The Writer’s Guide to 18th Century Fashion

The 18th century was one of change in society as well as fashion. Dramatic upheavals such as revolutions in France, Haiti, and Britain’s American colonies, all fueled by the Enlightenment, shook up and in some cases shattered the established order. The elaborate court fashions of the early part of the century made way for more informal styles. Fashion magazines made their debut, featuring full-color illustrations and the latest style news.

In this article, I will be providing an overview of the fashions and trends of the century to be followed by more in-depth dives into men’s and women’s fashions.

Once the world goes back to normal, I encourage you to see if there are any 18th century or American Revolutionary War events happening near you. It helps to see these styles “in action” to grasp how they’re worn and the popular silhouettes. Most of the participants have done a large amount of research and make their own garb and would probably be delighted to speak with you.

Baroque and Rococo Style

Baroque was a design aesthetic that flourished in Europe from the early 17th century until the 1740s. It emphasized grandeur, detail, rich color, and contrast to elicit a feel of awe. Besides fashion, it impacted architecture, painting, sculpture, dance, and music. It was a response to the severe and austere styles that typified the tail end of the Renaissance.

Rococo evolved from baroque and took it to new levels of flamboyancy, especially in France and Central Europe. This style lasted into the mid to late 18th century when it ran afoul of the Enlightenment revolutions sweeping the world. [1]

A 1759 painting of Madam de Pompadour showing the extravagance of rococo fashion. Note she is not wearing a wig but has her own hair styled. Photo source.

Silhouette

The fashionable silhouette began widening for both men and women from the narrower styles that were in vogue at the end of the previous century. Sleeves and armholes became smaller and more fitted and clothing was designed to pull the shoulders back.

For women, the skirts became wider using bum rolls and false rumps. Panniers, a boned undergarment, created width at the hips and displayed the fabric at the front of the skirt. The width of these paniers increased, especially in the French court under the influence of Marie Antionette, reaching up to three feet (0.9 m) on each side. [2] Stays were an essential support garment for all classes of women and helped to shape the torso into the fashionable V-shaped conical silhouette. [3] They were boned with cane, baleen, or cording and had softer structure than their Victorian descent, the corset. It was common for sleeves to stop at the elbow. If a covering was needed for the forearm, mitts or gloves were worn.

For men, the suit became uniform. It consisted of a coat, waistcoat, and breeches. The styles of suit would vary in fabric and length throughout the century. [4] The tricorn was the most common type of headwear worn during this period. The middle of the century saw the rise of the macaroni, men who took fashion to outrageous and excessive heights and who spoke and acted in an exaggerated and effeminate manner.

The tail end of the century saw the dispensing of the structured formal styles in favor of more informal fashions. Wigs, powder, brocades, and lace were dispensed of. This was directly in response to the French Revolution, after which no one wanted to look like an aristocrat. [5]

A 1773 caricature of the macaroni style. Photo source.
John Hancock wearing a blue ditto suit with his wig clubbed.
John Singleton Copley, 1764, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo source.

Court Dress

For the upper class and nobility, there became a distinct difference between the styles worn at court (full dress) and those casual styles worn every day (undress). [6] The level of richness in clothing was also determined not only by social class but by nationality. The French preferred excessive ornamentation and over-the-top fashions while the English aimed for a more down-to-earth aesthetic. [7]

A court dress from 1760 with wide panniers. From the Fashion Museum in Bath, England. Photo source.

Hair Styles and Headwear

Probably one of the most iconic fashion elements of this century, the wig was worn by both men and women. They were powdered, often white although pastel colors such as pink and pale blue were used on ladies’ wigs. They were used mostly out of convenience because it was easier to have your servant style your wig into the tall and sometimes outlandish fashions of the day rather than get your hair done every morning. However, there were plenty of people who didn’t wear wigs and just styled their natural hair with pomade and powder. This was especially true of the lower class.

Beginning around 1720, men began wearing their natural hair long and gathered in a club at the nape. Over the century, wigs began to fall out of fashion and then vanished altogether after the French Revolution, never to return. [8]

Men were almost always clean-shaven. It was believed that a hairy face was hiding something and was a relic of the ignorant past.

Women wore a variety of hats throughout the century, including caps, straw hats, bonnets, toques, and lappets. A woman could display her hair fully or hide it almost completely depending on her wish.

Working Class Clothing

More than ever before, the working class was able to keep up with the fashions thanks to magazines and cheaper fabric. Although their clothes were plainer than their upper-class contemporaries. Working class men also tended to wear short jackets and sailors opted for trousers instead of breeches. Wide hats without the brims turned up were also worn.

Working class women favored the short dress or bedgown, a loose-fitting thigh-length garment. Most wore caps to protect their hair from dirt and keep it out of the way, usually topped with a straw hat to shield them from the sun.

An English working-class woman from 1764 wearing a bedgown, mended petticoat, and cap. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

 [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baroque
 [2] "Panniers [British] (1973.65.2)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1973.65.2 (October 2006).
 [3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1750%E2%80%931775_in_Western_fashion
 [4] Bigelow, Marybelle S. (1979). Fashion in History: Western Dress, Prehistoric to Present. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Burgess Publishing Company. pp. 196. 
 [5] Aaslestad, Katherine B.: "Sitten und Mode: Fashion, Gender, and Public Identities in Hamburg at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century, Gender in Transition: Discourse and Practice in German-Speaking Europe, University of Michigan Press, 2006. 
 [6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1700%E2%80%931750_in_Western_fashion
 [7] Ribeiro. The Art of Dress. p. 35. 
 [8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1700%E2%80%931750_in_Western_fashion#Hairstyles_and_headgear. 

2 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to 18th Century Fashion”

  1. Pingback: The Writer’s Guide to 1700-1750 Women’s Fashion | Rebecca Shedd - Author

  2. Pingback: The Writer’s Guide to 1700-1750 Men’s Fashion | Rebecca Shedd - Author

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