Why Did We Do That? (Or Evolution of Fashion Part 1)

Why Did We Do That? (Or Evolution of Fashion Part 1)

I’d been mulling over what to write about this month, and had been thinking perhaps something on fashion or furnishings. Then I came across the article “What a waist: why the corset has made a regrettable return” and that decided it. One of the reasons I think the Regency period is relatable for us is that the clothes seem relatable. The empire waist tends to be flattering on a lot of body types, and short stays are the closest thing to today’s bra that history has ever given us. Or so it seems, but more on that later. What I’ve always wondered is, how did we, meaning women over time, go from that to Victorian corsets and crinolines and then stay in corsets for so long?

I don’t have the answer, precisely, but as I take my Constant Love series into the late 1810s, I’m seeing the beginning of the evolution of fashion that will eventually bring us there, and I think the answer is in part that we were in the middle of it before we knew we’d begun, and in part we regressed. Consider the 18th century silhouette. When you think of it, you may think of the ultra-dramatic, super-wide court dress:

Court dress, 1755-60, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The widened hips were an exaggeration of the notion that wide hips were good for childbirth and therefore desirable in a wife, and were achieved through side hoops called panniers.

18th century stays and panniers, Wikipedia
18th century stays and bum roll, Totnes Fashion and Textiles Museum

For more everyday use, the farthingale, or “bum roll” would have been a little easier to wear. I still can’t imagine what it must have been like to walk around with giant artificial hips.

Stays, as you can see in the photos above, integrated with the widened-hip silhouette, producing support for the bust. I don’t really see the use in tight lacing such a corset as much of the waist is swallowed up by the panniers or the bum roll. It would have provided some extra oomph for the bosom, though, so perhaps that’s why these folks are so determined to get this poor lady’s stays as tight as possible.

Tight Lacing, or Fashion before Ease, British Museum, London

As the illustration above reminds us, this was also the time of BIG, elaborate hair, which was so elaborate one wouldn’t have it styled everyday, which caused women to sleep sitting up. So there was decidedly some suffering for the sake of fashion. It wasn’t all bad, though. The panniers enabled something which we then lost over time: the pocket, which you can see in the photo below. Side slits in the skirt allowed access to the pockets.

18th century stays and pocket, DAR Museum, Washington DC

And the dresses could be absolutely beautiful. I don’t know that I’d want to dress like this every day, but it would be fun to wear something like this every once and awhile.

1770s Robe à la Française (sack back), Fashion Museum Bath
Robe a l’anglaise retroussée (gathered in the back), c 1775, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Polonaise open robe, c 1780, Salisbury Museum
More 18th century dresses, including a sack back (à la Française), and stays, Fashion Museum, Bath

One of the things that’s key to understand with these dresses is that they’re actually comprised of separate parts, usually a meant-to-be-seen petticoat with a skirt layered mostly over top of it, but open in the front so that the petticoat could be seen.

Another pair of panniers, lace for sleeves, and a stomacher, Kensington Palace, London

The top of the dress was then pinned or stitched onto a stomacher, and even things like the lace for sleeves could be separate. Calling these “dresses” doesn’t really fit our modern interpretation of a dress as a single item of clothing.

I’m sure anyone here who watches costume dramas has seen your fair share of these Georgian era dresses, and certainly plenty of the Regency silhouette. What you don’t see too often is the transition between the two, unless you look to portraiture instead.

George Romney – Mrs. Billington as Saint Cecilia, Wikipedia
Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1783, Wikipedia

These dresses are a drastic departure from what has come before them, and the subject of the second portrait, Marie Antoinette, was the woman who popularised them. It’s just the sort of dress that suited Antoinette when she would retreat from court life to her “farm,” dressing up as a milkmaid or shepherdess, but unfortunately the simplicity of the dress led people to think she was wearing a chemise, an undergarment, in the painting, and they were scandalised that the queen would pose for such a lewd portrait. (Marie Antoinette really could not put a foot right when it came to PR.)

The dress, called a chemise a la reine  after the queen, became popular nonetheless. Made of cotton muslin (another strike against Antoinette, to use this very British fabric, since at the time cotton muslin primarily came from India), it paved the way for the muslin gowns of the Regency. And, as this article interestingly posits, might have reignited the slave trade by popularising cotton.

This is where the real revolution in fashion came in. The hips began to reduce down to their natural width, and the waist began to become accentuated and then to move upwards.

Dress from the 1780s, Museum of London
Block printed “round gown” (showinig the evolution of the skirt to be closed at the front rather than displaying the petticoat), c 1785-90, DAR Museum, Washington DC
Muslin dress from the 1790s, Museum of London

I’ve always thought of the empire waist as being of Jane Austen’s time, as in when her books were being published. But in truth the very highest empire waist was pretty well in place by 1800. Still of Jane Austen’s time, but these are the dresses she would have been wearing when she first came out into society and when she was writing Northanger Abbey, with its talk about muslin.

Embroidered evening dress, 1798-1800, showing the transition to the empire waist, but still utilising the silk and embroidery that had been popular through much of the 18th century. Transitional dresses like this were sometimes worn with padding below the empire waist in the back, enhancing the drape of the gown (and an evolutionary step from the bum roll before all such padding went away). DAR Museum, Washington DC.
The two muslin dresses on the left are c 1798-1800, and the roller-printed dress worn by the mannequin wearing a shawl is c 1795-1800, showing the transition into the true empire waist, DAR Museum, Washington DC
Block printed cotton dress, c 1795-1800, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This block-printed cotton dress is key because it shows that the dress as an all-in-one, button-down-the-back garment was by no means universal at this time. There were often bib fronts or apron fronts, and so while they had the appearance of dresses, there were still more pieces and parts than you might expect.

Bobbin lace net dress from 1805, Fashion Museum Bath
Muslin dress, 1805, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Muslin dress detail, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Muslin dress, 1807, Salisbury Museum

In addition to this new silhouette, meant (as architecture had been doing for a long time) to echo classical Greece or Rome, the 1800s saw short sleeves become an option for the first time. Oh, the scandal of seeing a lady’s elbow! (I’m only partly joking..some people did consider this scandalous at first.) And whether muslin or bobbin net, the outer layer of a dress was often so thin as to be transparent.

The Graces in a High Wind, James Gillray, British Museum, London

To avoid looking like one of the satirical Graces above, one needed new undergarments. Additional layers of petticoats were needed and some women wore pantalettes, essentially the earliest version of underpants (they had a slit between the legs in order to, ah, see to the call of nature…their purpose was to add an extra layer of fabric for modesty). Sometimes petticoats utilised suspenders rather than going the full length of the dress, for up top the bodice was thicker. Even when there was a top bodice to the petticoat, the sleeves needed to be shortened if it was to be worn with a short-sleeve dress.

Regency petticoat, Oregon Regency Society
Early 19th century petticoat, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Then of course there were the stays. These are the glory years of the short stay, for a woman who is relatively trim in figure had no need of any extra shaping below the bosom, given the waistline of the dress.

1790s short stays, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Remember how I said short stays were the closest thing to the modern bra that history had ever given us, or so it seems? The one thing they do differently is separate the breasts. I’m not sure why this was the desired bosom, but it was, and women would go so far as to use a “divorce” or a busk of whale baleen inserted between the breasts to keep them separate.

Stays with a scrimshaw busk on the left, Mystic Seaport, Connecticut


1808 illustration showing where the busk went within stays, Wikipedia

So much for comfortable stays. On the plus side, shoes did get more comfortable, as the 18th century heel diminished until women were wearing flats that look very much like a pair you’d buy today.

Shoes, c 1750-1770, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
A selection of shoes at the DAR Museum, the upper-left shoe showing a transitional heel and the lower right shown on top of a patten, meant to protect the shoes from mud

One of the things I think the costume dramas also get wrong is how the matron would be dressed. She’s usually shown wearing something like those 1780s and 1790s dresses from the Museum of London, rather than anything with an empire waist or even a chemise dress. I didn’t really think about this too much until I went to the DAR Museum’s exhibit “‘An Agreeable Tyrant’ Fashion After the Revolution,” and more recently finally read the exhibition book I’d picked up. They do quite a bit of forensic analysis on the dresses and as the fabric was the greatest cost, they bore evidence of having been remade and updated.

The damask dress on the left features 1720s fabric remade into a c 1810 gown, DAR Museum, Washington DC

The DAR exhibit featured a very dramatic example of this, which you can see above. While the dates of the fabric and the style indicate this was probably re-use between generations (or possibly a modish 100-year-old lady), it’s more likely that the Mrs. Bennets of the world would have been dressed like this than wearing fashions 10-20 years out of date. (Put another way, you don’t exactly see women in their 50s going around in 1980s shoulderpads, do you?)

Taffeta dress, also reworked from previous styles, c 1795-1800, DAR Museum

And of course fabric was not so simple as young ladies in transparent muslin or net, and matrons in silk. The DAR exhibit also featured a goodly amount of more solid cotton, particularly printed cotton (you can see two examples in the photo with the damask dress, as well). As the exhibition book notes, British merchants used the United States as a dumping ground for the patterns that hadn’t sold well in England. The cotton dresses above are a bit farther along in the timeline in terms of style, however, and so I’ll just leave you all with a tease that shows more of the transition, and I’ll be back next month to move us into the 1810s and beyond.

Where we’ve been and where we’re going, left to right, DAR Museum




12 Responses to Why Did We Do That? (Or Evolution of Fashion Part 1)

  1. Thank you for the info, Sophie. I enjoyed the posts I did about fashion as well. One of the things that surprised me was that they had pointed toed shoes back then also. Horrors! Our poor feet. But many of the fashions for the women were outstanding. I did laugh about the panniers. Probably more times than not, women would have to walk sideways to get through narrow doorways. Those I would not have liked. But the sack back and the many other gorgeous dresses would be fun to wear…at least occasionally. Thanks again. 🙂

    • Thank you, Gianna! Yeah the pointed toe shoes surprised me too, but they were quite in style for awhile then. I would not be surprised to see some of those shoes (the pink and blue pointy toed one in particular) in a Facebook ad!!! Given the materials hopefully they were relatively comfortable even with the pointy toes. At least they were flats. 🙂

  2. What a great post. Thank you for so much information. I agree, it would be fun to wear a lot of these different gowns once in a while, or even once, but not every day. As for sleeping sitting up, I think I would have a wig made. I don’t even use a pillow I sleep so flat. That part sounds like the biggest torture of them all to me. Put me in a corset, sure. Ask me to loose sleep for fashion? Never 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Summer! A lot of ladies did go the wig route…I think I’m torn between the idea of sleeping sitting up and the idea of having a giant wig tottering around on one’s head. But the pomatums they used also attracted a lot of vermin so I think I’d lean towards the wig!

  3. Love learning about how fashion has changed. I don’t like to wear dresses but I would certainly make an exception for these styles as I would love to see what they are like to wear.

    • I’m the same…I so rarely wear dresses but I would enjoy wearing these! Particularly for a ball 😉 Thanks for your comment!

  4. Oh, what fun. I am at an age now where I have seen the evolution of fashion phases come and go and come back again. Whew! what a ride. I have worn pleated skirts with matching sweaters, enjoyed the mini-maxi dress phase, hip hugger jeans and bell-bottoms. My wedding dress had an empire waist and don’t get me started on those shoes. I remember the saddle Oxford and saw them return several times. I’ve worn go-go boots, platform shoes [my poor ankles], Earth shoes, pointy toed and squared toed shoes… my poor feet. We’ve worn cotton, rayon, polyester [that stuff lasts forever] just don’t pick it or get near a flame. There is nothing new under the sun. I”m constantly amazed at how fashion is simply reinventing what we have already seen… just in new ways. I enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing. The pictures were amazing.

    • Oh wow, so many different fashions! I do find it interesting how things always seem to cycle back, like just now it’s been long enough for 90s fashions to return. And yes, so many different materials!!! How strange it must have been for people when the first synthetic materials came out. I don’t even know when that was…I don’t think my little fashion series will get that far! Glad to hear you enjoyed the post

  5. That was great! Love the pictures especially the Muslim dresses! Those stays look uncomfortable and that first big dress looks impossible to move in!lol What we don’t do for fashion!

    • Thanks, cindie! The muslin dresses are just so beautiful, aren’t they? I’ve been reading more about the great big dresses and apparently if you moved wrong it could set off a whole wobbly chain reaction, lol! Glad to hear you enjoyed the post

  6. Really enjoyed reading about fashion and hope to visit Victoria and Albert when we return to London. Thank you for excellent article and photos.

    • Thank you, Linny, so glad to hear you enjoyed the post! The V&A is amazing…I hope you get a chance to stop and spend a good amount of time there. It’s worth as much time as the British Museum or the Louvre, in my opinion.

Leave a Reply to darcybennett Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.