Clothing of 18th Century England - page two of three - 1735 to 1770


The arrival of Queen Caroline in England (for previously the Royal Court had remained in Hanover) gave a certain impulse to fashion, which had for some time languished without a leader. The Queen of George II had a great liking for flowered silks, usually with a white ground embossed all over with a large pattern of gold, silver, or colours.

George II himself had no pretensions to be a leader of fashion. His tastes were those of a simple soldier, and he had no feeling for any of the elegances of life. The ladies he honoured with his favour were neither beautiful nor elegant, and the English aristocracy went its own way, independent of the Court, adopting French fashions to its own slightly more rural use, but inventing little of its own. The prestige which English costume was to exercise all over the Continent was still more than half a century in the future.

Women of the middle classes still dressed with a certain austerity, although the wives and daughters of rich city merchants did their best to copy the fashions of St. James's. Some of the merchants themselves assumed, on Sundays, the fine coats and elaborate periwigs of the nobility.

Women's stockings, until the middle of the seventeen-thirties, were of all colours, green being one of the favourites. They were worked with clocks of gold, silver, or coloured silks. About 1737, however, there was a sudden rage for white stockings which greatly alarmed contemporary moralists. White stockings seemed to the preachers little better than nudity, but they continued to be worn until almost the end of the century. As a matter of fact very little of the stocking was seen, as dresses were never shorter in this period than to just above the ankles. Dancing or climbing into a coach may have revealed a certain amount of stocking to the eyes of the curious, but not enough, one would have thought, to alarm the most rigorous censor of morals.


In addition to tie-wigs of many varieties there appeared, in the reign of George II, bob-wigs of various kinds. These imitated natural hair much more closely than the grand peruques; they were worn by professional men, citizens, and even by apprentices; lawyers affected a high frontlet and a long bag at the back tied in the middle, undergraduates a wig with a flat top to allow for the academic cap.

Cravats in this period show very few modifications; in fact, although there were many varieties, each variety was almost as static as the modern neck-tie. The fronts and cuffs of shirts continued to be elaborately frilled. Coat-cuffs were wide and deep and sometimes heavily embroidered with silk flowers or with patterns in gold and silver thread.

There is little change to record in the forms of women's head-dresses. The ideal of the small, neat head was maintained; caps became even smaller than they had been, and curls more neatly trimmed and arranged. The general shape of the female figure continued to be an equilateral triangle, resting securely on a wide base. The lower part of the body was inside the skirt rather than clothed by it, the only underclothes worn being in the form of a long "smock" or chemise. The evolution of underclothes should form an interesting and necessary chapter in the history of fashion. The phrase "body-linen" is still sometimes used, but actual linen underclothes must now be extremely rare. In the eighteenth century, however, linen was the usual material, very fine Dutch linen being imported for ladies' "smocks." Scotch or Irish linen could be bought for a third of the price, but was coarser and not so highly esteemed. Silk and lace-trimmed underwear was unknown in the eighteenth century.


The inconvenience of the circular hoop led to the introduction of one oval in shape, and much more graceful in appearance. The materials, although not so heavy as the brocades used early in the century, were very rich, and often extremely costly.

An ingenious method was evolved (or rather revived from the Elizabethan and Caroline periods) for decorating women's dresses. This was the process of quilting, which had the added advantage, in winter, of making the clothes much warmer. A layer of wadding was spread between the lining (which had to be of linen or some equally strong material) and the material of the dress, and was kept in place by an elaborate stitchery pattern. Another method of decoration was to cut out shapes of the same material as the dress and to sew them on to it, having first inserted a stuffing of wadding. These were known as "plastic ornaments."

As the century advanced, and the general prosperity increased, there was a gradual filtering down of luxury from the aristocracy to the upper middle-classes. Working people, especially in the large towns, often lived under conditions which would not now be tolerated, but the general standard of life rose steadily, until the set-back of the Industrial Revolution.

The fine ladies of the period vied in extravagance with their sisters on the other side of the Channel, and like them adopted certain exotic modes intended to give them an air of elegant eccentricity. The possession of a monkey or a green parrot was a sign of luxurious refinement, and those who could afford it went even further and purchased a little black boy as a personal attendant. The presence of such a slave, dressed in bright coloured and fantastic clothes, was eminently calculated to set off both the toilette and the white skin of his mistress.


It should not be forgotten, in considering the costumes of a period as remote from us as the eighteenth century, that the tyranny of fashion was nothing like so complete as it is at present. Perhaps it would be truer to say that although fashion was tyrannical it was much less swift in its operation and, in the absence of fashion plates, a change in dress took much longer to filter down through the different strata of society. People in the country might well be twenty years behind the fashion, and the older men and women, even in towns, sometimes did not trouble to adjust themselves to changing taste.

In 1740, for example, it was quite possible to see an oldish man walking, even in the fashionable St. James's Park, in a large, full-bottomed wig, while his son beside him wore one much smaller and neater. Older men clung also to their old-fashioned cravats, just as older men to-day wear the collars which were usual in their youth. There is perhaps no article of a man's attire about which he seems so conservative as his neckwear.

Women's dress shows certain modifications which must be briefly noted. The sacque gown, hanging loose from the shoulders and gathered in great folds over the hooped petticoat, appeared in 1740. It was another example of the general tendency to exalt the négligé into general wear. The effect could be charming, but involved considerable skill in dressmaking. Examination of the actual dresses of the period reveals the delicate cutting which was necessary in order to give the loose appearance at the back and yet mould the dress to the figure, for the falling folds were not added afterwards like a cape, but were an essential part of the back of the bodice.


The loose contouche, already described, went out of fashion at the end of the seventeen-forties. Instead, there was introduced a gown or robe ronde, which opened from the waist downwards to display an underdress of the same material. In morning attire the place of the contouche was taken by various kinds of powder-mantles or dressing-jackets. The practice of powdering the hair demanded some kind of protection for the dress while the operation was being performed, and the toilette of a fashionable lady took up so much of her time and was attended, as a kind of informal reception, by so many of her friends (particularly men), that some kind of garment was necessary which was both warm and becoming. A woman of fashion was surrounded, from the moment she got out of bed, by a crowd of admirers, dressmakers, furniture vendors, musicians, dancing-masters, and dependents. Such a miniature court can be studied in all its detail in the well-known engraving by Hogarth.

Women's shoes were excessively flimsy and ill-adapted to any kind of hard wear. This fact receives interesting confirmation from a document, found among Lady Suffolk's papers, which gives details of the dress allowances for the daughters of George II The provision was not on the whole extravagant, twelve pairs of thread stockings and two dozen cambric pocket-handkerchiefs being expected to last for two years, but a new pair of shoes, at six shillings a pair, was provided every week. Nine "day shifts" and nine "night shifts" were given to the princesses yearly, but the allowance of gloves rose to the astonishing annual figure of sixteen dozen pairs. It must be remembered, however, that in Royal households servants rapidly acquire a right to certain perquisites, and that articles of clothing were given away long before they were worn out. It was enacted, however, that the fine lace trimmings on the princesses' garments were not to be given away but saved for future use.


In the early forties of the eighteenth century wigs became somewhat smaller, sometimes not touching the shoulders at all. By dandies they were sometimes worn exceedingly small, although satirical prints of the period probably overstressed their minuteness. The hat became smaller also, with very little border turned up to make the three-cornered shape. Cravats were smaller, and as this exposed more of the shirt, the front of this was more extravagantly frilled. The turned-down collar of the coat made an occasional appearance, as if in anticipation of the fashions at the end of the century, but this was unusual in the forties. Cuffs were still large but tended to be somewhat narrower at the wrist. Later in the decade hats were larger again, but wigs remained small, a contrast which had the effect of making the hat seem larger still.

Women still wore their hair somewhat close to the head, with one or two curls falling behind and others encircling the face. Caps were universally worn, sometimes approximating in shape to those worn by Mary, Queen of Scots, a lady to whom fashion has more than once returned for fresh inspiration. "Milkmaid" fashions for women had already made their appearance, and these involved country hats tied negligently under the chin with ribbons. Such hats are the remote ancestors of the nineteenth-century poke-bonnet. Throughout the eighteenth century colours had a political significance, and it is interesting to note that white hat ribbons at this period denoted Jacobite sympathies. It is not always realised how much sympathy there was in England in 1745 for the attempt of the Young Pretender on the throne of his ancestors. If he had succeeded, the formalising influence of a German Court would have been removed, and English fashions would have been rapidly assimilated to those of the French, as had happened once before on the Restoration of another Charles Stuart.


THE middle of the century marked what is perhaps the highest point of rococo style. The stiffness of the earlier years had been abandoned, and the extravagances of the seventies and the neo-classical negligence of the nineties were alike unthought of. The most typical characteristics of the century were at their most charming stage. The wig was neat and becoming. The three-cornered hat was of medium size - it had been ridiculously large in Marlborough's time, and became ridiculously small in 1790; coats and waistcoats were both dignified and graceful, the cut was good and the embroidery elegant. There was a tasteful moderation in the use of lace.

Women's dress was marked by a peculiarly charming form of the side panier, and was made of bright stuffs not too rich and heavy, for one result of the large panier had been to lead to the introduction of lighter and more flexible materials for dresses. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries very heavy stuffs had been worn, as these lent themselves to the somewhat rigid silhouettes of fashionable costume. The feminine frame, while capable of much in deference to fashion, cannot support an unlimited quantity of heavy brocade interwoven with metal strands. Some women managed to support damask, which is a heavy material, but looked well, with its bold patterns, when stretched over hoops; but for the majority the result of the new modes was the introduction of lawn, muslin, and dimity, of simple texture but lively pattern, little bouquets or scattered flowers being the most frequent. The universal crinoline of a century later was to have a very similar effect.


The year 1750 witnessed a striking decrease in the size of hoops, but the fashion for widening the skirt by the artificial aid of whalebone of osier rods was not to be abandoned for another generation, and in Court dress for another sixty years. The persistence and recurrence of hoops is one of the oddest phenomena in the history of fashion, and it is by no means absolutely certain, even yet, that they will not return. In 1800 it may well have seemed that they had gone for ever, but they had assumed their most extravagant form again in 1860, and that in the middle of the triumphs of the machine age, when the necessity of getting in and out of railway carriages might well seem to have made their use impossible.

Tight-lacing also, prevalent in 1750, was equally so a century later, and may come in again unless it is defeated by the modern enthusiasm for sport. Although it is always dangerous to generalise in questions of fashion, it may be said that tight-lacing is never very far away when the waistline is normal. The only way to be certain of abolishing the corset is to push the waistline to just below the breasts, as was done during the first decade of the nineteenth century, or to lower it to the hips, as was the fashion about 1928.

The fullness of women's dresses during the early seventeen-fifties was reflected in the fullness of the skirts of men's coats. These, too, were sometimes stiffened with whalebone, or at least kept in place by pads, an odd example of the rare influence of feminine on masculine modes, since no man wishes to give the appearance of having full hips. In general, masculine fashions influence those of women far more frequently than feminine fashions influence those of men.


Contrary to the fashion at the beginning of the century, men's suits were sometimes made of the same elaborately patterned material throughout. This could be a cut velvet or an embroidered silk, and was naturally costly. The silk embroidery on men's coats sometimes involved months or even years of labour on the part of embroideresses, whose skill and taste have never been surpassed. Embroidered waistcoats were often the work of a man's wife or daughters, and making them served to pass the long winter evenings in an age almost devoid of outside entertainment.

Women's dresses were also sometimes embroidered, but relied more often on a woven pattern, or on tucks and flounces in the material itself. In the actual form of dress there was very little change, and in England at least, in the last few years of the reign of George II, there was no very outstanding example of feminine elegance to give a lead to fashion. What tendency may be traced was rather in the direction of simplicity, or what passed for such in an essentially artificial age when women took no exercise beyond a quiet stroll. Some gowns affected an air of elegant negligence by having neither bodice nor girdle, but hanging loose from the shoulders over the wide panier; others were fitted to the figure in front, but hung loose at the back. For this fashion heavy stuffs were unsuitable, so that dresses came to be made of lighter fabrics, such as lawn, muslin, or dimity, sometimes richly patterned, a tendency already noted as being due, in part, to the width of the hoops. The delicacy of the materials of dresses made some kind of protection from the weather doubly necessary. Cloaks with hoods were worn, and the sedan chair, for those who could afford it, saved the shoes of the ladies from being spoilt by the appallingly muddy streets. It is worthy of note that the umbrella first made its appearance in the London streets in 1756. It was carried by the philanthropist, Jonas Hanway, but his example was not generally followed for many years.



The seventeen-fifties were a period of great importance in English history, and it is strange that the enormous military activity of the decade all over the world should have had so little effect even upon masculine fashions. The explanation, no doubt, lies partly in the fact that British victories took place for the most part in distant lands - at Plassey and at Quebec. Even the wars in Germany must have seemed sufficiently remote in that slow-travelling century, and although London swarmed with military men, especially in winter when the armies went into quarters, male fashion reflected the prevailing martial atmosphere only so far as to simplify the wig a little or give a military cock to the three-cornered hat.

On feminine costume the wars, unlike those of the Napoleonic era, left almost no trace at all, for the fashions were essentially feminine and so less susceptible than the revolutionary modes of the end of the century. It must also be remembered that the dress of soldiers was much closer in cut to that of civilians than during the days of the French Empire, when the fancy of military tailors was given full scope, and the cut of uniforms decided for more than a century. Soldiers, in general, wore the civilian three-cornered hat, except that it was braided in a special way. Only grenadiers wore the mitre cap, and this was unlikely to be adopted for ordinary attire. The prevailing colour of British uniforms was already red, but the coats of civilians were frequently red also, and could be any colour. An officer was recognisable as such, but was by no means so conspicuous a figure in an ordinary crowd as a guardsman in full uniform would be to-day.


At the accession of George III, costume was, on the whole, simple, and the staid example of the Court did not tend to extravagance in dress. Hoops were still in use, but were of more reasonable size than had been fashionable a few years earlier. The small "gypsy hat" was worn even by the nobility. The gown was long-waisted and laced over the stomacher. Sleeves reached to the elbow, but full ruffles made them seem longer. Lace, in fact, was the chief extravagance, even the apron being frequently garnished with it. Handkerchiefs were frequently very costly, and more attention was paid to underclothes than during previous periods. Stockings were often white and made of silk and were fastened by garters, in general tied below the knee. Suspenders were, of course, impossible, as there was nothing to attach them to.

A coqueluchon, or small cape, covered the shoulders - a very necessary protection in cold weather, as bodices were somewhat low. Indeed, the high-necked bodice, even for day wear, is unusual until well on into the nineteenth century.

Children's costume, as such, had not yet been evolved, and boys and girls wore, with slight modification, replicas of their parents' clothes. Little girls, by modern standards, were far too heavily clad, and active boys were encumbered with long coats and three-cornered hats. In general, however, the costume of children showed, even as early as 1760, a tendency to simplicity and in adaptation to country usages, which gives it the appearance of anticipating the adult modes of the later century.

There is little hint in 1760 of the outbreak of fantasy in hairdressing which was to take place before the end of the decade.


The end of the Seven Years' War made social intercourse with France once more possible, and the influence of French modes was suddenly renewed. French hairdressers, milliners, and modistes arrived in London in considerable numbers and found ready patrons among the wealthy English aristocracy. Englishmen and women began to pay visits to Paris and to bring new fashions with them on their return.

Among other novelties was an adjustable farthingale. This was an arrangement of hoops, or rather of iron ribs encased in leather, and extending sideways from the waist Of the wearer in such a way that they could be raised at will. In their normal position they extended horizontally outwards, the material of the dress hanging straight from them to the ground, with the result that the skirt (if so monstrous an object can be called a skirt), presented an oblong outline, broader than it was high. The ingenuity of the new arrangement lay in the fact that the main bars of the structure were hinged at the wearer's waist, so that the whole apparatus could be raised at each side like the two halves of the Tower Bridge, and so make it possible to pass through doorways and narrow lanes. A modification of this fashion persisted, in Court dress, into the nineteenth century.

Waists were very tight and long, with a pointed bodice, often of satin, and cut very low. To protect the chest from cold, a "breast-front" of lace and ribbons was worn, but even with this, women's dress, even in the daytime, presented an aspect of décolletage somewhat startling to modern notions. In winter small capes were worn as well as all-enveloping cloaks, and in the early seventeen-sixties small feather muffs were popular, both with men and women. For the woman the muff also served in place of the as yet uninvented handbag. When muffs grew larger people were in the habit of carrying small pet dogs in them.


The second half of the seventeen-sixties was a period of tranquil prosperity for England. The Indian and Canadian conquests had swollen the Empire to proportions undreamed of in an earlier age. The English colonies in North America, although restive, had not yet broken away, and the British fleet was supreme in the waters of the world. An enormous increase in commerce resulted, affecting fashion by the importation of foreign, especially Oriental, stuffs, and also by the new wealth, not only of the London merchants, but of the lately-arisen race of those who had made licit or illicit fortunes under the none-too-strict surveillance of the East India Company.

The current variations of fashion may be briefly noted. "Hats," says a contemporary writer in The London Chronicle, "are now worn upon an average six inches and three-fifths broad in the brim and cocked between Quaker and Kevenhuller (i.e. the brims neither very loosely not very closely attached to the crown). Some have their hats open before like a church spout . . . some wear them rather sharper like the nose of a greyhound. . . . There is a military cock and a mercantile cock, and while the beaux of St. James's wear their hats under their arms, the beaux of Moorfields all wear theirs diagonally over the left or right eye; sailors wear their hats tucked uniformly down to the crown, and look as if they carried a triangular apple-pasty upon their heads."

The feminine coiffure, having been about the same for half a century, began to show signs of impending change. Already at the end of the seventeen-sixties women had begun to abandon the small "head" and to pile the hair up from the forehead, in anticipation of the extravagant modes of the middle seventies. It was a definite breaking away from the close, simple hairdressing which had reigned supreme ever since the abandonment of the high Fontange or "commode" of lace and ribbon.


As early as 1763 the Master Peruke Makers of London presented a petition to George III in which they complained that gentlemen had begun to wear their own hair. The petition was without effect, for fashion is a heartless goddess and cares not how many honest tradesmen are ruined by her caprices. But the tendency was as yet little more than a tendency, and wigs continued to be worn by almost every man of any social pretensions for a generation longer. In 1770 there was a temporary fashion for round hats, forecasting the mode of the end of the century when the tricorne was definitely abandoned.

Innumerable varieties of neck-cloths were worn simultaneously, and there is little to add to what has already been said on the subject. Just as to-day one may see the "butterfly" collar, the "turn-down" collar, and the soft collar which is derived from it, wedded to bows and ties, so in the period 1760 to 1770 contemporaries were wearing lace cravats, neck-cloths fastening at the back, and the black ribbon "solitaire" fastened in front with a jewelled pin.

The three sleeves illustrated in the graphic at left show varying degrees of elaboration but with an undoubted trend towards simplicity and the ultimate adoption of a purely formal turn-back of the cuff.

In 1760 powder was still worn, but women's hair was dressed rather simply, sometimes being drawn back from the face a la Chinoise, and surmounted by a small knot of coloured silk ribbon. Round the throat could be worn a ruche of the same material as the dress, and a fichu. was draped across the shoulders not only for warmth, but as a necessary article of dress, for bodices were sometimes cut so low as to be hardly decent. Some kind of cap was almost universally worn, and could either envelop the whole head like a hood, surround the face with a fringe of lace, or rest daintily on the top of the coiffure.


The remarkable feature of the seventies of the eighteenth century was the size of women's head-dresses. The change had begun in the late sixties, from the "snug" hairdressing of the previous decade to veritable mountains of frizz, stretched over wire frames and sometimes surmounted by fantastic structures resembling ships or windmills or gardens. As few ladies had sufficient hair of their own to comply with the new fashion, false locks were added, wool was used to fill up the interstices, and the whole was then liberally greased with pomatum. and heavily dusted with white or grey powder. The dressing of such heads was an elaborate and costly business, so elaborate and costly that ladies of limited means had the operation performed as seldom as possible, with horribly unhygienic results.

For men, the bag-wig was very fashionable, and round the throat, the solitaire, in place of a cravat, was increasingly popular. Dandies (although the name, if not the thing itself, is an anachronism) wore flower buttonholes, often of roses, renewed every morning, like the orchid of Joseph Chamberlain in a later age. The coat-cuffs were embroidered, and the buckles of the shoe set with precious stones or paste. The colours of men's clothes were brighter than they had been earlier in the century, but simpler in cut, with shorter waistcoats and tail-coats tending somewhat to the shape of the " cut-away." Coats for formal wear were elaborately and often beautifully embroidered, with sprays of silk thread flowers on the cuffs, round the seams, and on the tails. Buttonholes became formalised, and collars were heavily decorated with needlework. Lace, however, was less in evidence as the century advanced, and as sleeves became longer and tighter there was less opportunity for its display.