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Friday
Jun102011

How to Dress in the Early 1700s

Since we're reading a novel set so long ago, it might be helpful to visualize how the upper classes dressed at the time. (There are some pictures scattered as links throughout this post. Look for the word "here" in a different color and click on it to see the picture mentioned.)

It's important to remember that while Defoe's ROXANA is written in 1724, it actually takes place from about 1680 until perhaps 1720 or so. Fashion is quickly changing.

It's also important to remember that this discussion of dress and clothing bears on Roxana and the social set she aspires to join. Amy and other servants would be dressed more simply. Indeed, servants were to appear in a state of what would be considered "undress": a simple frock, no hose, short sleeves, an open neckline, a small cap. It's no wonder they provided a constant frisson of sexual tension in a household. They were doing their chores in what would now be considered their underwear.

A major shift in women's fashion occurred in the mid- to late-1600s with the coming of the mantua, a gown that hung from the shoulders. Before, women had worn a separate bodice and skirt. The mantua was originally considered part of a lady's "undress" or "endimanché" (that is, "on Sunday," a reference to being less formally attired on Sunday afternoons and evenings). There was something slightly scandalous about the mantua when it was originally worn, about the time Roxana comes of age. It's as if you're wearing your underclothes in public--or your dressing gown. One can think now of a man wearing a T-shirt to a restaurant: years ago, he would have been considered "in his underwear"; these days, T-shirts are major fashion statements, designed in cuts well beyond the workaday underwear model and sold at very high prices. For more on this rather scandalous look to the mantua, check out this portrait of Barbara Villiers, one of Charles II's many mistresses, in her mantua--he ended up ceding her land so that she became the Duchess of Cleveland (click here).

The mantua started out as a loose sack, dropped from the shoulders. Soon, it developed shape, particularly at the waist. Gradually the mantua became a draped and pleated gown, still from the shoulders, sometimes looped and/or draped over a contrasting petticoat and stomacher. Necklines dropped with the weight coming from the shoulders. And waists pulled in. (See this picture of Mary of Modena, James II's wife--click here.)

Men's fashions were increasingly loose and flappy. The more fabric, the better, particularly in the pants. Catch this fantastic entry from Samuel Pepys diary in April, 1661: "Among other things, met with Mr. Townsend, who told of his mistake the other day to put both his legs through one of his knees of his breeches, and so went about town in such a state all day."

It's thought these great changes in dress were the result of the end of the Thirty Years War. Gone were the tight-fitting military garb in which almost a third of European men had died. Instead, men wore acres of fabrics. Nobody could fight a war all frilled up! Coats began to drop from rib-height bolero jackets to hip-length coats with long sleeves and copious collaring. Wigs were becoming increasingly bizarre with long, flowing curls. Don't just think white hair slicked with goose greese. All sorts of curls were in vogue. Check out this picture of a young Louis XIV here. (Yes, that's a wig. He's probably bald underneath, shaved as a preventive for lice.)

As the novel ROXANA progresses, we move into the 18th century. The women's mantua becomes tighter, designed to go over stays and hoops. It cinches increasingly to the waist. The "robe à l'anglaise" took over Continental fashion. It had a pleated back, the pleats sewn down to fit the bodice to the waist.

The main change? Those hideous stays or corsets. They were long-waisted and cut with a narrow back, wide front, and shoulder straps. The most fashionable stays pulled the shoulders back until the shoulder blades almost touched. The resulting silhouette--shoulders thrown back, erect posture, and high bosom--is characteristic of this period and no other. (See this detail from "A Tea Party at Lord Harrington's" here.)

Wool waistcoats were sometimes worn between the corsets and the mantua for warmth. However, it's important to remember that the corsets themselves were most often made of boiled wool batting: scratchy, hot, and unforgiving. More goose grease was applied to the skin to prevent rashes. It's hard to imagine how they all smelled, festering in animal fat as they were. It's also important to remember that Europe was in the throes of what's been called "the little ice age."

For men, the pants got narrower, trimmer; they began to creep up the leg until they ended up tied at the knee by 1725, thus giving rise to the need for garter stays to keep the long wool stockings in place. (After about 1730--and after the novel closes--garters gave way to buckles at the knee to hold the stockings up.) Jackets continued to lengthen, now to the knees. And the sleeves began to balloon from the elbows. (See Gainsborough's "Mr. and Mrs. Andrews" here.)

I hope this helps visual Roxana as she moves through English and Continental society. It was a chore to get dressed. And a marker of class.

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Reader Comments (1)

Your blog is amazing.
These posts are so inspiring

October 13, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbaju batik

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