Clothing of 18th Century England - page three of three - 1770 to 1800


Close caps, resembling night-caps, were much worn in 1773, even in fashionable circles. Sometimes they had lace "wings" at the sides, giving a somewhat grotesque appearance to the head when seen from behind.

For a very short period men attempted to vie with women in the height of their head-dresses. The wig was built up with the aid of padding, or else rose steeply from the forehead in a kind of exaggerated toupet, with or without the support of a wire frame. As at the very beginning of the century when the full-bottomed wig had assumed such enormous proportions, it was now almost impossible for hats to be worn. The solution of the problem, however, was not, as it had been, to make the hat larger. On the contrary it became even smaller, and was never worn at all but merely carried in the hand and placed under the arm. Indeed, in polite society it became the masculine equivalent of the feminine fan.

This appurtenance of the toilet played a great part in eighteenth-century life. The rigid fan of the sixteenth century was an awkward engine compared with the graceful folding fan of the eighteenth. It could be carried easily, expanded quickly, and used both for cooling the face in the terribly overheated ballrooms of the period, and as an instrument of coquetry to add piquancy to smiling eyes, to conceal a blush, or to stifle a yawn. The mere fact that it could be folded within bone or ivory handles made it possible to use delicate materials such as silk or chicken-skin parchment, and to employ the best artists to paint exquisite little scenes thereon. Sometimes the fan, like the snuff-box, had a proper and a " gallant " side, either of which could be turned outwards at the will of the user. Some of the eighteenth-century fans which have come down to us are miracles of a delicate artistry which has never been surpassed.



The head-dress of women reached its most fantastic height in the middle seventies; indeed, it almost seems as if the growing tendency for men to wear their own hair, or at least to combine more and more of their own hair with a diminishing wig, spurred the perruquiers on to invent even more elaborate head-dresses for women in order to keep themselves in employment. The dressing of a head for a fashionable function occupied three or four hours. With head-dresses of such enormous size it was essential for ladies to have hats to match, although sometimes a comparatively small hat was worn pinned firmly on top of the coiffure. Sometimes the hat was a part of the hairdressing, or, rather, the latter was so elaborate as to render a hat superfluous.

Bonnets of satin, taffeta, or linen were worn by women of all classes en négligé, i.e. on any occasion when full dress was not required, such as going to church or for a morning walk.

Long walking-sticks with gold or silver knobs were carried both by men and women, and the practice of wearing swords fell more and more into disuse, except among military men.

About the year 1778 a fashion arose of trimming the diagonal front edges of the overskirt with a frill of the same material as the flounces of the sleeves. The overskirt was sometimes puffed out with a stuffing of loosely crumpled paper which made a strange rustling noise when the wearer moved. The underskirt was richly ornamented either with horizontal gathers of its own material or with strips of lace, ribbon, or fur. The two skirts were frequently of contrasting colours or of lighter and deeper shades of the same colour. The skirt with paniers, before its final disappearance, was worn short, showing the shoes and the ankles, and, as always, a shorter skirt led to increased care for the neatness of shoes and stockings.


From the end of the seventeenth-seventies there is, quite suddenly, an enormous increase in the number of documents which may be consulted by the student of fashion. In a word, the fashion plate springs into being, and it is interesting to note that some of the earliest fashion plates were not concerned with the whole costume but with the method of dressing the hair. The fantastic hairdressing fashions of the decade made ladies all the more eager to be aware of the latest mode, and the engravers and publishers were not long in satisfying their curiosity.

A publication with the interesting title of Souvenir a I'Anglaise et Recueil de Coiffures appeared in Paris in 1778, and there was soon a rage for such aids to modernity on both sides of the Channel. The fashion paper was fairly launched and no doubt contributed largely to a more rapid changing of modes than had been customary or, indeed, possible earlier in the century. It is probable that the vogue for caricatures may have contributed to the same effect, for by exaggerating each fashion in turn and so tending to make it ridiculous, the growth of new fashions was stimulated. In England, however, the great growth of fashion plates belongs rather to the turn of the century than to the decade now under discussion.

Masculine hairdressing became neater and closer to the head, the three-cornered hat being very small and worn far forward, so that the brim came just above the eyes. Sleeves were sometimes extremely narrow, with a simple edge of lace protruding from the cuff. The formalised buttons and buttonholes, which had once had the genuine function of keeping the turned-back cuff in place, remained on the sleeve as decoration, just as they have remained to this day, sometimes as many as four, sometimes one, but never entirely absent. The vestigial element in dress is always large and is a proof of the extraordinary conservatism of fashion beneath all its apparent change.


By the year 1780 the revived farthingale or hoop may be said to have disappeared, its place being taken by small pads or cushions fastened to the hips, and then by a single pad at the back. In fact, the eighteenth-century equivalent of the crinoline was followed by the eighteenth century equivalent of the bustle, although neither of the names had as yet been invented. The recurrence of fashion is an attractive theory, but such recurrence obeys some peculiar rhythm of its own, so that prophecy becomes difficult if not impossible. There is, none the less, a certain parallelism between the course of fashion in the eighteenth and in the nineteenth centuries, even in small and seemingly unimportant details.

The fashion of embroidering men's coats all over their surface had now been abandoned. Even waistcoats were not so highly ornamented as they had been, the embroidery being now generally confined to the skirts, the pockets, and the buttonholes.

There was a reaction against high heels and a forecasting of the almost completely heelless shoes of the early nineteenth century. Improvements in the craft of shoemaking made all shoes much more comfortable, so that the use of houseslippers was abandoned. The long tongue of the upper disappeared almost completely.

For women, the large horizontal hat, usually worn at an engaging angle and adorned with ribbons or feathers, began to be fashionable in 1780, or soon afterwards. The material of these hats was straw or silk or some light foundation, and it was securely fastened to the coiffure with pins to prevent it from falling off. Even so it must have been no light task to manage the head-dress of the period in a high wind. Men were beginning to grow tired of the universal tricorne and to cock their hats in a different way - straight up and down at the front and back, so that the two edges lay together. The hat thus treated was the ancestor of all the "Napoleonic" hats and of the cocked hats of early 20th century admirals and generals.


About the year 1780 there was a wave of simplicity, not the real simplicity of the time of the Revolution, but a pseudo-pastoralism derived from the example of Marie Antoinette at the Trianon. There the ladies of the Court played at being shepherdesses and dressed their hair in "milkmaid" or "peasant" fashion, but dresses were no less costly for being pastoral or pseudo-pastoral. The influence of the country was more effective in England, where there was a real enthusiasm for rural life and where men, at least, wore clothes suitable for hard weather and boots adapted to the muddiness of the roads. Some women, finding a semi-masculine riding-dress becoming, adopted it for morning wear whether they intended to ride or not. The bodice was made in imitation of a man's coat and waistcoat with overlapping revers, and the skirt was full, but simple and without trimming. On ordinary dresses trimmings were abandoned in favour of ruches of muslin or lace, arranged in flounces and sewn to the edge of the dress. Gowns were worn rather long, and the white stockings were invisible. About the year 1783 there was a rage for decorating dresses with straw, even men's waistcoats being ribbed with it, and straw coats, called paillasses, were worn by women.

About 1780 hats began to be perched on the top of the high coiffures, with the result that the head-dress itself grew smaller to accommodate them. Hair was crimped and arranged in "hedgehog" fashion, puffed out from the face, and hats had to be very large in order to cover it without spoiling the effect. Some of the mob-caps of the period were almost as large as hoods and, indeed, resembled them very closely. On more formal hats there was a rage for ostrich feathers, a fashion immortalised by Gainsborough in his portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire.


Towards the end of the eighties it became the fashion for women to wear a separate jacket-like garment called a caraco. This was close-fitting and made in a masculine style. Beneath it a tight-fitting dress was worn, bodice and skirt of the same material, the skirt contrasting with the caraco, which came more than ever to resemble a man's dresscoat. Sometimes the under-dress was without a bodice, a light corset being worn in its place, concealed by a kind of front or stomacher, made to resemble a man's waistcoat. This very masculine attire was sometimes worn with a large apron with pockets.

In winter mantelets were worn. These were short capes of silk occasionally edged with fur. When fitted with wide, half-length sleeves, the winter garment was called a pelisse.

From 1786 there was a fashion for beaver hats similar to those worn by men, but more richly trimmed.

The three-cornered hat may be said to have disappeared after the French Revolution. Shoe-buckles also fell out of fashion, being replaced by shoe-strings, although the growing use of boots rendered both unnecessary.

The heels of women's shoes were lower than they had been throughout the century, and the upper was more open, ending a couple of inches behind the toes. Shoes were more comfortably made, with the result that walking became more fashionable.

Swords, which had been worn throughout the century, disappeared about 1786, except with Court dress. About the same period, the wide skirts of men's coats gave place to long tails. Coats were double-breasted and very short in front, so as to reveal the waistcoat. In 1790 there was a temporary fashion for black coats, but the breeches and waistcoats remained brilliant in colour. Waistcoats and stockings were ornamented with vertical or horizontal stripes.


The collars of men's coats, non-existent in the earlier part of the century, could be worn turned over in the modern fashion or else standing rigidly round the neck. The space between the neck and the collar was filled with a scarf wound several times round - the ancestor of the modern necktie. This neck-scarf was often of muslin, as its predecessor had been of cambric. Sleeves became still narrower and very long, so that little of the fine frills at the end of the shirt sleeve could be seen.

One of the fashionable methods of dressing the hair was to have two or three horizontal curls at the side and a little formal queue at the back. This mode has persisted, in a smaller, somewhat stylised form, in the barristers' wig of today, so that while the judge on the bench wears a wig dating in shape from the beginning of the eighteenth century, the wigs of counsel date from about 1780. State coachmen's wigs, worn by the coachmen of the nobility until the beginning of the twentieth century, date from the same period as those of barristers.

The typical head-dress of the seventeen-eighties for women tended to width, just as that of the seventies had tended to height. The effect was somewhat suggestive of the loose hair of a cavalier during the reign of Charles I. Over the hair large mob-caps could be worn, or else a broad-brimmed straw hat very simply trimmed. The general appearance could be charming. The hair, except on formal occasions, was worn without powder, but curling was essential if only to expand the hair to the required size. A kind of hood made of crape was very fashionable, and as the hair completely filled it, it was impossible to tell whether it was a hood or a cap. In winter hoods were edged with fur. Caps persisted for many years, and certain combinations of black and white lace remained as an old lady's head-dress in remote places for nearly a century.


In masculine attire the beginning of the seventeen-nineties marked the victory of English modes over French ones, and the beginning of a dominance which they have maintained ever since. The "European dress" established at the beginning of the century by the prestige of the French Court now gave place to a coat recognisably similar to that worn to-day in evening-dress.

The cut of the masculine coat had been fixed for so long that it must have seemed difficult, if not impossible, to change it. Ever since the evolution of coat and waistcoat at the end of the seventeenth century, the relationship of these two articles of attire had been constant. Now some genius adapted the double-breasted coat from the English riding coat with its two rows of buttons, and two far-reaching consequences immediately followed, both caused by the necessity of keeping a double-breasted coat fastened if it is to preserve its fit. Had the coat been as long in front as formerly the wearer would have been considerably hampered in his movements, and the waistcoat - which had always provided an opportunity for the display of the wearer's taste - would have been totally concealed. Thus tailors began to experiment by cutting the front of the coat away. The period also witnessed an orgy of "revers," even waistcoats being provided with them, often of a colour contrasting with those of the coat.

As the waistcoat pockets were no longer easily accessible, it became the fashion to wear the watch in a front pocket of the breeches. Sometimes both front pockets carried a watch, with seals dangling down outside. The remote successors of these dangling seals were worn into the twentieth century, and may still occasionally be seen, but as the trousers have no front pockets, the "fob" is fastened to the braces.


During the early days of the Revolution in France, and most of all during "the Terror," it became positively dangerous to be seen in the streets of Paris in rich clothes. Not only was the cut plainer, but the materials also. Silks and satins disappeared, their place being taken by cotton, Indian print, and lawn. In England, there was less reason for change, not only because of the stability of the Government, but because the English gentleman with his country habits wore, by preference, clothes much less gaudy than those of his French counterpart. From one point of view, the Revolution was a victory for English fashions, even in France. The top-boots, the unembroidered coats, the stout breeches made for much hard wear in the saddle, passed from the country into the town, and men entered drawing rooms in costumes more suited to the hunting-field. But Englishmen never adopted the extremely high and voluminous neck-clothes which in France actually rose to cover the chin and sometimes the mouth. A short bamboo cane or riding-whip replaced the long walking-stick of a few years before.

In women's costume, England almost entirely escaped the worst extravagances of the French merveilleuses, who went about the streets of Paris in a costume supposed to be Greek, consisting of one semi-transparent chemise-like dress with pink skin-tights worn underneath. The girdle was placed immediately under the breasts, and this fashion reached England towards the end of the century, when very high waists came into fashion. The rage for tall feathers also came from France - a little late, for they had been introduced by Marie Antoinette. It is curious to reflect that the custom of wearing two feathers upright in the hair, which began in this period, lasted in Court dress until the early twentieth century.


In the middle nineties, or, in extremely fashionable circles, just before, the short waist became the rage. The waist, in fact, slipped up to immediately below the breasts and remained there for about twenty years. The materials used for dresses were very thin, but unlike those employed in the days of paniers, they were neither used in great quantities nor elaborately patterned. Simplicity was pushed to the verge of indecency, although the transparent dresses worn in France were never popular in England. We have seen that at the beginning of the century English manufacturers were complaining of the importation of calicoes from India; now, owing chiefly to the invention by Arkwright of the spinning frame, the position was reversed, and the East India Company was driven to complain of the harm done to its import trade by the successful manufacture of British cottons and muslins.

The scantiness of dresses led to the popularity of large fur muffs and to the introduction of wraps, cashmere shawls, or sometimes mere handkerchiefs disposed like a fichu to protect the throat. A short, close-fitting coat with long sleeves, called the spencer, appeared about 1797.

In thin and unvoluminous dresses with no under-petticoats, women, at the end of the eighteenth century, found themselves confronted by a new problem - that of pockets. Their absence led to the invention of the reticule or handbag. It was much laughed at, but has survived several periods of eclipse, to become, in our own day, the most necessary accessory of female costume.

High-heeled shoes began to be discarded in favour of coloured slippers, made of satin for evening wear and of Morocco leather for day-time. They were extremely flimsy, for only eccentric young women, like Wordsworth's "dear child of Nature," went for long walks in the country.



In 1795 Pitt imposed a tax on hair-powder, and so almost extinguished a fashion which was already on the wane, although true-blue Tories still continued to wear both wigs and hair-powder as a patriotic gesture, and to distinguish them from those who sympathised with the French Revolution. Political opinions sometimes decided the colour of a man's clothes. The Tory supporters of Pitt wore scarlet waistcoats, while the Whigs who supported Fox wore yellow. The partisans of Fox had also the very odd habit of carrying large red-fox muffs.

Sleeves became simpler than ever, the turned-back cuff being altogether abandoned, or else symbolised rather than imitated by a band of braid. The number of buttons worn on sleeves was also noticeably reduced.

About the year 1795 caps were discarded in fashionable circles in favour of bandeaux or fillets in supposed imitation of classical models. These fillets were made of muslin or of strips of coloured embroidery. Very few English women in these years of hostility to France followed the French fashion of having their hair cut short at the back and hanging in dishevelled locks over the face, a la Titus. A few may be noticed, however, particularly in the charming stipple engravings of Adam Buck.

From 1794 to 1797 there was a fashion for enormous ostrich plumes in the hair, sometimes two or three of different colours being worn together. The plainness of the dress of the period seemed to demand the wearing of jewellery, but as diamonds and other precious stones were temporarily out of fashion, semi-precious stones and corals were fashioned into cameos in imitation of the antique. Everything, in fact, was antique or pseudo-antique, and the century which began with the stiff splendour of the Grand Siecle ends in an orgy of the neo-classical.