The 18th century is a special time in the history of England – cultural influences from other countries, including countries in Europe and colonies of England, the rise of the modern English novel as we know it today, the french revolution and its consequences across the continent all had a lasting impression and resulted in the many upheavals in all aspects, especially in fashion.
The French influence in fashion from 1715 to 1774 is referred to as Roccoco. This movement started with the coronation of King Louis XV in France. During this period, people placed a high value on fashion—those who could afford it, spend a lot of time and money dressing to impress. The period is associated with excessive ornamentation and extravagance in clothing.
France was the leader in everything related to fashion. Madam de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV, and Marie Antoniette, wife of King Louis XVI, dressed exquisitely in elaborately designed gowns that were copied across the continent.
At the beginning of the century, the silk weaving industry in Lyon had a great overhaul and revival, resulting in exquisite silk being used in many gowns of the court ladies of the period.
All this excess ended to a large extent by the french revolution in 1789. A leaning toward Naturalism resulted in more simplistic clothing styles from men and women.
In this article I will cover:
Main clothing styles fashionable among women
The main clothing style of women in the 18th century consisted of an overrobe, petticoat, stays, and a stomacher.
Over robe (Robe a la francaise)
This was a loose-fitting pleated robe worn over several under-petticoats, including a hoop petticoat, corset, and stomacher. The bodice included loose sleeves that were elbow-length and had large turned-back cuffs.
A wide and open neckline was favored throughout the 18th century.
This was a triangular piece of material placed on the chest and stomach under the front opening of the overrobe or mantua.
Stays refer to the later days’ corset. This was worn below the bodice to contour the physique. Whale bones were put between parallel stitches of the corset to strengthen the linen material which was used to make it – this pushed up the bust and gave a very feminine outline. They had laces that could be fastened tightly to give the torso an upright stance and to highlight the waist. The front of the stays was sometimes adorned with a ‘busk’,- a piece of bone, metal, or wood.
Sack back dress
The “sack back” dress gained popularity in the 1730s. Up to the 1780s, it remained in trend. The sack back design was created by pleating five or six silk panels into two box pleats at the center back of the neckband. It cascaded to the ground and merged with the skirt’s volume. It was worn over a hoop or a matching petticoat.
The 1740s and 1750s saw the hoop petticoats at their widest, when they might measure more than 1.5 meters. For formal events, hoops were worn under petticoats. Like many trends, it is difficult to understand why this type of heavy dress was in style. One explanation could be that it showed off the skirt’s ornately embroidered fabric, which revealed the wearer’s immense wealth.
During the late eighteenth century, women used to wear an overdress for ceremonies, known as mantua. It was a loose silk or fine wool gown with an open front, a train or overskirt, and a matching petticoat. The train/overskirt was placed coiled up over the hips and pinned there to display the petticoat underneath.
This is a triangular shawl. The fichu was draped over the shoulder. It was fastened to the stomacher.
The pannier is a projecting accessory worn around the waist and hips to give a very feminine wide hips look. It was worn under the skirt looped up round the hips. This was used along with corset till the french revolution – a must have in every court lady’s closet.
The corset made the waist smaller and the pannier made the hips wider giving an hourglass look to everyone wearing them.
Mits and fingerless gloves were worn throughout the century.
Women mostly wore their hair close to the head in a little linen cap with lace lappets, which hung on any one side of the cap. It was usually hidden by a hat or hood that was used as outerwear.
As hair was brushed over a cushioned roll or worn over a frame in the 1770s, hairstyles grew higher. In the late 18th century, short curls or frizzy hairstyles rose in popularity.
18th centry clothing after the French Revolution
After the french revolution, the female silhouette underwent a significant transformation from the 1780s to 1800. The waistline kept rising until it touched the bust. Hoop petticoats were discontinued everywhere except the court, and the skirt’s width was reduced. Crescent-shaped pads replaced the hoop petticoats. From the 1790s, corsets started getting made with linen and included minimal boning.
Main clothing styles fashionable among men
At the beginning of the century, a typical costume included:
- A knee-length full-skirted coat.
- A long waistcoat or vest.
- A frilly linen shirt.
- Linen underdrawers.
- Knee breeches.
Lower legs were visible. Leather shoes were worn by men with low to medium-height stacked heels and silk stockings. A tricorne hat with an inverted brim and a shoulder-length, full-bottomed wig was used to top off the entire ensemble.
The male silhouette gradually evolved over the century. By the mid-century, wigs were typically tied back, called the bag wig or tye. It almost went out of fashion by the century’s end and was only worn at formal events.
Knee breeches and underwear hardly changed at all. The fronts of coats were cut in a curving line that curled backward as the skirts eventually became less full. Waistcoats shrank in length. By the turn of the century, breeches were mostly made of silk, which helped them fit better and the upper leg started to show more and more. Low-heeled shoes with pointed toes started to become popular.
During the rococo period, there was extravagant decoration in all aspects of male attire. Clothing was embellished with colorful prints, elaborate neckties, embroidery, etc.
During the late 18th century, the male fashion silhouette changed drastically. A leaning towards neutral colors for male attire. The late 18th century started a movement called Dandyism which went against the almost feminine dressing style of men till then. The Dandies displayed a penchant for restrained style in fashion and a preference for dull neutral colors. Impeccable tailoring by bespoke tailors was valued and many bespoke tailors established shops in London during this period.
Men’s attire in 18th-century evolved from an elaborate style to a more informal look.
It was during this period that children’s clothing finally made an appearance, allowing them to be recognized as youngsters instead of miniature adults.
Children were considered young adults. As a result, they were dressed in the same clothes as their parents. It took a very long time for children’s clothing to be developed.
In the early eighteenth century, a newborn child, irrespective of gender, wore a shirt and was wrapped in a piece of cloth known as a bed. A piece of white fabric was wrapped around the infant’s entire body, and a three-layered cap covered the baby’s head. People at the time believed that such garments helped babies grow up with a straight posture.
Until the 1770s and 80s, all children wore a bodice or a stay with a cane for support.
After the swaddling was removed at the age of 4 months, boys were dressed in the same frocks with back straps as girls because there was no distinction in their clothes. To serve as undergarments, they were also dressed in a petticoat or pants underneath the dress.
Girls started wearing gowns like adult women at the age of two, while young boys wore the same clothes as adult men starting at age three.
Children’s clothing started to vary from their parents in the 1760s. Until girls reached adolescence, they wore a basic, high-waist muslin dress.
After ten years, boys wore frilly-collared shirts and short jackets with sashes around their waists over the trousers.
The skeleton suit, which was fashionable until the 1830s, first appeared in the last decade of the eighteenth century – it consisted of tight short or long- sleeved coat or jacket buttoned to a pair of high-waisted trousers.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skeleton_suit)
Books to read :
- The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930″ by Norah Waugh
- Fashion: A History from the 18th to the 20th Century
- 18th Century Embroidery Techniques” by Gail Marsh.
Read more on styles of the period :