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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?)
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.