Tuesday, October 10, 2017

18C Women Across the Globe

1797 Jacques Grasset of Saint-Sauveur (France, 1757-1810), Costumes of Different Countries, Los Angeles County Art Museum


Across the 18C globe, dress varied widely. In the early 18C, British & British American colonial women dressed similarly, but they could get an idea how women in far places also might dress from clothing & costume drawings, which were becoming more popular & more widely available at the time. 

During the period in Britain & her colonies, a woman's status could be  evident in her choice of clothing materials in both quantity & quality. Did her clothes have elegant trimmings, such as lace & needlework? How many dresses did she own? Were they up-to-date in style & fit? Women who had to do physical labor, especially in the colonies, modified the elegant styles of the period for greater ease of movement, durability, & affordability. Everyday long gowns seldom survived, but prints & paintings suggest the garments were cut like fashionable dresses of the period. Usually they were, however, made of cheaper textiles & without trimmings & ruffles. When a long fitted gown was too impractical for the work to be done, working women adopted shorter garments that also required less fabric than a full gown. These included short gowns, bed gowns, & jackets. Neck handkerchiefs, gloves, & mitts protected women's bodies from exposure to cold or excessive sunlight. Kerchiefs also offered greater modesty, when fashion dictated low necklines. Workers & older women especially relied on such accessories.

Early in the 18C, proper, elite British women wore a dress known as a mantua for formal occasions. The mantua was an open-fronted silk or fine wool gown with a train & matching petticoat. The train was worn looped up over the hips to reveal the petticoat. The bodice had loose elbow-length sleeves finished with wide turned-back cuffs. A hoop petticoat & several under-petticoats wore worn beneath the outer petticoat. To give the British figure a fashionable shape, a corset often was worn under the bodice. It was made of linen & stiffened with whale bones inserted between parallel lines of stitching. The corset fastened with lacing down the back which could be laced tightly to give an upright posture to the torso & to emphasise the waist. A strip of bone, wood, or metal was sometimes incorporated into the front stays. British women wore their hair close to the head often with a small linen cap which sometimes had lace lappets, streamers that hung either side of a woman's cap. The cap was covered by a hood or hat for outerwear.

In the 1730s, the "sack back' dress worn over a hoop petticoat became increasingly fashionable in Britain & her colonies. The style remained in fashion until the 1780s. The sack back was made from 5 or panels of material pleated into 2 box pleats at the center back of the neck-band. It flowed down & was incorporated into the fullness of the skirt. It was worn over a matching petticoat as well as a hoop petticoat. The "nightgown style" or style anglaise had a pleated back. The pleats were stitched flat from the back of the neck to the centre back waist. Genteel ladies wore hoop petticoats, usually made of linen with split cane hoops stitched in at intervals & held the skirt of the petticoat & the robe out at the sides. They were at their widest in the 1740s & 1750s, when they could measure over 1.5m across. Hoop petticoats were worn on formal occasions. As with many fashions, it is hard to say why such a cumbersome outfit was popular. One reason might have been that it displayed the richly embroidered cloth of the skirt that indicated the wearer's wealth. During the 1770s, hair styles became higher, as they often were combed over a padded roll or worn over a frame.

As the New Repulic of The United States of America was finding its way between the 1780s & 1800, a very noticeable change took place in the female British silhouette. The waistline became higher, until it reached the bust. The skirt was reduced in width & hoop petticoats were discarded except at very formal occasions. In their place, crescent-shaped pads were worn at the center back waist beneath the skirt to help fill out the gathers at the back of the dress. In the 1790s, corsets were lightly boned & usually made of linen. Hair was frizzed or worn in short curls.