Fashionable Dress, 1777-1780

Original price was: £20.00.Current price is: £15.00.

History of Costume II 1660 to 1800

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The Rococo style in art was played out by the I770’s and its freakish ornament had become self-conscious and degenerate. The back-to-nature call of the philosophers posed a knotty problem for designers still caught up in the cupids and volutes of the most fussily decorated period in history. The only answer was a return to a more severe and primitive form of art, of which at that time the lately discovered classical ruins of Pompeii and Sicily were the handiest examples. It was a fortunate choice as the artists and designers had a fund of good taste to draw upon – the later overdone ornamentation of Rome having mercifully disintegrated. The architects had the first innings by straightening up the fundamental lines into graceful columns and reducing the twiddles and curves of applied ornament to logical forms. Swags of flowers, attached at the ends, took the place of wildly rioting decoration applied indiscriminately. Interiors became statelier but lost a great deal of intimacy and cha.rm. Overall a very satisfactory compromise was reached by converting severe classicism into pretty elegance. It was the dress designers who took rather a long time to meet the challenge, and we see frills, ruching and bouncy fashions looking rather out of place in their new frigid background. It took a revolution to make woman abandon her padding and reveal the shape of her head as nature intended. Social behaviour, too, was at the crossroads, restless but undecided as to its next direction. In the meantime life was geared up to its greatest velocity in the pursuit of pleasure and the provision of the means of constant amusement. Vast fortunes were spent in England (where they could be afforded by such people as the Duke of Devonshire with an income of £125,000 a year) on grandiose building and entertainment, which in many ways was to the advantage of local industry and the betterment of agricultural estates. This was a contrast to the situation in France where estates were drained to provide the means of high living for the now nearly always absent owners. Vast fortunes were also frittered on the mania for gambling in both countries, an occupation that was provided for in every place of entertainment. The English public pleasure gardens of Vauxhall and Ranelagh had proved such a success that even the French were led to imitate them, with provision for both indoor and outdoor entertainment, in the form of fireworks, spectacles and dancing, with, of course, the inevitable gaming rooms. Those of the French aristocracy still with money to burn had their private pleasure gardens, but only those of the truest blue blood were invited. The tedium of always meeting the same faces and the strain of thinking up new diversions tempted them to sneak off and join in the fun – strictly incognito – at the public pleasure gardens where the otherwise despised bourgeoisie took relaxation. The opportunity for showmanship and the temptation of fortune-making prompted a few sharp but shady characters to engage in public entertainment on the grand scale. It was received with much favour in England by those less gifted with ideas or unwilling to meet the cost of such lavish private hospitality, and establishments were run, under the sponsorship of great names and by public subscription, by enterprising professional hostesses. The sparkle of the fireworks and the taste of the suppers arranged by the famous Mrs Cornelys at Carlisle House are legends to this day. All this excitement is apparent in the clothes, which reached a peak of flamboyance very different from the well-balanced grace of the early Rococo costume. A rebellion against austerity by young men unwilling to sink into the obscurity of plain English clothes had started earlier in the century. By the 1770’s the exploits of these Macaronis (from the Italian term meaning mix-up or fantasy) equalled in publicity and stupidity the efforts of any modern group. It was they who outdid the height of feminine hairdressing and perched tiny hats on top and were the first to allow their cutaway coats to have long tails. Their fantastic clothes were the last serious revolt against practical dress for men, for although the French perpetrated further nonsense during the last years of the century the Englishman became buttoned up in his sensible cloth coat for ever. The ‘back-to-nature’ cry from Rousseau and the practical Dr Tronchin had rather a lame response from their luxury-loving contemporaries but a few ventured on the advice to nurse their own babies, do a little gardening and take walks. This last had the effect of shortening women’s skirts, and as the transition to a fully designed short skirt would have been too severe, the previous long dresses became looped up to give the air of lightness and suitability. The short panniers enlarging hips and rear were slightly reduced in size and underskirts were looped in festoons on to stiff petticoats. The upper part of the dress is the most typical of the period being the old robe à la française in a new disguise. The overdress or coat-dress with, in its early stages, the pleats at the back left free, was caught up in two places at the back by cords and tassels to form three long festoons over the underskirt and took the name of the polonaise. Later models had the backs seamed and fitted close to the figure but the sections were cut all in one piece from shoulder to hem. Frilled ruching finished the edges and the front closed at the waist with the corsage trimmed with the usual bows. The now popular little jacket, the caraco, was rather a different garment, though with longer skirts treated in the same way it took the name of the caraco à la polonaise. This garment, with variations of tails and basques, was the typical feminine mode of the next decade and the forerunner of our walking and tailored suits. The next step in tune with the classical fervour was in the abandonment of wide hip pads and the adoption of the straight hanging skirt. Not until the next decade was woman persuaded to leave off her frills, and her polonaise was still bunched in a perky bustle at the back, but a slight indication of a new line can be seen in the folded bertha collar pouching over the bosom. Hairdressing, which reached its ultimate height by 1777, gradually widened at the top, was looser and had the back piece turned under in a bag or clubbed shape, with or without roll curls hanging on the neck. Bonnets now covered the top of the hair and eventually enveloped it. The clutter of long sticks, fans, fobs and chatelaines are the obvious signs of an artificial mincing mode that was on the way out. The main change in men’s clothes was in the increasing backward sweep of the coat into swallow tails and the now almost general adoption of the wide-brimmed hat that was beginning to be blocked into a form. Stockings made on the new machines now showed ribbing. The re-introduction of the large muff was a fashion for women that was to last for several decades, and hints at a return to severe winters.

Additional information

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm