English Costumes of theEighteenth Century

 Art by Iris Brooke

 Text by James Laver

A. & C. Black, Ltd.
4, 5 & 6 Soho Square, London, W. 1


The phrase "eighteenth-century costume" is one dear to theatrical costumiers, and (although there has been a very considerable diffusion of knowledge during the last few years) it is still too often used as though the same clothes were worn from 1700 to 1800. Eighteenth-century plays are frequently dressed quite regardless of changes in fashion throughout the century. Ramillies wigs are wedded to 1790 hats; Louis XV. petticoats are worn with the towering head-dresses of 1770, and Watteau gowns are matched with toilettes of the French Directory.

That there is some excuse for this the following pages bear witness. There is indeed a singular homogeneity about the period, and when one considers that fashions came in and went out more slowly than they do at present, that the difference between town and country was more marked, and that old people clung more affectionately to the modes of, their youth, there is perhaps less absurdity in treating the century as one than might at first appear.

The present editor would be the last person to advocate a pedantic archæological accuracy in reconstructing the costume and background of the Comedy of Manners. There is a sense in which the eighteenth century-if we forget the revolutionary fervour of its close-was static, as timeless and changeless as a Platonic Idea. The three-cornered hat, the Watteau gown, the wig, the snuff-box, the shoe-buckles, the knee-breeches, and the sword at a man's side- these are surely Types laid up in Heaven.

The sixteenth century had been convulsed by the Reformation, the seventeenth by the Wars of Religion; all was confusion, all was flux. But in the eighteenth century the surface of civilisation seemed to have set hard; a culture had been evolved which, however incapable of satisfying the eternal needs of man, was, of its kind, perfect and complete.

That is not to say that it had no hidden misery and horror, no filth, no squalor, no sordid poverty. It had all these things; but it had also a Society, in the true sense, a European Society conscious of its unity and its common culture, and able therefore to devote itself to the elaboration of the elegancies of life, in a word to the evolution of Style. In nearly all the countries of Europe, Aristocracy had come to terms with Monarchy and had not yet been overwhelmed by the democratic flood. "Aprés moi, le déluge." But till it came, the polite world enjoyed itself, and has left to future ages a complete picture of a homogeneous culture, a culture in which formal religion was tempered by scepticism and extravagance was restrained by taste, and in which two arts at least were brought to their perfection: the art of letter-writing and the art of conversation.

The calm was, of course, delusive, the seemingly solid surface scored with fissures and threatened with subterranean upheaval. Every age, no matter how static it may appear, is an age of transition, and the eighteenth century was no exception. Thought changed and fashion with it, and the century which began with Addison ended by accepting the extravagances of Rousseau. Costume is not a triviality; it is the visible raiment of the soul. It is the purpose of the present book to display the slow but, in the end, considerable changes which affected European costume during the eighteenth century.





18th Century French Clothing

American Colonial Clothing

18th Century Clothing Resources

Revolutionary War Costuming

Mara Riley's Costume Page

Revolutionary War Costuming Discussion Group

Early Textiles

Cherry Dawson, Milliner

1770 Men's Clothing layers

1770 Women's Clothing layers

1770 Girl's Clothing layers

1700 Women's Clothing layers

1700 Men's Clothing layers