Fashionable Dress, 1760-1768


History of Costume II 1660 to 1800

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With the rise of a host of good painters the English scene opens before us, still a little high-class (owing to the sort of prices demanded by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Ramsay and others) but domestic as well as aristocratic and showing people as they really must have looked enjoying the everyday pursuits of town and country life. Hogarth lived till 1764 to describe so intimately the doings of the lesser folk. At the same time French painters lost interest in the domestic scene and, except in highly idealized fashion engravings of rich home life, concentrated on vast canvasses of grand occasions. This is a very clear indication of the diverse life led by the two nations: French aristocracy on the one hand, sporting in rarified seclusion, and the English on the other, spending more time in the country or getting together in the county towns as well as in London for their amusements at which, although the gentry had privilege of first place, the company was most democratically mixed. This delightful situation was only killed at the rise of the rich non-· conformist middle class in the 19th century, partly through their kill-joy attitude to pleasure and partly due to the new snobbery that made the upper classes withdraw through fear of an invasion of their privileges. It has taken another hundred years for the situation to even out somewhat, by which time taste has changed and the population grown too vast for comfortable mass amusement. Public entertainment was all the thing in the 18th century. Spas rose as an excuse for a holiday to repair the ravages of high living and as social meeting places for isolated country gentry. London life was very gay, catering for all tastes and incomes, with cards and gaming as exciting and dangerous pursuits, the theatre industry booming and lovely pleasure gardens for alfresco amusement. Ranelagh and the Spring Gardens at Vauxhall were opened in the late 17th century and despite a few lapses into disreputability they remained popular pleasure spots all through the 18th century, providing concerts, dancing and fireworks in a delightful setting: of tree-lined walks and fountains, with fairy-lit shrubberies for amorous dallying. Drenched garden fetes, arranged for a single occasion in later years, are the sad outcome of that typically British characteristic of optimistic nostalgia that pines to enjoy the beauty of its gardens and vainly hopes for a return of the serene climate of the 18th century. All this alfresco gambolling was part of the rustic craze (in which clothes played a large part) that became so popular in both England and France but from rather different reasons. In England it arose from a genuine love of the country life and, as already mentioned, the mixing of all sorts and conditions in places of amusement. The studied innocence and milk-maid dresses of the lively ladies of the town, on pleasure and business bent at Vauxhall, suited the atmosphere to perfection and were often taken as a model by their no less lively but more distinguished fellow revellers from Mayfair. Then, there were all the lovely light materials, dainty printed cottons and muslin from India, and now being made in our own Lancashire, that cried out to be made into the country-girl styles. The craze went deep in England and lasted alongside the high fashion to the end of the century. The wide panniers went out of favour by the 1750’s and left a softer line with a little fullness only over the hips. The figure on the left of Plate XIV illustrates how successfully and attractively the peasant style was adapted for everyday wear. The tightly drawn-down kerchief emphasizing the slim English bodice, together with the long straight apron, were of the most delicate embroidered muslin, and the shallow hat was of the finest straw, but the effect of the whole ensemble was the same as that of the milk-maid or strawberry seller. It was an escape, on the other hand, for the social elite of France from the stifling monotony of Court regime that brought about the rustic trend. French painters had made the Arcadian simple life very tempting to the bored sophisticates of Paris and Versailles, but the Trianons and shepherdesses sporting in the chequered shade that resulted from it look a trifle self-conscious and theatrical. By a strange paradox, at the same time as the Englishwoman had established a mode both attractive and suitable to her activities she suddenly caught up with the French high fashion and for all formal occasions went all-out to show what a decoration she could be to it. The lavish use of lace and the shape of the sleeves, even on the simple dress, are an indication that the Pandora mannequin from Paris was now in favour. The sacque dress had a further ‘new look’ with a raised waist­ line, and without the bulky panniers to hold it out it showed the swept­ back trend that is discernible in both men’s and women’s clothes. Spiral ruching and frilled underskirts all went to make dresses more complicated in the gradual tendency away from the clean line of the early Rococo period. Hairstyles, too, began to fall in line with French fashion. As they became less severe and rose higher the Englishwoman abandoned her eternal cap and coiled her locks high on her head with flowers or a swathed turban on top. An accessory that was curiously prevalent and enduring in both countries was the tiny neck frill which quite usurped the place of a necklace over a period of some forty years. It could be fastened by a bow, a la Pompadour, or with an exquisite brooch, and the only alternative even for the richest woman appears to have been a small choker or a bare neck. Men’s coats began to develop collars and lapels in the I760’s, first by the top being cut higher and closer to the neck and gradually turned over. In the same way waistcoats, which were becoming shorter and shorter, started to be double-breasted with the extra width turned back as lapels. Except for grand occasions, when beautiful brocades and embroidered silks and velvets were still worn, coats were plain and only trimmed with braid and buttons, the latter of great variety and beauty. Cuffs became smaller as the decade advanced and gradually disappeared altogether, their place being taken by the modern buttoned slit. The older figure in Plate XIV would be a man of some substance, judging by the London Chronicle which stated that ‘the beaux of St James’ wear their hats under their arms while the beaux of Moorfield’ s Mall (a less exclusive region) cock theirs over the right or left eye’. It was about 1765 that wigs were noticeably less worn by the ordinary man. The natural hair was then treated like a wig and dressed higher with powder for full dress wear. It was the lull before the storm as a few years later the Macaronis, protesting against the dullness of man ‘s appearance, proved to what fantastic heights hairdressing could reach.

Additional information

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm