Thursday, 17 February 2011

Women's dress in the 18th Century.

I have always been extremely curious when it comes to historical costume and dress so the opportunity to explore the layers and materials of women’s dress in the late 18th Century held great appeal. The talk was held in conjunction with the Foundling Museum’s current exhibition- Threads of Feeling. An exquisitely moving and emotive exhibition, Threads of Feeling displays hundreds of ‘textile tokens’ used by mothers in the 18th Century to identify their babies as they gave them up to the Foundling Hospital.

To be honest the talk was a little brief, but I suppose its aim was to give us an overview of the subject as it is so vast. All garments were discussed and a model was dressed with replica clothing made as historically accurate as possible for an opera. I picked up a few different facts as we were guided through the layers-

Relatively unknown is the fact that it was extremely uncommon for women to wear drawers until the early 19th Century and many 18th Century artists depicted this lack as a sign of the vulnerability of women.

The Bolt, Jean Honore Fragonard c 1777

This proved to be the universal undergarment for women with a distinct relationship between the coarseness of the fabric and the class of the woman. Linen shifts were always initialed to enable them to be identified in the laundry.

As the layers progress and become increasingly restrictive, it is easy to understand why stockings and shoes are put on at this point. Seeing original 18th Century shoes, one can immediately notice that both shoes are straight and there is no left & right foot difference.

To add shape and broaden the hips. In the 1777 edition of the London Magazine, the wearing of a cork rump is discussed. This strikes me as very peculiar. I suppose using cork has the advantage of being light, however its lack of fluidity and stiffness don’t exactly replicate the female form.

Le Lever de Fanchon, 1773

I believe one has to have bee a true craftsman to create a successful corset in the 18th Century. It would have been more like creating a sculpture as the fabric needed to be manipulated and stitched rigorously to achieve a 3-D shape. The stiffener of choice was whalebone, as once heated it changes shape to mould to the body. To aid the making process it is believed that corsets were sewn when the fabric was warm and wet. Some corsets also contain a removable whalebone. The purpose of this may be to be removed on less formal occasions or for women breastfeeding.

These were also stiffened, usually with bents (grasses).

Either triangular or rectangular, this wooden stick was pushed down into the chest area to act as an extra stiffener. It was interesting to learn that many busks were inscribed with messages of love and some also contained secret compartments. In a way this makes me think of the busk as an 18th Century locket but with a practical instead of decorative purpose.

These extremely heavy garments were lined with linen. Does this connection between linen and lining suggest the origin of the word?

Aprons, muslin sleeve ruffles etc. Extra garments added on top of the gown served no practical purpose but were merely decorative. I suppose these gave clearer indication of class and status.
After the talk we were allowed to touch some of the original garments. Their extreme intricacy struck me as did the tiny corset which would have probably been worn by a 2 year old girl. I had no idea that this constrictive garment would be worn at such an early age. The pride of dress obviously held significant importance, and the question of comfort was most definitely secondary.

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