The Writer’s Guide to 1700-1750 Women’s Fashion

Today I will be doing a deeper dive into the details of women’s fashions in the first half of the 18th century. The styles of this period were heavily influenced by the French court at Versailles and by French fashion divas such as Marie Antoinette and Madam de Pompadour.

If you just need a basic run down of 18th century fashions, I encourage you to read my previous article here.

Underwear

Just as for centuries before, the first layer worn by all classes of women was the linen chemise or shift. Early in the century they had full sleeves, but they gradually shortened to elbow length and became tight fitted.

Stays were also worn by all classes. Some had lacing in the front and back, meaning the woman could lace them herself. Others laced only in the back and required a maid. Depending on the boning material used they could be quite rigid or flexible. A type of stays known as jumps only had flexible cording and were quite comfortable. Upper class stays were usually boned with baleen from whales. This type of boning is more flexible than the Victorian metal boning and conformed to the wearer’s shape with body heat and time. Some back-lacing stays had a pocket for a busk in front, a piece of wood that provided a stiff line. Some styles had shoulder straps while others were strapless. The straps were used to pull the shoulders back.

Petticoats were worn to support the outer skirt and fill out the silhouette as well as providing warmth. Quilted petticoats were worn in winter.

A style of hoop skirt was worn during this period but rather than being round as in previous centuries it was oblong, flat in the front and back with all the width at the hips. It was a staple of court dress because it was required to pull off the wide-hipped fashions as well as preventing the wearer from sitting in the presence of royalty. Panniers were a simpler style of skirt support worn by the nobility and upper classes during this period and are distinctively French. Worn in pairs and tied around the waist, they padded out the hips and spread out the skirt for display. They had the benefit of allowing the wearer to sit. Under Marie Antoinette they became as wide as three feet (0.9 m) on either side. [1]

Pockets, which were an independent item, were tied around the waist over the stays but under the petticoats and skirts and were accessed through slits in the sides of those garments. They were sizable and could easily hold a modern smartphone. They were often embroidered and personalized.

A woman wearing a shift, strapless stays, and pockets. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
A pair of 18th century panniers, designed to support the skirt out to the side. Photo source.

Dress Fashions

At the beginning of the century, formal dresses were known as mantuas. Mantua making continued through the century to describe dress making and was dominated by women. A closed or round dress was one with a solid skirt while an open gown had a split skirt that displayed the matching or contrasting petticoat underneath. Open gowns could also have an open bodice that was filled in with a stomacher. Soft pastels in cotton and silk were popular with those who could afford them as well as chintz, block-printed Indian cotton. Embellishments of trim or lace were common as were robings, a strip of gathered fabric.

Sleeves started the century full and were caught up at the elbow to show off the chemise’s lace-trimmed edges. Over time, the sleeves became shorter and tighter until they ended at the elbow. As the half century progressed, engageantes or sleeve flounces of lace and fabric were added at the ends.

A band of lace known as a tucker was tacked to the inside of the neckline of dresses for added embellishment. It became popular around 1730. [2] Fichus or neckerchiefs were often worn to fill in the low open necklines for warmth or to protect against the sun.

Most women’s clothing was pinned closed or into place, attaching them to the stays. The pins were usually inserted above a bone, so the woman didn’t stab herself. Stomachers were pinned to the stays and the dress pinned to the edge of the stomacher.

The robe à la française or sacque-back gown was one popular style. It had pleats that flowed from the shoulder into the skirt as well as a tight-fitted bodice with a low square neckline. A less formal version, known as a sacque, was loose in the front and back.

The robe à l’anglaise, also known as a closed-bodied gown, was a more informal style. It had a fitted bodice, lacking the sacque back.

Riding habits or costumes were also popular and consisted of a full skirt and a tight-fitted thigh-length coat similar to men’s fashions. Ladies would often pair them with tricorns or other masculine hats. Wool was the most popular fabric for these garments.

A front and back view of women wearing the robe à la française style. La Déclaration d’amour by Jean François de Troy,1731. Photo source.
Madame de Sorquainville wearing an open gown with a separate stomacher and a matching petticoat. Note the robings that decorate her dress and the engageantes at the ends of her sleeves. Portrait by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, 1749. Photo source.
Empress Elisabeth Christine wearing a riding habit. Photo source.

Footwear

The popular shoe of this period was one with a thick heel that was closed with a decorative buckle. Backless mules were also worn at home. Stockings came up above the knee and were held in place by ribbon or woven garters tied below the knee.

A pair of English silk damask shoes with decorative buckles (1740-1750). Photo source.

Jewelry

Earrings, rings, and bracelets were popular during this time. Necklaces were often worn high on the neck and closed with a ribbon.

Chatelaines were a piece of jewelry either clipped or pinned to the skirt with a series chains ending in clips hanging from it. Various useful items such as needle cases, scissors, mirrors, pencils, thimble cages, and watches were suspended from them.

Make Up

This time period is known for its make up although it wasn’t as clownish as it’s often depicted. In fact, if you look at portraits from the period, women have a beautiful and natural look. Just as in previous centuries, pale skin was prized among the upper and middle classes because it proved a woman wasn’t laboring out in the sun. There were several recipes for foundations, some of which contained harmful ingredients although many did not. Powder was often used over the foundation. Dark eyebrows were popular and burnt cloves were used like a modern eyebrow pencil. Rogue was used on the cheeks and lips. [3]

Hairstyles and Headwear

Hairstyles were still low during the first half of the century. Rolls and buckles, small horizontal rolls commonly seen right above the ears, were popular. For all but the lowest classes, hair was styled using pomatum also known as pomade. Soft pomades provided gentle hold and made hair more manageable. They often had a rendered lard or tallow base. I’ve used soft pomades myself and they are not greasy or smelly. Hard pomades were used when a strong hold was needed and were often solid bars with a beeswax base. The upper classes would also powder their hair to give it the fashionable white or pastel hue. The powder also acted as a dry shampoo.

A variety of headwear was worn although caps were by far the most popular. The working classes would wear plain sturdy versions while the wealthy would flaunt gauzy embellished styles.

Working Class Women

Thanks to fashion magazines, the working classes could follow the styles like never before although they were limited to cheaper fabrics and had to suit their clothing to their work. Their fashions were often simplified versions that dispensed with the impractical panniers and embellishments. The short dress or bedgown, a loose thigh-length garment, was popular. Stays were still an important part of their wardrobe, providing a base to pin their clothing to and acting as a back brace.


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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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1700%E2%80%931750_in_Western_fashion
[2] B. Payne, "Women's Costume of the Fifteenth Century", History of Costume: From the Ancient Egyptians to the Twentieth Century (1965)
[3] Stowell, Lauren and Abby Cox (2019), The American Duchness Guide to 18th Century Beauty. Salem, MA: Page Street Publishing, Co.

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