Women's Clothing in 18th Century England
Clothing and Class
Clothing was a social symbol in Eighteenth Century England just as it is today. At the beginning of the century, a divide existed between the style of noblewomen and middle class women or servants. Throughout the century, hoop skirts contributed to this divide but as noblewomen acquired new skirts or different shapes, they often passed down old hoops to their servants.
The eighteenth century marked a time of growing prosperity in England though as the middle class began to make more money and consumer culture emerged. Wives and daughters of wealthy merchants began to copy the aristocracy and dress in similar detailed petticoats and hooped skirts. This marked movement away from the traditional austerity of their style.
As the middle class started moving towards high fashion, noblewomen began drawing inspiration for some of their clothing from the lower classes. Simplicity became valued more at the end of the century. Nobility was sometimes depicted in country clothing that was plain and muted in color. Jackets styles that were more common in the country also gained popularity. This is not to say though that there were no distinguishing differences between classes. Noblewomen dressed in simple clothing still had things made of fine fabrics. The end of the century’s clothing signaled a move towards a more egalitarian society but it was not a completely classless one.
"At London... masters dress like their valets, and duchesses' copy after their chamber-maids."
-Abee Le Blanc, Letters on the English and French Nations
Duchess Catherine Douglas is depicted in this portrait as a milk maid. Her simple clothing and the scenery are inspired by the English countryside where she spent parts of her time. However, a close look shows that she is not actually shown as a milk maid here. She is wearing a modest hoop skirt and her apron is made of either fine linen or silk - not typical for actual maids. These details exemplify that it was in fashion to be embrace simplicity at the end of the eighteenth century.
England v. France
England and France had long been competitive superpowers and fashion was another stage for them to fight on. By the eighteenth century though, the two fashion impulses of Europe had developed very differently socio-geographically and it was visually evident in their clothing. The French were luxurious in their fashion and simplicity had no place at Versailles. In England however, function and simplicity were valued and becoming more common as clothing was produced with new technology. While there was a difference in how the rich and the poor dressed in England, there was never as sharp a difference as there was in France.
Cultural values also are clear when French and English dress are compared. English women were more modest and found it immoral to be self-important or promiscuous as some French dress suggested. Occasion was also disregarded in France and every event was something to dress up for at court. In England though, it was considered vain to arrive at certain events or places dressed too well.
Due to the elaborate nature of French dress, they were considered the leaders of fashion in Europe up until the revolution. Even after as it became dangerous to wear big skirts and gowns in the streets of France (since this was a mark of aristocracy) England followed that move and hoop skirts moved out of style.
The noblewoman shown to the right is wearing the soft colors and simple dress that was popular in England. She contrasts starkly with Marie Antoinette (left) who embodied the lavish lifestyle and high fashion of France.
The Hoop Skirt
The wide, hooped skirt of eighteenth century England was in some ways the advent of modern fashion due to its high cost, transitory moment in the spotlight and irrationality. At the hooped skirts’ widest it spread 6 feet around the woman wearing it and distinguished her as a member of the aristocracy.
Hoop skirts aimed to create an extremely feminine shape for those who wore them. The wide skirts exaggerated the hips, especially in contrast with the tiny waists women created through the use of corsets. This symbolized fertility – a quality valued in women. The skirts also began to symbolize sexuality throughout the century. Often women did not wear layers underneath so if the hoop got caught and a woman was knocked over leg was visible. Hoop skirts are credited with some of the first exposures of women’s bare legs in public. While the skirts in some ways promoted sexuality though, they also physically protected women from unwanted to sexual encounters. The skirts were so tight and so difficult to remove that it was physically difficult for someone to violate a woman wearing them – or even dance with her if the skirt was so wide that individuals could not reach each other. For these reasons the skirts had a love-hate relationship with English men.
Hooped skirts originated in England and were one of the few distinguishing elements of dress...
between classes. There were various shapes the skirts came in including round, square and triangular, all very exaggerated and appearing completely different in social settings. The impracticality of the wide circular hoop skirts led to the development of oval skirts that allowed women to walk around more freely. The style’s lack of rationality was peculiar because a defining trait of English dress during this century was that it was more simple and practical than the elaborate fashion worn in other places throughout Europe.
The hoop skirt became a staple in noblewomen’s wardrobes by the mid-1720’s. The style evolved in England throughout earlier centuries though. Women had added layers between their undergarments and skirts for decades to exaggerate the feminine shape. As the desire for a greater degree of exaggeration grew, a sturdier material that fabric was needed to create the shape. Originally whalebone was used but towards the end of the century metal and wood were employed to create the hoops as well. By 1795 fashion shifted completely and women began wearing extremely thin, shapeless dresses with high waists. It was only because of Queen Catherine, who had been a leader of the hoop style in her younger days that the hoop skirts existed in aristocracy at all into the nineteenth century.
"The strutting Petticoat smooths all distinctions.... Should this fashion get among the ordinary people, our public ways would be so crowded, that we should want street-room,"
- The Spectator, 1711
The new hoop skirt received media attention and criticism from London journals.
"We are very much displeased and offended" by the "new and unaccountable fashion."
-The Tatter 1761
The quilted petticoats worn over hooped skirts created individualism in women’s dress while continuing to add warmth and a round shape to women’s appearance. Petticoats ranged from plain to highly decorative and some were sewn into elaborate patterns, sometimes even telling stories as pictured to the left. Different materials used, silk or wool for example, also helped establish social standing to small degree.
True to English style, petticoats also were functional. In the winter, the added layers provided extra warmth for the women who wore them. In the summer women typically wore petticoats made with lighter fabrics.
About this Exhibit
By: Erin Williams
Inspired by the importance placed on beauty of female characters in literature studied in this course, specifically in The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope and The History of the Nun by Aphra Behn.
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