Domestic Dress, 1730-1738
History of Costume II 1660 to 1800
Life was not all lounging, dancing and gallantry as might be suspected from the Watteaus and Lancrets of the early 18th century. The high life that made such charming subjects for those pictures was confined to the courts and aristocracy of Europe, and the less exotic milieu had another, though equally pleasant, appearance which we may see in the more mod est interiors of Chardin’s paintings. In France, for instance, where the social strata were rigidly defined, the rich middle class was not admitted to the rarified atmosphere of the nobility who resented any impinging on their inherited position. The bourgeoisie, with no choice, took refuge with their hurt pride in an attitude of moral righteousness and made their own way of life in a comfortable but simpler manner. There was a much smaller gay and high life in hybrid Britain where a preponderance of families, even in the upper class, had risen by means of marriage, politics or money and whose attitude, through religion or self-satisfaction, held a certain primness towards extravagance and glamour. The British sourness and instant criticism of French fashion has a long history, from the rude little marginal illumination about French head-dresses in a copy of Froissart’s manuscript of the 15th century, to the acid caricatures of Hogarth and Gilray in the 18th. It is possible that except for a few cosmopolitan individuals most of the English people looked very much like the sober middle-class French or Dutch. Credit must be given to them in that they were the first to choose clothes suitable to the conditions of their way of life. The British court, from the time of William III, had certainly given no ample or encouragement to its subjects to shine sartorially. So secluded did these monarchs become that the average citizen had to rely on the word of his parliament that he still had a sovereign on the throne. Locally made material was a strong factor governing the appearance of the English people. Small towns and villages were still self-supporting in the reign of George I and supplied the crafts and textiles needed for all but the most luxurious mansion or extravagant town dweller. No factories cluttered the agricultural land and the spinning of yarn was done by the women and children in the cottages. With no interference from nosey School Board inspectors they were kept so busy that Daniel Defoe remarked that it was a matter of great satisfaction that even a child of five could keep itself. Most cottages had their looms, in this domestic industry, where the men wove the cloth that was bought by the middleman to be marketed locally or sent to join the huge cargoes of woven cloth exported overseas. Mulberry trees had rather optimistically been distributed over the land to help the silk weavers, many thousands of whom had settled in East Anglia or at Spitalfields in London and whose glinting brocades and taffetas shine in Hogarth’s pictures. The industry proceeded profitably and peacefully until the over-enthusiastic and greedy merchants succeeded in tying up the export and import trade into the sort of knots that make such tedious news today. France, too, managed to throttle her industry, but in a more intricate way. Her home-produced textiles were of the first and most sumptuous quality designed for her own sparkling high life and that of the aspiring courts of other European nations. There was less of the utilitarian product for the peasant and worker, so that when the cheap printed cottons arrived from the East Indian colonies and flooded the market they were snapped up by the over-taxed poorer class and were found so enchanting by the fashionable that a new vogue for simplicity was started and soon brought the local looms to a standstill. Customs laws were hastily enforced, and fines comprising money and the confiscation of the garment (often off the wearer) added to the excitement and confusion. It is in the more conservative clothes of the French middle class and less adventurous British that we can see the evolution of style more clearly than in the high fashion that seemed to change so abruptly. Women’s dresses, in the new vogue for softness and simplicity, had gone back to the sensible shape worn by peasants over the centuries, with the tight, straight bodice, cuffed elbow sleeves and full gathered skirt that replaced the more complicated cut of the funnel-shaped, gored skirt of the time of Louis XIV. They were, more practically, shorter, and unless the wearer was of a flighty turn of mind were worn over petticoats and not stiff hoops. Soft muslin fichus draped the neck and were drawn down to hide the front closure of the bodice. In a fashion that died hard the dress was sometimes drawn up to the waist and fastened in four places, either for decorative purposes or as a protection to the material against muddy roads. The striped fabric often used for the underskirts shows the homespun nature of the material – stripes being the easiest form of variation in hand-weaving. Even the old Dutch négligé jacket had a renewed life, lasting well into the century, in the form of a short overdress that was often made of the forbidden Indian printed cotton. The shorter skirts revealed the new delightful shoes that the high fashion had introduced. With slightly lifting pointed toes, sometimes backless like modern mules, and high, shaped heels and ribbon bows or rosettes, they are as much a symbol of the 18th century as the square-toed high-fronted fashion was of the I7th. Their originators must have been equally pleased with the model, as copies were made in Sevres or Meissen china as ornaments. Another useful garment, refurbished, was the demure palatine, or bust concealer, introduced by the prudish Duchess of Orleans many years earlier. The new version was a dainty little cape that reached just to the elbow and was sometimes slightly longer at the back. This, in muslin or lace, was very popular as a house garment but in cloth or taffeta made a graceful fashion for outdoor wear. The domestic woman, especially the English housewife, never felt dressed without a cap: only the great court beauties flaunted uncovered hair. The new tiny caps were sometimes tied under the chin with the narrow frills (that dipped slightly over the forehead) prolonged, as lappets, over each ear. For outdoor wear a lower version of the old high hood covered the white cap, or, most becoming of all, the: country-woman’s shallow, wide-brimmed hat was adopted for general wear. Altogether, the fashions of this period show a greater feeling towards comfort (which we gather from the shorter skirts and the small girl’s cosy muff) and harmonious proportion, with less exaggeration than costume had shown for many a day or was to show a few decades hence.
|Dimensions||38.1 × 25.5 cm|