A History of English Dress in the Late 17th to 18th Centuries
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Precursors to 18th Century Feminine Attire:
The Gown: popular until the close of the 15th century, this dress was a ground-length, one-piece affair that succeeded best in concealing women's shapelier portions rather than showing off their figures. It conceded to womanly shape only through a girdle that tied at the waist of the wearer. In the early part of the 19th century, it enjoyed a resurrection in a repeated movement towards classical values and traditions in England. Good recreations of early 19th century gowns can be seen in the movie adaptations of novels such as Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility and Pride & Prejudice.
The Closed Dress, Two-Piece Style: This dress was divided into two parts -- a skirt and a bodice. It was created sometime around the Renaissance period, but was most commonly worn during the Elizabethan times. Since the skirt was separate from the upper part of the dress, dressmakers were able to add more form to it via pleats and gathers (folds in the cloth that bend it in a particular direction.) Examples of this type of garment can be found in Shakespearean plays and movie productions, the most recent of which is Shakespeare in Love. (Cunnington, "The Art of the English Costume" pp. 85-86)
The Open Dress, Two-Piece Style:
Also found in Elizabethan times, these dresses, characterized by a robe-like
overdress over one or more underdresses and skirts, were initially considered
"risque" because of their resemblance to teagowns. Teagowns, which
were loose, open robes fastened with cords or ribbons, were used by pregnant
women and considered scandalous on young, unmarried ladies. However, the versatility
of the garment (mix and matching) as well as the additional acreage of cloth
that could be frilled, laced, and otherwise decorated increased its popularity.
This style lasted well through the Classical Baroque Period (early-mid 17th
century, probably best known for the frilly, stiff circular collars and formal,
equally stiff clothes that both men and women wore at court) and influenced
the dresses of both the Rococo and Neo-classical periods of the 18th century.
(Cunnington, "The Art of the English Costume"
Rococo Period: 1690-1770
The beginning of the 18th century showed promise of many changes in fashion and lifestyle of the English. By this time, the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, people were veering away from the ponderous though magnificent clothing of the Classical Baroque era and towards a more proletariat stance. The traditions of the classical eras --- the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans --- were much admired by the new free-thinking generation, and influenced their way of dress. Clothes became more relaxed, with a less rigid structure and an emphasis on the natural flow of line and figure. (Squire,102-105.)
As English literature headed towards the realms of sentimentality
and sensibility, women's fashion reflected the softening of harsh religious
and social standards. Gone were the darker, serious colors and whale-bone rigidity
of the Classical Baroque style of the French and English court; instead, women
wore clothing that emphasized "softness, prettiness, and delicacy."
Colors reflected the natural world in soft pastel shades of rose, yellows, pale
greens, and light blues. Decorative embroidery and frills served to enhance
the lines of the body and soften edges of the dresses. (Squire,
Neo-Classical Period: 1750-1815
The Neo-Classical period marked the beginning of what would be a return to the traditional dress fashions of the 15th through sixteenth centuries, with some minor modifications. While the Rococo period showed a resurgence of lavishly decorated dresses that resembled tamer versions of the Classical Baroque era, the Neo-Classical period was characterized by an emphasis on simplicity of dress, of comfort and function over ostentation. (Barfoot, p. 56.)
Women's clothing began to resemble the one-piece gowns of by-gone days, though with more tailoring to "stuff up" the female figure and more "masculine" and "natural" colors: terracotta (a bright earthy orange), various shades of ochre (brownish yellow), malachite (dark green), and blue in the hues of lapis lazuli and other striking colors. (Squire, 107.)
Indeed, this was a time when the physical appearances of the rising burgeoisie and the old aristocracy would begin to merge --- polite society deemed flagrant display of wealth in appearance as improper and somewhat crass. At the dawning of the 19th century, female fashion would go full-circle back into the styles of a few hundred years past. In Jane Austen's day, a properly attired female closely resembled any young lady of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. (Squire, 132.)