History of the 1700’s Costumes
Fashion in the period 1750-1795 in European and European-influenced countries reached heights of fantasy and abundant ornamentation, especially among the aristocracy of France, before a long-simmering movement toward simplicity and democratization of dress under the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the American Revolution led to an entirely new mode and the triumph of British tailoring following the French Revolution.
Women's clothing styles remained confining and cumbersome for most of the period. The hoop-skirts of the 1740s were left behind, but wide panniers (holding the skirts out at the side) came into style several times, and the aesthetic of a narrow inverted conical corseted torso above full skirts prevailed during most of the period.
In the 1780s, panniers finally disappeared, and bustle pads (bum-pads or hip-pads) were worn for a time.
By 1790, skirts were still somewhat full, but they were no longer obviously pushed out in any particular direction (though a slight bustle might still be worn). The "pouter-pigeon" front came into style (many layers of cloth pinned over the bodice), but in other respects women's fashions were starting to be simplified by influences from Englishwomen's country outdoors wear (thus the "redingote" was the French pronunciation of an English "riding coat"), and from neo-classicism. By 1795, waistlines were somewhat raised, preparing the way for the development of the empire silhouette and unabashed neo-classicism of late 1790s fashions.
Gainsborough's 1785 portrait of Mrs Hallett (right) captures the exact transition between the tight bodice and elbow-length, ruffled sleeves of the mid-18th century and the natural waist and long sleeves typical of the 1790s.
The usual fashion of the years 1750-1780 was a low-necked gown (usually called in French a robe), worn over a petticoat. If the bodice of the gown was open in front, the opening was filled in with a decorative stomacher, pinned to the gown over the laces or to the corset beneath.
Tight elbow-length sleeves were trimmed with frills or ruffles, and separate under-ruffles called engageantes of lace or fine linen were tacked to the smock or chemise sleeves. The neckline was trimmed with a fabric or lace ruffle, or a neckerchief called a fichu could be tucked into the low neckline.
The robe Ã la franÃ§aise featured back pleats hanging loosely from the neckline. A fitted lining or under-bodice held the front of the gown closely to the figure.
The robe Ã l'anglaise featured back pleats sewn in place to fit closely to the body, and then release into the skirt which would be draped in various ways.
Jackets and redingotes
Toward the 1770s, an informal alternative to the gown was a costume of a jacket and petticoat, based on working class fashion but executed in finer fabrics with a tighter fit.
The Brunswick gown was two-piece costume of German origin consisting of a hip-length jacket with "split sleeves" (flounced elbow-length sleeves and long, tight lower sleeves) and a hood, worn with a matching petticoat. It was popular for traveling.
The caraco was a jacket-like bodice worn with a petticoat, with elbow-length sleeves. By the 1790s, caracos had full-length, tight sleeves.
As in previous periods, the traditional riding habit consisted of a tailored jacket like a man's coat, worn with a high-necked shirt, a waistcoat, a petticoat, and a hat. Alternatively, the jacket and a false waistcoat-front might be a made as a single garment, and later in the period a simpler riding jacket and petticoat (without waiscoat) could be worn.
Another alternative to the traditional habit was a coat-dress call a joseph or riding coat (borrowed in French as redingote), usually of unadorned or simply trimmed woolen fabric, with full-length, tight sleeves and a broad collar with lapels or revers. The redingote was later worn as an overcoat with the light-weight chemise dress.
The shift, chemise (in France), or smock had tight, short or elbow-length sleeves and a low neckline. Drawers were not worn in this period.
The long-waisted, heavily boned stays of the early 1740s with their narrow back, wide front, and shoulder straps gave way by the 1760s to strapless stays which still were cut high at the arm pit, to encourage a woman to stand with her shoulders slightly back, a fashionable posture. The fashionable shape was to have smooth curves, a rather conical torso, with large hips. The waist was not particularly small. Many women's waist measure larger with stays than without. Stays were usually laced snugly, but comfortably, only those interested in extreme fashions laced very tightly! They offered back support, for heavy lifting, and poor and middle class women were able to work comfortably in them. As the relaxed, country fashion took hold in France, stays were replaced by an unboned or lightly boned quilted underbodice (now called for the first time un corset) for all but the most formal court occasions.
Panniers or side-hoops remained an essential of court fashion but disappeared everywhere else in favor of a few petticoats.
Free-hanging pockets were tied around the waist and were accessed through pocket slits in the side-seams of the gown or petticoat.
Woolen waistcoats were worn over the stays or corset and under the gown for warmth, as were petticoats quilted with wool batting, especially in the cold climates of Northern Europe and America.
Shoes had high, curved heels (the origin of modern "louis heels") and were made of fabric or leather.
Hairstyles and headgear
The 1770s were notable for extreme hairstyles and wigs which were built up very high, and often incorporated decorative objects (sometimes symbolic, as in the case of the famous engraving depicting a lady wearing a large ship in her hair with masts and sails â€” called the "Coiffure Ã l'Indépendance ou le Triomphe de la liberté" ” to celebrate naval victory in the American war of independence). These coiffures were parodied in several famous satirical caricatures of the period.
By the 1780s, elaborate hats replaced the former elaborate hairstyles. Mob caps and other "country" styles were worn indoors. Flat, broad-brimmed and low-crowned straw "shepherdess" hats tied on with ribbons were worn with the new rustic styles.
Hair was powdered into the early 1780s, but the new country fashion required natural colored hair, often dressed simply in a mass of curls.