The Writer’s Guide to 1750-1800 Women’s Fashion

In today’s article, I will be explaining late 18th century women’s styles in more depth. The fashions at the beginning of the second half of the decade was similar to those of the previous half century and were typified, especially in France, by opulence, excess, and flamboyance, although the English styles were generally simpler and more practical.

Then Britain’s American colonies exploded into revolution in 1775 followed by the French Revolution beginning in 1789. Both events had an enormous and lasting impact on fashion.

Underwear

The linen chemise was still the first layer worn by all classes of women. The sleeves narrowed from the previous half century, becoming snug and elbow length.

Stays were also worn by all classes and offered back support for working women. By the 1760’s, stays had lost their straps and were cut higher into the armpit to encourage the wearer to put her shoulders back into the fashionable silhouette.

Pockets, which were tied around the waist and accessed through slits in the skirts, persisted.

Women would wear several layers of petticoats for warmth and structural support of the outer skirt.

Stockings held up by tied ribbon or woven garters were worn by all classes. Those sported by the rich would be made of silk with a design at the ankle known as clocks. Working women wore flat shoes with buckles if they could afford them while those of the middle and upper classes had a thick curved “louis heel” and were made of fabric or leather with separate decorated buckles. [2]

1750-1775

Many of the styles from the previous half century continued to be popular such as the robe à la française, the robe à l’anglaise and the riding habit. Engageantes, the flounces and ruffles at the end of sleeves, stayed popular although they increasingly became a separate piece tacked in place. [1] The fichu continued to be worn to fill in the low neckline of gowns during the day.

Shortgowns, a front-closing thigh-length garment, were common loungewear over the petticoats and shift. Over time, they became a staple garment for the British and American working class. [5]

The Brunswick dress came into fashion during this period. It was a German traveling costume consisting of a skirt, a thigh-length jacket with a hood and elbow length sleeves, and separate narrow sleeves that covered the forearms. It was usually worn over a high-necked blouse.

Court dress or grand habit de cour lagged increasingly behind the fashions of the day, retaining the 1670’s silhouette with a low wide neckline that bared the shoulders and back-lacing heavily boned bodices. [3]

This period saw the extremes of hair with styles reaching incredible heights and decorated with small curls known as buckles, plumes, ribbons, caps, and jewelry. Both hard and soft pomatum or pomade as well as powder was essential to achieving these hairstyles. Wigs were popular among the nobility. [4]

A 1767 portrait of Lady Mary Fox wearing a grey silk Brunswick. Photo source.
A 1761 painting of Queen Charlotte wearing an elaborate court dress. Photo source.

1775-1789

While the fashions of 1750-1775 remained popular, several other styles such as the Italian gown, the caraco, the redingote, and the gaulle or chemise á la Reine came into vogue.

The Italian gown had a smooth fitted back that came to a point. The skirt was open, and the bodice could be either closed or open and filled in with a stomacher. [6]

The caraco was a style of thigh-length jacket with elbow-length sleeves worn over a petticoat.

The word redingote is the French mispronunciation of riding coat. It was an informal style of jacket with a long skirt that was based on a working-class fashion.

The chemise á la Reine was a style developed by Marie Antoinette. To escape her crappy marriage and the stress of her children’s illness and court life, she would play peasant with her most trusted friends in a rustic retreat. She designed a loose gauzy muslin dress with drawstrings at the waist and neck. The style shocked society and led to hatred for the queen who looked like she was only wearing her underwear. [7]

Panniers dropped out of fashion for everything but the most formal dress and were replaced by false rumps also known as bum rolls. These were pillows that were tied around the waist and padded out the skirts in the back, essentially putting some “junk in your trunk.” Some styles had two separate pads and were known as split rumps. The back point of the Italian gown would fit between them, producing a rather suggestive shape.

Hair was still styled high and elaborately in the 1770’s often with a lot of decoration. These styles were frequently satirized in the publications of the day. By the 1780’s, hats and caps had become all the rage especially country styles like the mop cap and the low-brimmed straw hat. Unpowdered natural hair was also becoming more popular, usually dressed in a mass of curls.

A 1783 portrait of Marie Antoinette wearing a chemise á la Reine. Photo source.
An example of the extremes of late 18th century hair. Painting of Marie Therese de Savoie, comtesse d’Artois by François-Hubert Drouais, 1775. Photo source.

1789-1800

Starting in the 1780’s and early 1790’s, the fashionable silhouette began to slim out and the waistline started to rise. The French Revolution in 1789 had an enormous impact on fashion. It became dangerous to dress as upper class. Informal and neo-classical styles came to dominate and saw the expulsion of skirt supports, rich fabrics, and heavy boning, becoming known as the “Directoire style” in reference to the Directory government of the last half of the 1790’s. [9] However even after the fall of the monarchy and aristocracy, France continued to set the trends.

The ancient Greek and Roman styles captured the public’s imagination thanks to the discoveries of Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii in 1763. [10] The performances of Emma Hamilton in the 1790’s also boasted their popularity. The beginning of the Industrial Revolution saw the availability of cheaper fabrics and the introduction of the sewing machine in 1790. [8]

Dresses became slim with an empire waist often with short puffy sleeves or sometimes no sleeves. This style continued into the 19th century. The fabrics used were lightweight and sometimes sheer, often in pastel colors. Shawls and short-waisted jackets such as the redingote were worn over the dresses for warmth. The long-waisted heavily boned stays were tossed out in favor of short stays. In revolutionary France, wearing no stays or even exposing the breasts were popular due to the iconography of the Revolution and the push to have women nurse their own children. [11]

Hair was natural and shaped in Classical styles. Blonde was a popular color. Hats and turbans were fashionable. Make up was kept discrete and natural.

A 1798 sketch of a woman in a day dress and short jacket. Photo source.
The famous depiction of a bare-breasted woman linked with the French Revolution. Liberty Leading the People (La Liberté guidant le people) by Eugène Delacroix, 1830. Photo source.

Working Class Fashion

The working class kept up with the fashions of the day the best they could. Thanks to fashion magazines and more availability of cloth, they could mimic the popular silhouette. With the explosion of the French revolution, it became trendy to dress as a peasant. Partly this was in support of the revolution and partly because looking like nobility was hazardous to your health.

A working woman would wear petticoats and dresses or jackets. However, her hair would be plainly styled without pomatum or powder and often topped with a cap to keep it clean and out of the way. If she were outside, she would often wear a broad-brimmed straw hat. Bedgowns, a front-closing thigh-length shortgown, became popular with working women in both Britain and America. She would also always wear a neckerchief.

Her shoes were flat but would still close with a buckle if she could afford them.

Short, hooded cloaks made from red fabric were common in England and are probably the origin of Little Red Riding Hood. They were also the closest England came to have a national dress.

A 1790 working class woman. The Ale-House Door by Henry Singleton. 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] "Mrs. Richard Skinner :: John Singleton Copley - 4 women's portraits 18th century hall". www.fineartlib.info. Retrieved 2018-03-13.
[2] Tortora & Eubank 1995, p. 272. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1750%E2%80%931775_in_Western_fashion
[3] Waugh, Norah (1968). The Cut of Women's Clothes: 1600–1930. New York: Routledge. pp. 66–67, 69. ISBN 0878300260.
[4] Courtais, Georgine de (2006). Women's hats, headdresses, and hairstyles: with 453 illustrations, medieval to modern. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. p. 76. ISBN 0486448509.
[5] Baumgarten, What Clothes Reveal, pp. 116–119.
[6] Stowell, Lauren and Abby Cox (2019), The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Beauty. Salem, MA: Page Street Publishing, Co.
[7] Werlin, Katy. "The Chemise a la Reine". The Fashion Historian. Retrieved 27 March 2010.
[8] Ashelford, J. The art of dress: Clothes and society, 1500–1914. National Trust. pp. 195–197. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1795%E2%80%931820_in_Western_fashion
[9] Betty-Bright P. Low, "Of Muslins and Merveilleuses," Winterthur Portfolio, vol 9 (1974), 29–75.
[10] Cage, E. Claire (2009). "The Sartorial Self: Neoclassical Fashion and Gender Identity in France, 1797–1804". Eighteenth-Century Studies. 42 (2): 193–215. doi:10.1353/ecs.0.0039.
[11] Yalom, Marilyn. A History of the Breast. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Print.

9 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to 1750-1800 Women’s Fashion”

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