Part two of our Guide to Historical Novels will cover the beautiful and elaborate fashion of the 18th and 19th centuries. Fashion reflects the political, social, and economic circumstances of not only the wearer but of the country at the time. We learn about the clothing of the period through incredible portraits, sketches and paintings, though the majority depicts aristocracy since they had the money and the means to commission such pieces.
During this time the silhouette for women involved skirts that were not only full but very wide with the help of undergarments called hoops and panniers. This was made particularly famous by Marie Antoinette of France, who had skirts up to three feet wide. Ladies were corseted into a long body shape that was wide along the bust and small at the back and made their shoulder blades pull back till they almost touched which gave a very stiff and straight posture.
Wigs were also particularly popular, especially among the men, which were powdered and white. Make up was also worn, as well as tiny pieces of fabric, known as patches, in the shapes of dots, hearts, stars, etc. were applied to the face with adhesive. The fashion is thought to have originated as a way of disguising pox scars and other blemishes, but gradually developed coded meanings. A patch near the mouth signified flirtatiousness; one on the right cheek denoted marriage; one on the left cheek announced engagement; one at the corner signified a mistress.
This period sees skirts mostly staying the same as the first half of the century but toward the end half of the 1700s we see skirts staying full but becoming a more a-line natural shape. The big fashion trend in this era was extreme wig hairstyles, which then moved onto elaborately decorated hats. Working-class people in 18th century England and America often wore the same garments as fashionable people but they owned fewer clothes and what they did own was made of cheaper and sturdier fabrics.
After the French Revolution, no one wanted to appear to be an aristocrat, so fashion in this period did a major turnaround as clothing became very pared back and all the big skirts and embellishments of the years before are completely discarded. This is when empire line dresses (where the skirt falls from under the bust) came into play and young ladies wore soft pastels while older women wore deeper colours. A respectable woman would also make sure she never left the house without gloves and a hat or a bonnet on.
Men also let go of some of the embellishments of the years prior, ditching lace and wigs in favor of natural, short, soft curls with long sideburns. Older men, military officers, and those in conservative professions such as lawyers, judges, physicians, and servants retained their wigs and powder. Formal court dress also still required powdered hair.
By 1837 Queen Victoria had come to power in England at the young age of 18 and was a huge trendsetter during her reign from 1837-1901. One trend in particular still stands to this day – on her wedding to Prince Albert, Victoria wore white. Previous to that girls would marry in bright colours and that dress would generally be their Sunday church outfit. Victoria opted for white to symbolize her purity and from then on, girls have worn white. The advances of communication (such as photography) meant fashion trends changed more frequently from decade to decade.
Ladies fashion became structured once again, with corsets making a comeback. Initially, wide shoulders were popular which later moved onto wide hips. Big frills and flounces featured on dresses as well as puff sleeves, bustles and bows on the back.
This half of the 19th century sees another pattern in fashion – the silhouette hits an extreme then quickly switches to a new narrower shape. By 1860 skirt hit a new level of width, this time at the hem, complete with plenty of frills. 1861 saw the death of Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert and she went into deep mourning, wearing black for the rest of her life. Much of the country went into mourning with her for a while; wearing clothing with colors that were dark and muted.
The 1870s saw the big change in silhouette with the fullness being moved to the back of the dress with bustles becoming extremely popular particularly in the decade that followed. By the end of the century the skirt was still bustled but downplayed as were embellishments and big puff sleeves (that got bigger and bigger every year) were the in thing.
That wraps up fashion! I personally have a new found respect for the heroines I’ve read about in historical novels so far – having to run around under all that fabric and in corsets, yikes!