Category Archives: 18th c. Costume Archives

Exquisite Brocade, A Short Rambling, and A Storied Gown

Perhaps my problem arose because I spend too many hours in a haphazard array of cotton and fleece, writing in a cold climate, in a cold downstairs room, and as I am told, looking like a quasi-homeless person.

Perhaps, to contradict my prior musing, it’s because I have a tendency to lust after frippery, stopping just short of slapping it on my person.  Stealing from museums, you see, is not really a realistic pursuit at this point in my life.  Well, to be honest, it never was.

Oh, the woe.

Fantasies of reckless fashion acquistions thus abandoned, the obsession I am referring to today, readers, involves what has passed out of natural life and into state and private collections, namely the luxuriant and often excessive finery that prompted Madame de Pompadour to gaze at her surroundings and proclaim, “Après nous, le déluge.”

As curiosity is a weakness of mine, I find it impossible to blithely stroll past a gown this richly nuanced and not ferret out under what extravagent circumstances it was worn.  The occasion, as I was soon to learn, belonged to a little known Englishwoman whose portrait has been lost to the public, though a history of the Fanshawe family once described her as ‘strikingly handsome’.  We’ll have to take their word.

Not to be confused with Lady Ann Fanshawe, the 17th century English memoirist, our Ann Fanshawe was th eldest daughter of the newly appointed Lord Mayor of London.  Her father Crisp Gascoyne, Master of the Brewers since 1746, was sworn into office one cool evening in November 1752, and it fell upon Ann, a 28 year old wife and mother, to don this magnificent gown and pose as ‘Lady Mayoress’ in place of her deceased mother.

As you can glean from the considerable amount of silver thread used throughout, every inch of fabric was designed to glow in the flickering candlelight that presided over the night’s celebrations.  Sadly, the gown was worn only once but then again, it’s not exactly something a gentlewoman can step out in twice.  “Oh, look, she’s wearing the beer gown again.”

If only for a night, Ann must have looked a shining advertisement of the family’s glory.  The white silk is Spitalfields; the brocade serves as both an allusion to her father’s successful brewery business and a reassurance of his future achievements as the Lord Mayor.

Look closely and you’ll see a theme: barley and hops spill from silver cornucopias, silver anchors rest on silver barrels, and indigo and crimson flowers flourish over the remainder of the mantua.  There’s even a tale behind the indigo dye and the expense involved, but if you want to read more about the gown and its creation, head on over to the Museum of London.

I’m once again ready to admire.

Isabelle de Borchgrave’s Paper Gowns

Yep, one step out into the rain and these stunning dresses would dissolve into wood pulp.  They are made 100% out of paper.  Hard to believe, right?  At a passing glance, even the close up can almost fool a costume enthusiast.  Looks like very stiff silk.

Isabelle de Borchgrave, painter by training turned costume artist by passion, wields rag paper with the lightest touch, stenciling, shaping, and voila!  18th century costume that nobody can wear.  All the more delightful, I say.  I love unusual art and this is no exception.  Working with textile designers, de Borchgrave also recreates Medici and Elizabethan costume, as well as various other periods, including recreating looks from paintings like Van Dyck. Her work was most recently shown at the Legion of Honor is San Francisco, but unfortunately, the exhibition ended a few weeks ago. Watch the video below if you’ve 11 minutes of concentration to spare.

Otherwise, here’s a couple more 18th century lovelies:

Court dress with panniers

Men’s waistcoats, coats, and lace cravat/jabot

For more pics and info:

Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave

Exhibition Video

18th Century Costume Archives: 1794 Muslin and Lawn

Doris Langley Moore, one of the first prominent fashion historians, collected gowns and trumpery from the 1920s through the 1940s.  She amassed such an extensive collection that after several successful exhibitions, she donated her treasures in 1963 to what would become the Fashion Museum in Bath.

These lovely ladies in 1794 style dress are from Moore’s The Gallery of Fashion 1790-1822.  If you don’t fancy squinting, the original description reads: (Left) Round gown of clear lawn with cherry-colored sash.  (Right)  Muslin spotted with silver and headress à la Turque.  Madame de  Staël, the famous salonnière, was a known fan of this headress style.  Interestingly, her father was Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s finance minister, appointed in 1777.  She was also a staunch opponent of Napoleon’s bid for European domination.

Portrait of a Jacobite Lady

Portrait of a Jacobite Lady, 1740-1750, Cosmo Alexander (1724-1772)

Edinburgh, The Drambuie Collection

It’s the weekend which means I’m in the mood for a bit of fun and what, I ask you, is more fun than a Jacobite lady donning both tartan and military garb?  It’s a winsome look because it’s absolutely steeped in pride: for country, cause, and cheek.  The unidentified lady–who based on careful examination of the tartan is possibly Jenny Cameron, alleged mistress of Bonnie Prince Charlie–wears a riding jacket.  The front of the jacket resembles a waistcoat with gold braiding, but on close study appears to be a vest-shaped piece of ornamentation pinned on top of the riding jacket (or perhaps is part of the jacket itself?)  Either way, women didn’t wear military uniforms so the margins for creative license were rather wide.   As a very abbreviated frame of reference, 18th century regimental dress consisted of standard civilian dress, i.e. a tricorne hat, long-skirted coat, waistcoat, and breeches.  Distinctions between regiments and hierarchy were made with colors and facings.

Back to the portrait . . .

Given the lady’s anonymous nature, how do we know she’s a Jacobite?  The most obvious indication comes from what she holds in her right hand: the white rose of York.  This symbol first gained political relevance in the War of the Roses where it distinguished the York supporters from the Lancasters who flaunted their red rose.  The white cockade, as shown below on Bonnie Prince Charles, was worn by Jacobite supporters along with their ubiquitous blue bonnet.  The British, on the other hand, sported black cockades.

Besides the not-so-secret white rose, the Jacobite lady includes another symbol in her portrait, that of the rose and rose bud paired together.  The rose is said to have symbolized the exiled King James with the buds being his heirs, Charles and Henry.  I only see one bud here.  Maybe a bit of favoritism on the lady’s part?

Jacobite symbols were often nested in a badge or crest–usually a sprig of a plant that identifies allegiance to a clan.  As such, the Scots were supposedly able to distinguish frenemies from fellow brothers in arms.  The question is, how does one acquire heather or whatnot during the middle of winter?  Tartans, I assume, were easier to come by and would fairly shout the clan name whoever beheld it.  That niggling little notion aside, the Jacobites, being part of a renegade cause, had plenty of ways to show their true colors. Telling symbols included the butterfly, oak leaf and acorns, the sunflower, scraps of rue and thyme, and Medusa’s head.   For a short explanation concerning some of these, see here.

Evolution in a Boy’s Dress

This little boy, from a Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) still, is dressed in a minature version of what his upper middle class father would wear: three piece suit and cravat.  A stiff and formal look to our modern eyes to say the least.  Notions of childhood as a distinct period of human development with unique needs and requirements didn’t exist until John Locke published Some Thoughts Concering Education in 1693.  Along with the nature of how to faciliate a child’s education, Locke argued for less restrictive dress which would in turn better enable the child’s mental and physical wellness.  It was doubtless an enlightened idea, but garnered few influential supporters, namely high-born ladies who controlled their children’s dress,   In reality, Locke’s theory took 69 years to take root and required the later success of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile in 1762 for changes in the everyday dress of children to be effected. 

Aha!  The Reason Why a Young Child’s Sex is Indistinguishable in Period Paintings

Until around age 4 to 7, boys and girls were dressed alike in back-laced frocks.  After that, boys entered a period where they were “breeched.”   This is where the three piece suit of knee breeches, a waistcoat, and a coat would have been assumed.  It’s hard to believe, but the suit was actually less constrictive than what was worn in previous centuries due to the continuous streamlining taking place in fashion.  No more cumbersome doublets or full-skirted frock coats of the 16th and 17th centuries.  Hurrah! 

The Children of the Duc de Bouillon, 1647 by Pierre Mignard

The 1770s further liberated boys’ dress by swapping tight breeches for loose sailor-like trousers.  With an unstarched collared shirt in lieu of a lawnshirt and cravat, the waistcoat discarded in favor of a simple short jacket, the “skeleton suit” was thus born.   This buttoned-up look became the standard dress for boys from 1780 to 1820. 

Skeleton Suit, The Colonial Williamsburg Official History Site


18th Century Costume Archives: Embroidered Dutch Wedding Gown

Excepting the Rijksmuseum’s inelegant head covering, which frankly detracts from the presentation, this example of a Dutch wedding gown is a masterpiece of embroidery.  The motif, relieved by a restrained bodice and plain sleeves, summons the look of a sartorial garden wherein 17th century fabric–ribbonesque mustard scrollwork, flowers ranging from carmine to blush to blue, all on a backdrop of the lightest blue silk–meets 18th century style.

What’s interesting here is that the large patterned embroidery is actually a throwback to the 1600s while the gown’s silhouette seems distinctly middle 18th century.   There is, however, a confusing element involved when dating this gown.  Exaggerated panniers, which widened a woman’s hips to staggering proportions, originated in the 17th century Spanish court.  From there, the style spread to the French, then was later adopted by Europe’s remaining fashionable courts around 1718-1719.  

Since this particular gown was worn by Helena Slicher, a Dutch woman, the creation date of 1759 seems reasonable as trends typically spread outward from France and lingered long after they were au dernier gout back in Paris.  But, it could also be an example of a gown worn by Slicher’s mother and recycled due to fashion’s cyclical tendencies.  Either way, it’s a colorful example of an 18th century wedding gown when the majority tended toward silks of pastel blue, silver, or taupe.

18th Century Costume Archives: Red Silk 1760s Robe a l’Anglais

This gown, from the Victoria and Albert Museum, illustrates the necessity of ladies remaking their wardrobes due to the dear expense of fabric.  The fabric used here, gros de tours, was a type of grosgrain dating to the 1740s, typically made from a combination of silk and wool and as such, heavier than its pure silk counterparts.  You’ll notice the red gown is richly hued, but lacks luster.  This is due to the studiness of the fabric, which is ribbed and  interlaced with organzine and tram filling.  It’s the perfect fabric to withstand restyling.  As a side note, gros de tours was often used for black mourning gowns because it could be infinitely redone.

Examine the details closely and you’ll notice a few things.  Number one: the upper back is cut in the robe à l’anglaise style but appears to retain the gatherings of a robe à la français.  The strips down the center of the back are uncommon.  Look at the two gowns below, the first English, the second French, and it’s easy to imagine how the sack back pleats were gathered to attain the trimmer robe à l’anglaise style. 

Robe à la française, 1760-70. Robe à l’anglaise, 1770-75. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Detail number two: notice the reserved sleeves.  Drastic changes would have been made for the update, snipping the fabric shorter, cutting away the long, thick trails of flounce.  In the française style, sleeves were still three-quarter length but dripping with embellishments of lace, ribbons, and trim.  English gowns tended toward simplicity.  This 1760s red gown features sleeves with a single ruffle and scalloped edges.  Pay attention to the weight of the fabric in the closeup.  No flimsy silk here.  This was a gown made to last and in the 1740s, at 6-12 shillings a yard for gros de tours, it had better.



18th Century Costume Archives: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Part III

The redingote costume above is a close replica of George Morland’s engraving, The Squire’s Door, 1790 (below).  Bonaham’s version has been given an extra ruffle at both the collar and the jacket’s hem.   Most other redingotes around this time period use a single floor length coat instead of what appears here as a separate jacket and skirt, although it could very well be one piece.  Take note of the plain style cravat instead of the elaborate ruff worn by the women below.  The  modified tricorne hat is also pared down and the hair looks to be clubbed, or tied back, with a black ribbon.  Both of these styles are very masculine and as such, atypical on a woman.  A little artistic licensing done here to illustrate independence in the character.

Lady Worsley (above) made the redingote famous by wearing this regimental riding habit while camped with her husband and his South Hampshire militia at Coxheath in 1778.  As Coxheath became a gathering place for the ton with the likes of the fashionable Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Clermont, Lady Jersey, Lady Melbourne and Mrs. Crewe all dressed en militaire to suppord their husbands’ cause.  Sir Joshua Reynolds painted Worsley in 1779 after his visit to Coxheath.

Line drawings of the redingote’s evolution can be found at Fashion-Era, from the early 1700s to 1895.

Also see:  18th Century Costume Archives: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Part I and Part II.


18th Century Costume Archives: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Part II

On account of a rapidly moving screen, these movie stills leave something to be desired but bear with me, it’s worth the squinty eye I’m going to force upon you.  Helena Bonaham Carter, right, wears an amazing post 1789 Fall of the Bastille gown here.   It’s the sort of gown one wouldn’t have seen before this period.  First of all, it’s striped with huge pink revers (lapels showing the lining facing out).  Second and third, a matching pink stomacher, which I suspect is more of a corset, sports an exaggerated upside down triangle design and the petticoat is not just peeking out, it’s front and center.  Whatever’s dangling from her waist reminds me of a man’s fob, but upon closer review, I think they are silhouettes.  Either that or she’s wearing sentimental trinkets displaying a favorite person or thing.   From an historical perspective, these initally grew in popularity thanks to Marie Antoinette and her elaborate poufs and of course, were similiar to carrying a beloved’s miniature.

A  Closer Look

The French Revolution brought about numerous fashion changes including a preponderance of stripes.  Why, you ask?  Stripes were the outgrowth of the patriotric “constitutional costume” and openly displayed one’s support for the fall of the ancien regime.  The national symbol for the revolution, the tricolor cockade, were concentric stripes, red, white and blue.  Working class women wore striped skirts.  San-culottes and men of political affiliations donned striped stockings.  The list goes on and on. 

If you are so inclined, The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes can fill your head with more than you ever needed to know about stripes, from the 13th century onward!

Read Part I of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Costume Archives.

18th Century Costume Archives: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Part I

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) is a surprisingly rich costume resource.  The gowns worn by Helena Bonaham Carter stretch the period of 1773 to the mid 1790s, this particular pink froth representative of the 1780s.  It has the typical 3/4 length sleeves, the lacey engageantes, and ribbon/embroidery on either side of the stomacher.  Of note, the gown’s color is on the bright side, a salmony pink, which would have been worn by the gentry as rich dyes flaunted their dear expense. 

The row of échelles (literally “ladders” in French, sometimes spelled eschelles in English) down the bodice is one of Madame de Pompadour’s contributions to fashion.  Although it’s hard to see from the picture above, the bows decrease in size down the length of the stomacher, emphasizing the slender tuck of a woman’s waist.  They were a popular adornment for the period, worn well past the time of Pompadour’s death in 1764.

Detail of Pompadour stomacher, Boucher, 1759