Evening Dress, 1806-1810

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History of Costume I 1800-1899

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Changing one’s clothes in the evening goes back, as a habit, quite a long way in history but as a convention of the rich only until well into the 19th century. With the rise of a middle class it is clear from the novels of the period that dressing up for a party, if not for the 4 o’clock dinner, was taken up with much enthusiasm by anybody with a little leisure and extra money for the trimmings and frills of life. With public entertainment at a premium and, in the provinces, only a rare travelling theatre, there was a lively coming and going between houses in the country for parties and musical evenings, while most large towns had their Assembly Rooms to which the gentry and townsfolk all foregathered for dances, concerts and cards. With transport scarce and expensive these functions could only be indulged in by the rich with carriages, or by those on the spot, although some gay, intrepid young ones did go on horseback with the woman riding pillion clutching her bonnet box. In the real spas like Bath or Cheltenham people could trot about on foot and go to the gatherings in a chair, a custom that continued right into the 19th century. The gaiety was on a subscription basis and with a fine democracy all types rubbed shoulders in the dance hall or the whist rooms, the gentry merely turning up their noses at commerce which did little to spoil the pleasure of the non-U. In the water-colours of Rowlandson about this time a very motley crowd in the dance rooms seems to be having a very good time. The famous pleasure grounds of Vauxhal1 or Ranelagh were another meeting place for social pleasures and it is a sad reflection m our present democracy that modern versions of these agreeable places have failed to attract a mixed community; perhaps because l he robust down-to-earth behaviour of the 18th and early 19th century has changed to a sordid rowdyism on the one hand and a precious exclusiveness on the other. At all events the rich and important were quite content to mingle with the masses and one may from the illustrations of the period extremely fashionable clothes being admired by the less fortunate. Three-quarters of the audience at the Play wore evening dress (the men not yet clad all in black), and for a woman early in the 19th century, with the line so simple, material not expensive and so many girls able to sew for pleasure or for a living, changes of toilette must have been within the means of all but the very poor. For the leaders of fashion in London the refugee French modistes must have given a great fillip to style. The advantages were not all on the one side as we hear that on their return to a ‘liberated’ France they took with them materials and shawls vastly superior to those used by the chic Parisienne. It is quite probable that evening dress was worn very much more than in our own day when we take our pleasures more often but less decoratively. Entertaining was more often an event and to look one’s best was a compliment to host and guests alike. With inverted pleasures, such as television, bedroom slippers and supper on a tray pass unnoticed in the dark, as would a grand toilette. Round about 1808-9 the first signs of change crept into women’s fashions. There are always more reasons than one for a new look: a fickle taste, strong social influences and, lastly, practicability. Anything simple, however good, becomes dull after much acquaintance and the chemise dress, for a respectable woman, gave very little opportunity for variation. The natural beauty of a woman can have been the only means of distinguishing one classic goddess from another and this situation has never been to the liking of the fashionable woman. As it was impossible to simplify the line further, the reverse action had to be taken and clothes then lost their purity of silhouette and the age of fussiness commenced. Our three figures show how an original design gradually becomes adapted to the taste and utility of the normal wearer. The closely-clinging classical dress was all too revealing for the great majority of modest housewives and their daughters even before the influence of Romanticism exalted purity, or the rise of the industrial religious middle class introduced prudery. Beautiful as it is shown to be, the chemise dress was not tractable to warmer or heavier materials suitable to a cold climate or for any wearers but those with time to pose or lounge. It must be remembered that although the moneyed class was large, with means of comfortable transport, many women had to go about on foot and only for long journeys was there any public transport. So skirts rapidly became shorter and the feet could show very daringly in coloured slippers and, sensibly in colder weather, in little ankle boots. To hide the embarrassing lines of the natural figure petticoat came back into use (with even a little pad in the back to hold the skirt away) which naturally pushed the hem away from the ankles and the silhouette altered to a narrow triangle. As this bulkier line was inelegant with the straight front descending from under th bosom the waistline was dropped very gradually and a little corselctte or a wide band were worn to hold the dress under the rib. The English were the first to make this alteration and were confounded by the still classical fashions of France when communications were again established after the wars. With the widening of the hems decoration suddenly became horizontal instead of vertical only, with wide bands of embroidery round the bottom of the skirt and across the bodice. Tunics were still worn but had taken on a new importance in heavier material and darker colours, becoming veritable over­ dresses or coatdresses. Some had front fastenings of buttons, ft aps or frogging, while others were like aprons closing at the back waistline with the fullness of the skirt pushing out between the two edges. Where the tunics had ended in a narrow band of classical embroidery the new-line dresses had the decoration carried up from the hem to the knee at the place where the tunic had ended. Little pleated frills or ruching now took the place of the flat decoration of embroidered bands or fringes. Sleeves became a little longer for evening. wear and were cut on the cross to puff out in the middle of the fullness. Several puffs could appear, gathered in at intervals, finished with bows or tassels. When long gloves, which nearly reached the sleeve line, were not worn, long sleeves took their place with cuff extensions right over the hand. While in England the waistline was dropping with more bodice showing, the Frenchwoman was defining her bosom more distinctly by crossing a fichu or scarf between the breasts and wearing the first V-shaped neckline. The head suffered the same obscurity as the body with toques and turbans being worn, well decorated, with every dress at any time of day or night. These could be bought ready made-up and soon lost the negligent appearance of the originally twisted scarf or ribbon. The popularity of feathers grew and grew and, in some cases, out­balanced the height of the figure. Miss Austen remarks on a crowd in the Lower Rooms at Bath, that all that could be seen of the dancers were the feathers on the women’s heads. So impressive must have been the effect of this ornithological grandeur that, with the long white gloves that became fashionable at this time, until our own day these two accessories have been de rigueur for the greatest social occasion, a Royal court. Lace was re-introduced for wearing apparel to soften the edges of chemisettes that filled in the low bodices, and for cuffs, and to lighten the effects of an overdress the edge was scalloped, with the material worked in eyelet embroidery all over the skirt – yet another accomplishment of our countrywomen which carries their name to this day – broderie anglaise. And so we pass from the beauty of simplicity to the interest of complicated detail so well illustrated by our lady harpist. Which brings us to a very important social adjunct of the early years of the 19th century – the harp. Until the 1920’s amusement for the majority had to be creative; only in the large towns was mass entertainment to be had. So, many more friendly gatherings took place in the home and, a knowledge of the social arts being essential to gentility, every man had to be a performer. The agony of a learner, and a listener, in the initial stages of this social accomplishment can be imagined, but no girl was excused music lessons and any boy who dared to whistle in tune was put to the flute. The harp took its place most suitably in the furnishing of the classical mansions and could even, with a little difficulty, be transported, the harp occupying the carriage while the fair owner walked, we are told. So it is quite natural that a great effort was made by other than professional musicians to conquer its difficulties. And what is more a harp could take one a long way. To quote our most infallible authority on the social behaviour of this period, Miss Austen, ‘a young lady, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself, was enough to catch any man’s heart. Beauty and intelligence were united in the performer (or so it was fondly hoped) and were certainly so in the case of Mlle de Genlis who with her harp and wit as her sole fortune became first the music teacher, then the governess, to the children of the Duke of Orleans and would probably have become his wife had that democrat not suffered from the impediment of a previous rich marriage. She was able while a refugee from the Revolution to keep herself and others by teaching this valuable instrument. Where the full soft dresses of the previous century billowed out becomingly round the instrument the long line of the classical dress cunningly repeated the sweep of the harp frame and the little short sleeves were a great advantage to the display of well-moulded arms. The cult of nature had not yet passed and a healthy appearance was still admired. For those not blessed with a natural rosy complexion or the wish for outdoor exercise, the rouge pot was a refuge and cork plungers in the cheeks helped to retain the soft roundness of youth which we see in our three young women in Plate III.

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm