Fashionable Dress, 1731-1735

£5.00

History of Costume II 1660 to 1800

Availability: In stock

With the death of Louis XIV there died also a whole astounding epoch of pomp and grandeur. Like his extreme character, art, architecture and manners had taken on a heavy gloss that cracked and faded as it outlived its span. When the old king died Europe breathed again, threw off its autumn colours of gold, reds and browns and stepped straight into spring. Great as the contrast appears to be, the culture of the gay and graceful 18th century was, nevertheless, built upon the sombre foundations of the 17th. Humanitarianism had begun to penetrate the consciousness of the individual after the horrors of war in the mid-17th century, perhaps from the example of the small minority practising the religious principles of humility and charity. It began to dawn on man that others might share his emotions of pride and fear and resent being tortured, fleeced and superseded. Brutality and licentiousness and the attitude of every-man­for-himself could only be bridled by a self-discipline which, it was concluded, could be achieved by training and adherence to a certain code of manners. This code we have learnt to accept as etiquette, and the 17th century brought it to a fine art. The practice of greeting by bowing and shaking the right hand made one a little less wary in those sword­happy days, and the new little courtesies to down-trodden women saved a lot of nagging and unpleasantness. The idea, though elementary, made life a little less messy and rough and, adroitly put over by privileged piety, succeeded in erecting another barrier between the social classes. The snag arose when the ritual outweighed the purpose and a rule governed every action, the question of precedence being particularly tricky. The showy clothes, feathered hats and sweeping dresses were very much the outcome of this surface polish of manners. Nevertheless, the airs were there and it only needed the 18th century to add the graces. Much the same could be said for the arts. The Rococo style which followed the bloated Baroque used the same principles of design – curves instead of classical straight lines, superimposed decoration with no relation to the object – but diminished the scale, lightened the colour and developed charm where the latter had projected weight and grandeur. Although the art expresses to perfection the butterfly spirit of the French 18th century with no high-falutin ideas as to its value to posterity (‘Apres nous le déluge’, said Madame de Pompadour, its most enthusiastic exponent) and its decoration is inclined to peel and the mirrors to blister, it did embrace every aspect of daily life and produced a standard of craftsmanship in furniture, porcelain and textiles that has hardly ever been excelled. It did not take the other nations long to throw off their weight of pomp and join in the fun with France, and by the 1720’s dainty palaces and pavilions were sprouting in all the capitals of Europe. Every object was framed in the famous broken curves, scrolls and shells while flying cupids were much in evidence – looking much less respectable than their ancestors, the Baroque ‘putti’. With a sure touch the originators of the Rococo matched the delicate decoration with a new set of colours in­ spired by a spring bouquet – clear pinks and yellows, celestial blues and the tender greens of fresh shoots. Never was there such a get-together between designers and craftsmen to produce a perfect entity, or so unique an occasion in the history of costume, when the styles appear due less to the whim of an outstanding personality than to the deliberate intention of artist-designers. France, who, it must be said, was the first to adopt and develop the Rococo, was prompt to design and produce the subtle and pretty materials the new fashions demanded. By 1720 woman had relaxed from the stiff and angular shape of the previous fashion. There is nothing that woman likes better than to lounge about in a sloppy garment and only dress up for occasions, hence the shifts, sacks, teagowns and tents that crop up so often in the history of woman’s dress. So it is not surprising that the style that caught on in a big way, as soon as the public attitude to deportment relaxed, was the sacque, a new version of that useful little number, the house dress of the late I 7th century. It had been revived by a Parisian actress in 1703 as a discreet method of conveying the condition of the heroine she was playing and was found so entrancing that it was exploited anew, as a perfect garment for women in the new freer and easier society. The sacque, as the name implies, was an enveloping overdress cut all in one piece, with a cunning arrangement of pleats and seams to give fullness in the skirt but to fit the top of the figure. The back widths were pleated flat into a band at the neck and allowed to flow free to the hem in a train, while the material at either side was flattened to the ribs, seamed, and sewn to a lining to give the appearance of a fitted bodice. From the waist the material flowed out again over full or hooped petticoats. The front was fiat-pleated from the shoulders, in the same way as the back, but was darted under the bust and caught to the under-bodice at the waist. This overdress was worn over a fancy corset and a petticoat of the same material. The line of the back pleats made tight corsetting less essential and the graceful effect can be judged from Watteau’s lovely versions that gave it the name by which it is known today. What it looked like, less ideally, was summed up by the coarse English in the term ‘the trollop’, or ‘slammerkin’. A small head now made the perfect apex to the new triangular shape of the figure with only tiny caps or posies to enhance the closely dressed natural curls. Man, too, emerged from his obliterating head-covering and board-like clothes. With spreading coat skirts, his head followed the same principle as that of the woman. Wigs were still essential to a well-turned-out appearance as they could be duplicated, dressed on a stand and ready to put on as the finishing touch to the toilet. They were dressed close to the head with the back hair pushed into a bag or allowed to hang in one or more curls tied back with a fiat bow. The rather bare look of the collar­less coat and plain band of the neck-cloth was relieved by the ends of the ribbon-bow being carried round the neck and fastened to one side by a jewel. Coats, now plainer, relied on cut for elegance, fitting sharply to the waist then springing out in several pleats at the side seams, being reinforced with horsehair or buckram linings. With a slit up the back, sitting was more graceful and less difficult than it looks from a standing figure. The social arts were most important in this picturesque period, dancing being extremely popular. The visiting dancing master ·was invaluable in keeping one up to the mark, not only in the latest step but in the niceties of social etiquette, as he mixed with the rich and influential and was as well up as the Edwardian English butler in the intricacies of upper-class behaviour. Man was no less eager to escape from the burden of formal clothes than woman and, in England, certainly in the late 17th century, had spent as much time as possible in a dressing- or house-gown that was probably first worn on some colonial verandah by an English nabob. The 18th century version was shorter, more fitted and no longer of the printed Indian cotton in which it first made its appearance. Altogether it had less of the bedroom air about it. The idea of winding a scarf into a neat turban round the head most likely came from the same oriental source. As wigs, for continuous wear, were hot, and shaven skulls were cold as well as unsightly, the fashion was welcomed by young and old alike and completed to perfection the picture of elegant ease.

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm