Fashionable Dress, 1780-1790

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History of Costume II 1660 to 1800

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The late 18th century was a golden age for Britain. Greater prosperity was more widely distributed and yet the great game of making money for itself had not completely overwhelmed certain members of the community as it did in the 19th century. Some of the greatest fortunes had admittedly been made by the foul means of slavery but its beastlier aspects were far removed from these pleasant isles and other rich possessions had come by easier and fairer means. The loss of the American colonies was a nasty jar but the navy still ruled the waves and the country was still practically self-supporting. If we draw a veil over the foul prison conditions and the inadequate Poor Law, as did the more fortunate members of society, the picture looks very pleasant. Peace and a certain amount of civil liberty made for a relaxed society, a great number of whom (from some inborn streak of character) used the prosperity for ends other than ostentation and the ceaseless pursuit of frivolous pleasure. This complacency and restraint is apparent in all the arts of the period. There was little rushing after the novel or contrary as ·society knew exactly what it wanted and the artists and craftsmen were in tune with their patrons. The greatest wealth was still in the hands of the aristocracy but the professional and cultured middle class all influenced the standard of production by the quality of their demands. Better roads and superb English carriages started the travel fever that enlarged experience and filled our country houses with the not-specially-manufactured souvenirs of other countries. These early journeys, being no package tours, afforded time and opportunity to absorb the great periods of European art, and, as they in their turn had nothing tawdry or worthless to offer, the know­ ledge gained only heightened an already critical and selective taste. What distinguished the English culture in contrast to that of other European countries was its fundamentally utilitarian character. The furniture, especially, was made for use and comfort, not merely for decoration or filling a space in a room. Architecture, even of the great houses, was not pretentious and followed rational rules of proportion that were understood and used by even the humblest builder. The manufacturer was still the craftsman and, not being called upon to cater for a wholesale market, could devote his time to producing the high quality demanded by the customer of good taste. The most felicitous aspect of this situation was that people had not yet seen anything bad and the common man was satisfied with articles of the same craftsmanship, but of simpler form than those of the wealthy customer. The same assurance applied also to costume. The slightly strained relations with France, during the wars in India, Canada and America, had rather thrown the people back on their own resources in the way of fashion, although the intrepid travellers still passed through that country and brought back hints of what was being worn in the highest circles across the Channel. What is more, they were also seen by the French, and the simple, comely, comfortable clothes the English had evolved for themselves became the rage with the French beau-monde who were getting heartily tired of their frills and furbelows. Simplicity became the keynote for clothes and behaviour, with Marie-Antoinette leading the charade in a milkmaid’s dress at her little farm at Versailles. The passion for sport had already overwhelmed the British male and his clothes were the outcome of all the driving, riding, boxing and gymnastics in which every fit young man participated. Coats, already tight, now only fastened across the chest and were well cut away to give ease in riding and to show a manly torso. Breeches were lengthened at the knees to meet the tops of boots which, for the same reason, became the fashion again. Collars rose, either as a band or a wide turnover, up to the ears, and the lapels of the waistcoat poked out either side of the chin. Hats were now blocked into many sporting shapes: the coachman, the postillion and even a few embryo top hats with wide or narrower curling brims. The French version of ‘du sporting’ was a little odd, in fact a caricature of the Englishman’s passion as he was less accustomed to an outdoor life and, taking the stable into the drawing­ room, so to speak, dolled it up in quite unsuitable materials. Every detail was exaggerated, with coat-tails longer and waists shorter and the already high stock becoming ear- and chin-enveloping. The most evocative detail of the period is the striped pattern material that we know in this country as the Regency stripe, but which was undoubtedly a French inspiration that evolved from the design of materials popular through several decades. The typical brocades of the Rococo period were woven in stripes with an alternate band of flowers in serpentine patterns. When the more decorated costumes and materials were abandoned in favour of a sprucer style the stripe, alone, was retained to accent the longer sweep and sharper angles of the new clothes. The Frenchman was delighted with the fantastic effect, and although he may have been inspired in the first place by the stockings worn by our Macaronis, he used the stripe more for costume than the English, who preferred it for interior decoration. The change in women’s clothes was apparent, much earlier, when the Englishwoman left off her bunched bustle and ruched trimmings and allowed her skirt to sweep back in an unbroken line from waist to hem. This was yet another outcome of the sporting trend as her riding-habit had followed this line for some time past and was found to be very much more dignified than the short and perky previous fashion. The long tight sleeves were probably derived from the same source and gave the wearer the look of sleek tailor-made assurance that matched that of the male. For this was also a rosier age for woman, if not entirely golden. Even the women victims of the Revolution met death with a dignity born of self-reliance, and the Englishwoman had a much freer life in sport and travel and a share in the great game of politics. Not only a Duchess of Devonshire, offering a kiss for every vote for the Whigs, but the talent and behaviour of great actresses made them accepted in the highest society and gave them greater independence. The enterprising Mrs Abingdon, of Drury Lane Theatre, was not only admired but drew a fat income, on the side, from the most respectable occupation of giving advice on the fashions to those less smart or experienced. With a simple line of skirt all the interest of the toilette could be concentrated on the hat. As hairdressing widened, bonnets had become larger to enclose the top. With still looser hair the bonnets were then wired and trimmed into fantastic lampshade hats out of which grew the real hat shapes loaded with bows, feathers and flowers. The great English hats had a dual inspiration: sport, and the romantic trend that brought back the Stuart collars at the same time. Many of them had crowns blocked into square or sugar-loaf shapes, and what set the English style apart was that the trimming, however extravagant, never obscured the shape of the crown. The still long bodice sank into the gathered folds of the skirt at the waist, a small pad lifted the back of the skirt in a rounded sweep, and another symbol of the period finished the neck: the English woman’s dearly beloved kerchief now came into its own as never before; in fine gauze, widened and pouched high over the bosom, it was sometimes crossed over and tied at the back, or was tucked into the corsage in front to emphasize the long tight waist. Both men and women now wore the hair loose and full, turned under into a large roll with, in the case of the women, curls falling below on the neck. It is astonishing how quickly a new fashion had spread to all classes of the community even before the time of machine-made clothes. If Wheatley’ s Cries of London are at all truthful the women of the poorer classes had grasped the essentials of the new line, had pouched their kerchiefs and donned large hats before 1794.

Additional information

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm