Today, we will be focusing on high fashion during the decades between 1700 CE up through the Edwardian times. Over the centuries, royal courts, and the aristocracy and nobles, fashion trends emerged signaling position and wealth, as well as in many cases, a decided “look” of a people.
No one has been more important to the history of power dressing than French King Louis XIV (1638-1715). He made the court of Versailles the most glamorous in Europe.
In the presence of the king, men were required to wear a habit habillé, which was an extravagant coat, made from velvet or silk. Similarly, women wore a grand habit de cour, which was an embroidered gown displaying their bare shoulders.
Louis XIV ensured that Versailles had the strictest dress etiquette of any royal court in Europe, including requiring that even visiting nobles appear in only the latest fashion. Louis also required different manners of dress for different functions, such as day wear, sleepwear, formalwear for specific occasions, such as a dinner, ball, or for Court.
Fashion in the 1700–1720s in European and European-influenced countries was characterized by a widening silhouette for women and was distinguished and stiff.
Over the tight corset a gown was worn with a square neckline bodice decorated with lace. The tight three-quarter sleeves had strips of lace, the skirt was conical, the underskirt had horizontal strips and the overcoat was turned backwards, with a reinforcement on the lower back and with a drag.
By the mid to late 1700’s women’s formal dress began to change shape. The petticoat was still very wide but now with sloping sides and worn over a fan shaped hoop.
For men, the fronts of coats started to curve back and the side pleats were less voluminous, waistcoats had shortened to mid-thigh length. The collar seen on day wear was still absent in evening dress.
In 1740, the silhouette of the dresses was transformed. The baskets grew around the hips, the skirts starting to look like boxes. Just before this fad disappeared, the width of dresses could reach four meters. The gown, in particular the stomacher, were elaborately decorated with a braid of various silks which was very popular from the 1750s to the 1770s.
In the early decades of the new century, formal dress consisted of the stiff-bodiced mantua. A closed petticoat, sometimes worn with an apron, replaced the open draped mantua skirt of the previous period. This formal style then in turn gave way to more relaxed fashions.
The robe à la française or sack-back gown was looser-fitting and a welcome change for women used to wearing bodices. At its most informal, this gown was unfitted both front and back and called a sacque. This brought a shift away from heavy fabrics such as satin or velvet to Indian cotton, silks, and damasks, often made in lighter pastel shades that gave off a warm, graceful, and childlike appearance.
Later for formal wear the front was fitted to the body by means of a tightly laced underbodice while the back fell in loose style of dress.
Moving into the early 19th century, we arrive at the Regency period, named after the King’s heir Prince George, who ruled during his father’s periodic bouts of madness. One of the Prince’s friends became the “father” of proper men’s fashions: George Bryan “Beau” Brummel (1678 -1840).
Before Brummell’s innovations, men’s clothes were more flamboyant, heavily influenced by the French court and involved wearing wigs, white hair powder, perfume, elaborate silks, and knee breeches with stockings. Brummell replaced this with natural, unadorned hair, long trousers worn with boots, and plainer coats.
Specifically, his uniform was a blue coat (known as Bath coating) with a buff waistcoat, off-white linen shirt with a white cravat, buckskin trousers, and dark riding boots. For evening, he wore a blue coat as well, though with a white waistcoat, black pants that ended at the ankle, striped silk socks and black slippers. He replaced the reliance on perfumes and powders for personal hygiene with the concept of a daily bath. Brummell’s genius was not that he invented the elements of his dress from scratch but rather that brought together various inspirations and made of them a coherent whole. The cravat worn high on the neck was something being done in post-Revolutionary France, so that influence never went away, and the streamlined silhouette and muted colors of the new look were supposed to recreate, in clothed form, male nude statuary from Classical Greece.
In later generations, Brummell’s look would evolve into the suit and tie but, more directly, into the sport coat and pants combination, since he preferred not to match his coat with his trousers. The emphasis on neckwear as the ornamental center of attention in a tailored outfit remains via the necktie or bow tie. Brummell’s choice of contrasting black and white as he changed from day into evening wear remains the black-tie dress code today. Yet it is perhaps formal morning dress, particularly a morning coat and separate colored trousers with a light-colored vest, that most closely evokes the Regency attire Brummell actually wore.
Ladies’ clothing styles of the early 1800s are characterized by the Empire waist dress and classical Greek lines; the styles worn by characters in Jane Austen novels. The Empire style dress has a high waist, a style that appeared in the late 1790s and has reappeared frequently in women’s clothing design for the past 200 years. It was significant in that women did not need to wear the stiff, restrictive corsets that ruled fashion from the Middle Ages, and except for this brief time, until the 20th century.
The Empire styles were made of a soft, lightweight fabric gathered just under the breasts, featuring a low square neckline, and small, short, puffed sleeves with a low shoulder line, with short sleeves worn for evening, or dancing. Toward the end of the era, dancing dresses featured higher hemlines that rose several inches above the ankle. Day dresses had a higher neckline and long sleeves.
While Britain and France were at war, styles in the two countries varied. Women did not know what the enemy was wearing, so each country developed their own look.
Around 1811, a Gothic influence appeared in Britain. Based on garments worn during medieval times, dresses lost the pure classical Greek lines. The bodice developed more shape and shoulder seams widened for comfort. (Low shoulder lines can restrict arm movement)
Ruffles appeared on the bodice recalling an Elizabethan style and skirts were embellished with flounces and padding.
In England, the waist level lowered to a relatively normal line.
During the war, French waists remained high. Hemlines evolved into an A-line or bell shape. In 1815, after the wars, waistlines in Britain rose again as the English started to follow French fashion. The French copied the British Gothic styles and after 1820, waists lowered and were accentuated with a sash.
Early 19th century men’s fashions had also undergone a radical change. The coat still finished in long tails at the back but was cut higher in front. The waist-length square-cut waistcoat showed beneath it. The lining of the shoulders and upper chest of the coat was sometimes quilted to improve the fit. Some men, or dandies, wore boned corsets to give them a small waist.
Gradually men adopted long trousers rather than knee breeches.
Trousers became increasingly fashionable in the first quarter of the 19th century. At first, they were only worn for day and informal dress but by the 1820s they were acceptable for evening wear. Breeches continued to be worn at court.
The tall hat from the late 18th century was still worn and developed into the top hat which was worn for day and formal dress throughout the 19th century.
During the second half of the 19th century men retained the white waistcoat and black tailcoat and trousers of the early 19th century for evening wear.
In 1837, Queen Victoria came to the English throne, and became the ultimate in fashion determination for decades to come. For instance, Victoria was the first to wear white for her wedding dress.
The ideal shape of the Victorian woman was a long slim torso emphasized by wide hips. Corsets were tightly laced and extended over the abdomen and down towards the hips. A chemise was commonly worn under the corset, and cut relatively low in order to prevent exposure. Over the corset, was the tight-fitting bodice featuring a low waistline. Along with the bodice was a long skirt, featuring layers of horsehair petticoats] worn underneath to create fullness; while placing emphasis on the small waist. To contrast the narrow waist, low and straight necklines were used.
By the late 1840’s through 1860’s, women’s skirts became broader.
In 1856, skirts expanded more, creating a dome shape, due to the invention of the first metal cage crinoline. The purpose of the crinoline was to create an artificial hourglass silhouette by accentuating the hips, giving an illusion of a small waist, along with the corset.
By the 1870’s, skirts began to become less voluminous. Bodices remained at the natural waistline, necklines varied, while sleeves began under the shoulder line. An overskirt was commonly worn over the bodice, secured into a large bow behind. Over time, the overskirt shortened into a detached closely fitted bodice or jacket extending past the waistline over the hips, resulting in an elongation of the bodice over the hips. As bodices elongated in 1873, the bustle was introduced into the Victorian dress styles.
By 1874, skirts began to taper in the front and were adorned with trimmings, while sleeves tightened around the wrist area. Towards 1875 to 1876, bodices featured long but even tighter laced waists, and converged at a sharp point in front. Bustles lengthened and slipped even lower, causing the fullness of the skirt to further slim. Extra fabric was gathered behind in pleats, thus creating a narrower but longer tiered, draped train.
Due to the longer trains, petticoats had to be worn underneath to keep the dress clean.
However, when 1877 approached, slimmer silhouettes were favored. This was allowed by the invention of the cuirass bodice which functioned like a corset but extended downwards to the hips and upper thighs. Although styles took on a more natural form, the narrowness of the skirt limited walking.
By the 1890’s, the bustle had gone for good.
In menswear, the mid to late 1800’s saw few changes. During the 1850s, men started wearing shirts with high upstanding or turnover collars and four-in-hand neckties tied in a bow, or tied in a knot with the pointed ends sticking out like “wings”. The upper-class continued to wear top hats; bowler hats were worn by the working class.
In the 1860s, men started wearing wider neckties that were tied in a bow or looped into a loose knot and fastened with a stickpin. Frock coats were shortened to knee-length and were worn for business, while the mid-thigh length sack coat slowly displaced the frock coat for less-formal occasions. Top hats briefly became the very tall “stovepipe” shape, but a variety of other hat shapes were popular.
During the 1870s, three-piece suits grew in popularity along with patterned fabrics for shirts. Neckties were the four-in-hand and, later, the Ascot ties. A narrow ribbon tie was an alternative for tropical climates, especially in the Americas. Both frock coats and sack coats became shorter.
During the 1880s, formal evening dress remained a dark tailcoat and trousers with a dark waistcoat, a white bow tie, and a shirt with a winged collar. In mid-decade, the dinner jacket or tuxedo, was used in more relaxed formal occasions. Knee-length topcoats, often with contrasting velvet or fur collars, and calf-length overcoats were worn in winter.
1890-1914 Edwardian Era was an epoch of beautiful clothes and the peak of luxury living for a select few – the very rich and the very privileged through birth. If you were wealthy like an Edwardian society hostess, cascades of lace and ultra-feminine clothes were available as labor was plentiful and sweated.
Couturiers of Paris introduced a new columnar silhouette, with a distinctive “S” shaped curve. Hats developed much wider brims. Lavish trims such as feathers often stuck out well beyond the brim. The hats were named Merry Widow hats after the popular operetta of the era.
Men’s Edwardian fashion showcased youth with slimmer suits and brighter colors compared to the oversized bland fashion of the previous decade.
Men’s formalwear consisted of a few key styles: the morning suit, the full-dress tuxedo, and the dinner jacket. The shape of these formal suits followed fashion trends in daytime suiting, but never evolved into anything new. Cutaway coats (frock coats) were a suit dress option worn in the daytime for a business meeting, morning wedding, or sporting event like horseraces. Cutaway coats featured long rounded jacket fronts with single button closure that hung to the knee, buttoned with a coat link or jacket button, lapels faced in a matching dull silk. Shoulders were padded and arms full for a masculine Edwardian shape. Cutaway coats (black or grey) worn as semi-dress were called morning suits when worn with worsted wool or cashmere striped grey and black trousers. Some older men wore black and white checked trousers called “sponge bags.” A black double breasted Prince Albert coat or single-breasted chesterfield coat (with velvet collar) was worn on top the of entire ensemble for cold weather. Formalwear coats were fitted to the body. A single- or double-breasted waistcoat (vest) was worn with the suit in any fashionable silk color he liked, light or dark, and could have or not have a collar and lapels. The freedom of the outfit was found in the vest and necktie, but everything else was predestined. A high silk top hat was the most traditional. A few young men began wearing bowler/derby hats with morning suits at the end of the era, but not for weddings.
Thank you. And please, do come to the exhibit beginning June 1 at the Ravenheart Museum of Art, Culture, & Curious Things for an even more in-depth look at high fashion 1700-Edwardian Era. Take a copy of the poster, which also contains the LM. And we definitely hope to see you for Royal Ascot on June 19th! Be well and Dress well!
Bonus snippets of relevant conversation after the Salon
Mary Layton: Yes, Edwardian was most sumptuous. I mean, the JEWELS! 😀
Liz Wilner: oh yes…the jewels
Liz Wilner: it was also Victoria who had a passion for antique jewelry
Liz Wilner: she brought back a lot of styles
Jimmy Branagh: Next month is my turn, dealing with personal hygiene in the same time period.
Jimmy Branagh: Not really!
Oriella Charik: Which, without Mr Brummell’s baths. was not of the best
Liz Wilner: Beau Brummell…he started the daily bath thing 😉
Tamlorn Carterhaugh Wood: I can’t imagine what the smells were like prior
Liz Wilner: otherwise, one used heavy perfumes and such
Liz Wilner: baths were once a month…or year even!
Lukas McKenzie: yes once a year is enough 🙂
Tamlorn Carterhaugh Wood: so the Edwardian Era ended with WW1?
Lukas McKenzie: bath at christmas time for santa 🙂
Liz Wilner: the death of Edward
Oriella Charik: Yes, WWI put an and to many things
Liz Wilner: in fact the 1910, I think, Ascot was known as the Black Ascot…the posh folk came in mourning dress
Tamlorn Carterhaugh Wood: what made 1910 Ascot black?
Liz Wilner: the death of King Edward
Tamlorn Carterhaugh Wood: that makes sense. So he was actually only king for about 9 years.
Liz Wilner: but the styles of fashion only inched forward until the end of WW1
Liz Wilner: then the 20’s happened
References for Salon Talk May 16, 2021
Wikipedia Victorian Fashion