Women and Children’s Dress, 1693-1695

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History of Costume II 1660 to 1800

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Speaking of the behaviour of the 17th century, Macaulay says that the effect of licentiousness was the moral and intellectual degradation of woman. Brains and character are certainly not the attributes that Lely sought to convey in his rows of portraits of royal favourites, or that can be found in the innumerable pictures of the ladies of Versailles, they are so nearly identical, in the soft erotic drapery of the mid-17th century, that one must conclude that popular fancy demanded something dumb, blonde or otherwise, that could be replaced by an exact duplicate when the original showed signs of wear. The monotonous regularity with which succeeding favourites retired into convents, with the acid comment that the strict Carmelite rules would be a haven of peace after the humiliation and suffering of their previous existence should have been a pointer to the eager queue of aspirants ready to step into their shoes, but it was many years before the line of clothes showed that a changed spirit towards woman was abroad. It is satisfying to record that a rare incidence of virtue and integrity h ad its reward, on this earth, not in Puritanical oppression but in a quiet xan1ple that was so strong that the whole of woman’s world was to feel and show the effect. Too little credit has been paid to the dignified, widowed woman who, entering court circles as the governess of the illegitimate children of Louis XIV, made herself so indispensable to the king, for qualities far removed from physical attraction, that he finally married her in 1681. Madame de Maintenon had none of the attributes of a contemporary court favourite but she had tact and intelligence and a background of informed culture from her association with leading thinkers of the day while married to her first husband, the poet-dramatist, Paul Scarron. She was, moreover, an early champion of better education for women. Louis XIV was only forty-six at the time of his second marriage and still a fine figure of a man, but by the miracle of a sympathetic companionship with a sensible woman he became a pattern of domestic respectability and the whole tone of court life was raised. With less skylarking at Versailles the ever-imitative courts of Europe fell into step and the higher status of women was soon apparent. This being a history and not a tract it is not suggested that the new image of woman was more beautiful than in the lush, licentious days, but that with more self-respect her whole appearance showed individuality and character and a very much more interesting line in clothes. Looseness of behaviour had an echo in the shoulder-slipping, chemise showing styles of the 1660′ s, ’70’s and ’80’s, but with the coming of the 1690’s a general uplift made its appearance. Where the silhouette had been wide and full it now narrowed, and head-dresses heightened to add further dignity. Bodices were the first to undergo a change, the wide front pieces being carried up straight over the shoulder, filling in the rounded neckline of the earlier fashion. With modesty as the key-note the neck was also more concealed, often by a cravat, tied in the manner of the men’s ‘steinkirk’ which took its name from the battle at which the victorious French were so eager to engage that the fashionable General had no time to finish dressing and hastily knotted his cravat and threaded the ends through his buttonhole – thus creating a new fashion. Overdresses – a bodice and gored skirt open right down the front and caught back in a bustle over a contrasting petticoat – revealed an embroidered stomacher with a straight top that squared off the décolletage. The complement of the male periwig in pinpointing the period is the peculiar feminine head-dress. This arose from the hair being narrowed over the ears while the front was raised in twin peaks with tiny curls on either side of the forehead. As the hair rose, little caps that had perched on the back of the head had their frills widened in front and tipped up to frame the high curls over the forehead. With the front frills wired to stand upright and the sides lengthened into lappets over the shoulder, or tied under the chin, the confection was called the ‘commode’, or tower. The slightly later version, of a high-standing fan of pleated lace, got its name, we are told, from the attractive Duchesse de Fontange who, having lost her hat while hunting, tied up her wayward front curls with her lace garter. When the fashion of the top-knot of lace evolved several years later (after the lady had succumbed to a frequent malady of court favourites – poison), her appearance was remembered and the erection dubbed ‘fontange’. With a crest on top, and a train and bustle behind, women now had an air of the divine assurance of the peacock. Women protected themselves against the icy winters with the same chic as the men; fashion-plates show such rich items as entire overdresses of ermine muffs and the sensible house wraps that were beginning to make their appearance as a revolt against the stiffness of formal dress. These followed the same lines as an overdress but were looser, lined for winter, and had long comfortable sleeves, albeit braided and decorated in the overpowering manner of the late 17th century. Patches, those blemish-hiders of an earlier part of the century, became extremely fashionable in the later part, but with a slightly different emphasis, being placed near, and to point to, a particularly attractive feature. Stars and crescent moons were common but the provocative had much fun with cupids and even a coach and pair. Masks were borrowed from Italy to liven up state balls where, the participants being so well known to each other, the proceedings were apt to be tedious. They were even countenanced for ladies wishing to walk incognito in the streets. The lot of noble children was as confining and straight-laced as their grown-up clothes. At a very early age a separate establishment was provided for them under the supervision of a governess, herself a very grand lady, usually a duchess in the case of royal children. Their constriction is very apparent in the baby leading-strings built-in to the little princess’s dress, although a tall ‘fontange’ rises on her head and her ornate apron matches the rich stiffened stomacher. The little prince displays the waisted, pleat-skirted coat of 1695, opened to the waist button in a sophisticated, adult manner to show a glimpse of the metal-studded brocade of the waistcoat which, in this case, is sleeved, as can be seen from the turned-back band over the deep coat cuff. The simple trimming of gold braid and buttons foreshadows the more restrained style of the next century but the wide bows under the cravat are of an earlier fashion, probably still used to give greater importance to a small boy’s neck. The hat is of the latest fancy with brim cocked into a true tricorne edged with a narrow feather trimming, while his shoes sport the new square buckle, in place of the wide bows, and natty turned-over tops to match the high red heels.

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm