Clothing of 18th Century England - page one of three - 1700 to 1735


The beginning of the century found the dress of Charles II's last years only slightly modified by the intervening reigns. James introduced no innovations, and the slight Dutch influence due to William III only served to give to dress a certain stiffness and sombreness in keeping with the temperament of a King who cared nothing for the elegancies of life. Queen Anne, with whom the century opened, brought neither gaiety nor ostentation to a Court singularly lacking in both, and the dress of her period followed the rigid form of her predecessors. The main lines of costume, however, as it was to exist for nearly a century, were already decided, and this costume had certain strong characteristics which must be briefly considered.

The most remarkable of such characteristics is the wig. Wigs were worn in France very early in the seventeenth century, but did not reach England until the Restoration. Charles II wore a voluminous black wig, and throughout his reign the wig fell on each side of the face with the ends drooping on to the chest. This proved so inconvenient, especially for soldiers, that the fashion arose of tying the hair back with a ribbon, and ultimately, of enclosing it at the back in a silk bag. But this, at the opening of the century, was still in the future. The cost of wigs was enormous, as much as £30 being frequently paid for a full wig of real hair. When one considers that this must have been the equivalent of at least £300 of our money, it is not surprising that footpads should make a first snatch at their victims' wigs.

Men's coats were so long that they almost concealed the breeches, and the, waistcoats were almost as long as the coats. Shoe-buckles came in with William III, and were at first very small. They soon grew larger, and were often ornamented with jewels.

Women's dress was somewhat severe, although it had certain elements of informality. The small laced apron was much worn, even on important occasions. Below it was the flowered petticoat, much more important than the skirt, which was frequently drawn back in bunches or folds. The bodice of the dress, although cut low, was very stiff.

1705 -1710

The most striking thing about female costume at the beginning of the eighteenth century was the height of the head-dress. The fashion started in France when Mademoiselle Fontange, the King's mistress, finding her hair disordered while out hunting, tied it up with a ribbon. The fashion was followed, and formalised, so that soon an elaborate high lace cap stood on the women's heads, the hair being piled up in front and adorned with a wire frame covered with lace and ribbons. The Fontange head-dress was called a "commode" in England, and was seen as early as the end of James II's reign. It lasted throughout the reign of William and Mary, and, at the accession of Queen Anne, rose even higher. The lace used was very costly, for there was as yet no substitute for the real lace of Brussels and Mechlin except gauze, which did not give the same effect.

Men's hair was cropped very close, and in private the heavy full-bottomed wig was frequently discarded, an embroidered cap being worn in its place. Poets and painters are frequently represented in this curious negligé. Waistcoats were still excessively long, and had to be left unbuttoned at the bottom in order to allow freedom to the limbs. Shirts were made of fine white linen, with elaborate lace frills down the front and at the wrists. The cravat, which was also of lace, was one of the most costly parts of the costume. The sword was, of course, worn by all gentlemen, and had not yet assumed the dainty proportions of the dress-sword later in the century - a sword of the same size and shape as that which survives to-day in Court dress. Small boys did not wear a wig, but kept their own hair long in a kind of curly mop.



The neckcloth, or cravat, had been worn by German troops as early as 1640, and, soon after the beginning of the new century, began to replace the lace collar in general use. It consisted of a strip of white material about a foot wide and a yard long, twisted round the neck, and knotted in front. Considerable variety was practised in the manner of tying it, and each variety had a special name. A Steinkerk was a lace cravat tied very loosely, with the ends passed through a buttonhole in the coat. It was so called after the Battle of Steinkerk, where the French officers went into action so hurriedly that they had not time to tie their cravats properly; and the fashion was popular in England in spite of the fact that Steinkerk was an English defeat.

The large wig was worn by the wealthy, unconfined by any kind of ribbon or fastening, a fashion which must have been extremely inconvenient for those whose occupations involved rapid physical action.

The very short sleeve of Charles II's time had given place to a longer variety, with very elaborate turned-back cuffs, adorned with buttons and embroidery. Women's sleeves remained almost the same for many years. They were short, reaching to just below the elbow, and were finished with rather wide lace ruffles. Sometimes the lace was attached to the chemisette underneath, and not to the gown itself.

The odd habit of wearing patches on the face lasted almost throughout the century, and patches of different shapes and sizes were worn by women of all ages. Painting the face was freely indulged in, and the paints used sometimes contained chemicals very harmful to the complexion. The face was treated with wash-balls compounded of white lead, rice, and flour, with washes of quicksilver boiled in water, and with bismuth. This mattered less, perhaps, because women expected to look old in the early thirties.



There is no very noticeable change in men's attire during the first ten years of the eighteenth century. Coats and waistcoats remained very long with large pockets in the flaps of each. The stockings were worn outside the breeches, drawn up over the knee, but gartered below. Stockings could be of coloured silk - blue or scarlet - with gold or silver clocks, but youths and poorer men wore black stockings of wool. In winter the curious fashion was followed of wearing several pairs of stockings at once.

In women's dress the fashions of the end of the previous century had been but slightly modified. The corset, which had reappeared about 1670, was worn very tight, and the bodice of the over-dress cut to fit exactly over it. It was laced from the bottom, with the effect of forcing the breasts upwards. Bodices were low, and a crimped frill was added to the upper edge - a survival from the lace collar of the previous age.

Already before the close of the seventeenth century gowns began to be looped up at the sides into paniers, and these paniers were superseded by hoops, which soon grew to enormous dimensions. The hoop was not, like the crinoline, an under-garment, but the outside petticoat itself stiffened with whalebone. The over-gown opened in front, and the petticoat was frequently of damask or other rich cloth., In winter petticoats were sometimes made of ermine, but, as by their nature, they were some little distance from the body of the wearer, they could not have made her much warmer. Petticoat, gown, stays and cloak could be of different colours, but it was the petticoat which was usually embroidered and therefore formed the richest part of the toilet.



In its earliest and most elaborate form the full-bottomed wig was divided into three masses of curls, two in front of the shoulders and one hanging down the back. Above the forehead the hair rose into two peaks or horns, sometimes exaggerated to grotesque proportions. However, the fashion served to give increased height to the figure, and a grave dignity to the face. A hat was completely unnecessary, and was often carried in the hand, but when worn, had to be of considerable size. The back of the head was smooth, the artificial curls forming a fringe at the edge of the wig.

The hoop petticoat made its first appearance in the London streets in 1711, and two English ladies, walking in the gardens of the Tuileries in 1718, set the fashion in France. It has been suggested that it came from Germany, from some little Court where the great wheel farthingale known to Queen Elizabeth and to Anne of Denmark had survived for more than a century. The revived hoop was at its biggest in England at the end of the other Queen Anne's reign.

The skirts of a man's coat were stiffened with wire to make them stand out, but men soon abandoned the attempt to compete with their wives in this particular.

Falbalas came in early in the century. These were crimped or pleated flounces sewn horizontally round the skirt, and were sometimes of a different material. This was not true of volants or wide ruffles, which were assumed to be part of the original dress.

The English corset was in general laced at the back, and the whalebone stiffening went right round the body and across the breast. The top edge was stiffened with a stout wire, and in the lining in front a small pocket was contrived to hold sachets of fragrant herbs. The French corset continued to be laced up the front.


It is often assumed that dress in the eighteenth century was very much more formal than it is to-day. In reality it was much less so, in the sense that considerably greater variety was permitted to individual taste, and that costume had not yet crystallised, as it were, into various accepted forms for different occasions and different occupations. An eighteenth-century gentleman would have been astonished at the uniformity of men's evening-dress, and even at the comparative uniformity of their everyday attire. Pages were not yet dressed in buttons, nor Eton boys in short coats and white collars. If lawyers wore full-bottomed wigs, so did every other dignified man. Lackeys wore the costume of the day with certain modifications; there was even a certain amount of liberty allowed in officers uniforms, and a definitely naval costume had not yet been invented. In particular, Court dress was simply the dress of the day, a little more elaborate and a little more costly.

Immense numbers of diamonds were worn both by men and women, for since the Dutch improvements in diamond cutting at the beginning of the century, the stones could be made to present a much more brilliant effect than formerly. Diamonds were often borrowed or even hired for important occasions, such as Courts and weddings. The somewhat rigid bodice-fronts of this period lent themselves to the display of precious stones, and the stomacher was frequently embroidered all over with them, or else heavily laced with gold thread. Peers and Knights of the Garter and other orders wore their decorations even in the street, so that a man's rank could be easily recognised. We are still far from the days when it is considered bad form to wear even a miniature military ribbon. In this sense the dress of the eighteenth century was very formal; and although the middle classes tried to ape the nobility, the high cost of the materials worn compelled them to keep at a respectful distance.


The fashion for wearing the full-bottomed wig divided into three masses of curls did not last very long, owing to the growing consciousness of its inconvenience, even among the leisured. Later, the wig was of equal length all round, but sometimes the portion at the back was divided into two, the ends being tied with ribbons. This fashion persisted among old men until about 1760, but in general wigs became smaller about 1720, and continued to diminish in size throughout the century.

Cuffs were still large and sometimes heavily embroidered, but disappeared from hunting and riding coats. Riding was also responsible for a modification of the coat-tails. These were buttoned back, and soon became merely ornamental, i.e. the revers were formalised as part of the decoration of the coat, thus making the wider opening at the front of the coat permanent. The last vestige of this buttoning back is to be seen in the two black buttons in the small of the back of a modern morning or evening coat and in the more elaborate arrangement of buttons on the back lower edge of a soldier's tunic.

The most notable change in female attire is a lowering of the head-dress. On the disappearance of the "commode" or Fontange head-dress, the hair was worn in a simple, almost negligent style, rather close to the head. This fashion lasted, with but slight modifications, until the introduction of the towering head-dresses typical of the seventeen-seventies. The habit of wearing caps, however, persisted, particularly in the middle classes. These caps were usually quite small and perched on the top of the head, but were sometimes very rich, trimmed with fine lace, or made of lace entirely. Servants' caps, or the caps worn by very old ladies and peasant women, are now the only survivals of this practice.


At the beginning of the century the increased facilities for trade with the East, due to the growing success of the East India Company, led to the introduction of vast quantities of Indian calicoes, which soon became very popular. English cloth manufacturers grew alarmed, and Acts of Parliament were passed, both by Queen Anne and George I, prohibiting the use of calicoes, silks, etc., from India, Persia, and China. These were, however, extensively smuggled, and Steele, in his plea for the weavers of England, gives an interesting list of the materials they had displaced: brilliants, pulerays, antherines, bombazines, satinets, chiverets, oraguellas, grazetts (flowered and plain), footworks, coloured crapes (although most crape was made in Italy and was regarded by rigid Protestants as Popish), damasks, and worsted tammy draughts.

A wide over-dress came into fashion about this period. It hung loose from the shoulders and could be fastened down the front with bows of ribbon. This, which was called a contouche, was the equivalent of the modern peignoir, and at first was worn only in the house as a morning-dress, but soon became so popular that it appeared everywhere in the street. It could be made of silk, wool, or taffeta and sometimes of light materials, such as gauze or muslin, worn over an under-dress of a contrasting colour. Its effect was one of charming negligence in attire, and is typical of the change which was taking place, less noticeably in England than in France, from the stiff formalism of the age of Louis XIV to the rather frivolous elegance of the Rococo period. Men's coats were still rather sombre in hue, embroidery being reserved for the decoration of the waistcoat, which was often the most valuable part of the costume, unless the lace ruffles of the shirt were exceptionally fine.


The seventeen-twenties were marked by the increasing popularity of the contouche, already described. It must not be thought, however, that the wearing of one of these loose dresses meant the abandonment of corsets. These formed an essential part of the under-dress, and were still worn very tightly laced in order to give a small waist to the figure, even when this was completely hidden by the full contouche.

Until about the year 1725, men wore on the right shoulders of their coats a number of bows of ribbon, the long ends of which extended to the elbows. These were a relic of the shoulder fastening which had been used at the end of the seventeenth century to secure the sword belt. Swords were now worn less conspicuously and sometimes discarded altogether except on formal occasions or for going about London by night, when the unarmed pedestrian was at the mercy of footpads and riotous marauders of all kinds. It was usual, therefore, to go to evening entertainments in the company of friends or servants.

Heel-making was a separate trade, employing a large number of hands, and this fact no doubt contributed to the persistence of high heels. The heels even of men's shoes were in general high, those of women extremely so. They were made of wood and coloured. In France, red heels were a sign of noble birth. The shape of shoes in general, even women's shoes, was somewhat clumsy, the heels being far too small and placed too near the middle of the instep. It would have been impossible to walk far in such shoes, and in the house women wore slippers.

For out of doors, ladies wore a long cloak with a hood attached to it. It was originally of scarlet cloth, and perhaps for that reason was called a "cardinal." It remained scarlet until the close of the century, when it became the fashion to wear black cloaks. It is interesting to note that the "cardinal" was the cloak worn by "Little Red Riding Hood" in the nursery story.


Travelling cloaks for men were long and circular in shape, in fact they differed little from the chlamys of the Greeks (except that this was oblong), or the cloaks worn by Spanish peasants to this day. The appalling state of the roads in wet weather made high, stout boots essential, and these were of the pattern familiar from pictures of the Restoration period but with narrower tops, and, of course, unadorned with lace round the upper edge. For riding and travelling, women wore a modification of the male coat with turned-back sleeves and cravat, but their skirts were ill- adapted for any kind of exercise.

By 1730 the re-introduced farthingale may be said to have established itself, to last, with slight modifications, until the French Revolution. It grew to six feet in diameter and required an enormous quantity of stuff to cover it. At first, hoops of osier rods or cane were used, but these were superseded by the more reliable whalebone. The hoop was at first simply a cage - a series of hoops of different dimensions attached to one another by ribbons or strings at intervals round their circumference. About 1729 it became customary to cover this cage with cloth, with taffeta, and finally with silk, so that the hoop became a reinforced skirt. Sometimes in summer no other skirt was worn, and as the wearing of drawers was still very uncommon, the limbs were naked underneath the hoop except for the stockings which reached to just above the knee and were fastened by garters just below it. Hoops were violently denounced from the pulpit, but from any contest with the clergy fashion has always emerged victorious, and they continued to be worn even by servant girls, and by countrywomen going to market. Even the simplest négligé was duly provided with its framework of whalebone, and it became impossible for two women to walk abreast in the narrow streets or to occupy a carriage together in comfort. Even the staircases in private houses had to be provided with balusters curved outward in order to allow for the passage of the voluminous skirts.


Bag-wigs were at first worn chiefly by soldiers, and when they made their way into civilian costume were regarded, in the beginning, as a kind of undress. The bag was made of gummed black taffeta, with a bow of the same material, and served to give an appearance of neatness without much trouble. The pig-tail was almost as popular as the bag-wig and for the same reasons of convenience. The toupet, or hair immediately over the forehead, was often natural, the join between the wig and the real hair being disguised by a liberal use of powder.

About 1730 the fashion arose of leaving the top buttons of the waistcoat unfastened in order to display the elaborately frilled shirt. This led to a modification of the neckcloth, which had shorter ends in order that the decorated shirtfront might be more easily seen. Sometimes the cravat with shorter ends was replaced by a neckcloth knotted at the back and kept in place in front by a jewelled pin. Military men wore two neckcloths one over the other, the under one of white muslin and that over it of coloured silk, allowing the white of the first to show between the folds.

Throughout the century, women's sleeves were almost constant in length, that is to say, the material of the dress reached just to the point of the elbow, and further length was given by two or three frills of lace. Although the elaborate "commode" had disappeared, smaller caps of lace were still worn in the house by women of all ranks and all ages. The styles of hairdressing varied considerably but within narrow limits, the hair being kept fairly close to the head. The necks of dresses were worn very low, in fact as low as a modern evening-dress, except that the opening was not so deep at the back.


The three-cornered hat, than which nothing is more typical of eighteenth-century fashion, was capable of a considerable amount of variety. Some hats were still laced and garnished with plumes like those of the previous epoch, but as the plume was worn on the upper brim, now bent inwards, it only appeared as a kind of fringe. Some hats were simply bordered with braid. The triangular form was kept by means of a cord, passed through holes in the brim and drawn tight round the crown, or else by a button acting as a kind of clip at the edge of the upturned brim. The earlier habit of festooning the hat with ribbons had been definitely abandoned.

The accession of George II made very little difference to costume in England. The new king, like the old, was German, stiff in his manners and somewhat slovenly in his habits. His Court provided no centre of influence for the caprices of Society or the whims of fashion. Individual members of the aristocracy wielded far more influence than the Royal Family, and those who could afford trips to the Continent became, by natural consequence, the arbiters of taste.

Two accessories of costume in constant use were the snuffbox and the fan. The first was carried by every man, of every degree, and by many ladies. The smoking of tobacco was considered definitely "low," to be practised only by sailors and labourers but vast quantities of the weed were consumed in the form of snuff powder, and every elegance of decoration was bestowed upon the boxes in which it was carried.

The fan was universal. In Queen Anne's reign it had been very large. Later, it became less pretentious and was decorated with painted scenes by the most able artists. Sometimes the paintings were designed to show political opinions. The material used was paper or, sometimes, thin white chicken skin, and the handles could be ornamented with jewels or enamels.


In 1734 women's stays were worn extremely low. The bodies of gowns were laced up the front over a stomacher, or else stays were worn outside; but in general there is little change in feminine costume since the last decade.

Men's costume also remained almost static, although the bag-wig was steadily ousting more elaborate types of coiffure. The turned back cuffs, frequently of contrasting colour to that of the coat, were cut in "pagoda" fashion, that is to say, narrow at the wrist and expanding sharply along the forearm. The name is a sufficient indication of the slight Oriental influence which made itself felt throughout the eighteenth century, not, however, so much affecting the shape of clothes as their colour, material, and decoration.

In France about 1730 men began to fasten their breeches at the knee over the stockings, but the older mode persisted among Englishmen for some years longer. The winter of 1719 was one of exceptional severity, and fine gentlemen, finding their thin stockings an insufficient protection against the cold, wore for a few months a kind of military gaiter. Men of the lower classes, with their grey or black woollen stockings, were better protected and had no need to adopt this short-lived fashion.

The fashion of leaving the waistcoat open in front in order to display the linen has been already mentioned. The custom reached its extreme in the early thirties. Sometimes, about a foot of frilled shirt was shown - a fashion to which the modern dress shirt and low-cut waistcoat can be ultimately traced. Women's riding-habits affected, as so often, a masculine mode, the waistcoat being shorter but of the same pattern, and the hat smaller but similar in shape to those worn by men.

Men's pockets were very ample and the folds of the long coat made it possible to carry comparatively bulky objects in them without spoiling their shape. Some fashionable gentlemen would carry a whole battery of snuff-boxes in the skirts of their coats.