on the part of the Englishwoman, and so satisfied has she been with this useful little garment that its descendants have been seen in various guises through generations, to the velvet bridge coats and the cardigans of today. It is only in the last year or two that a separate top­ hamper, in the same material as the dress, has been designed to be removed should that longed-for warm weather ever take place and as part of the general ensemble. Hair styles followed faithfully the classic originals, the front being cut short in a fringe of little curls, the back plaited or wound round in a bun or tied high in a loose bunch of curls to balance the fringe, or diadem, placed low on the forehead. The earliest purely classic style was short and close; only later did the dressing rise to the extravagances of the Roman matron. Headgear in the first years of the century was rather wilder in choice. Bonnets, for indoors and out, having been so long a thing of habit, one feels that the woman of the new era felt a little undressed without one. Scarves and ribbons, wound round the head, developed into real turbans as the Eastern influence became stronger, and added height and dignity. The bonnet crept back in the form of a triangle of lace or muslin (that good old standby, the gipsy scarf) with the point over the fringe in front and the two ends tied under the chin and was aptly named the cornette. Reversed, and tied at the back with the point tucked under the bun like a bag and wound with braid or ribbon, it resembled the shell ornament so popular in contemporary furniture design. This cap, with a peak added and ties taken from the top of the head to the chin, became the capote – the forerunner of the poke or round bonnet which, to quote Miss Austen again, was ‘most becoming’. Its enduring popularity became the target of the French critics as ‘that awful flat English hat’. Real hats with soft gathered crowns and small brims or bands were not the most flattering vogue. With trimmings of bows, flowers or feathers planted low on the centre front, they are reminiscent of decorated pudding basins. Gloves, and shoes, those flat square-toed dancing slippers, were in gay colours and important to a smart turn-out. The popular little handbag, the reticule, in all shapes of circles, hearts or diamonds suspended on fancy strings, were tatted or embroidered in silk or beads and served a double purpose – as a vanity bag and as a useful piece of handwork for those women’s tedious hours. All too soon these fine simple clothes passed out of favour. It is an irony that, however becoming a style, invention must move on and, with the obsession of the leaders of fashion to be that bit ahead or different from the rest (accentuated today by the economics of the fashion trade) there may be generations between really becoming clothes.

Additional information

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm