1787 fashion

11 February 2011

I’m hard at work on my book at the moment. It’s getting quite exciting now that the plot has moved away from the stately parades and streets of Bath to the noisy, busy streets of 1780’s London. I’m currently writing a chapter set in the winding streets and brothels of Covent Garden, which is a lot of fun – although I’m not keen on writing sex scenes as they make me feel really embarrassed. Yes, I know I am a grown adult but oh dear, I BLUSH at the thought of people reading this stuff.

One of the things that I like best about writing historical fiction is getting to daydream about the beautiful clothes that people used to wear. I try not to go into too much detail about their outfits because I expect that’s a bit of a turn off to the reader, but I do like to add a few glimpses into the sort of clothes that my characters are wearing – not least because it helps to set the scene and in fact often gives more clues about the sort of person they are or their station in life.

For example, the main family in the book are the Garlands, who are extremely wealthy but not part of the aristocracy, despite Mrs Garland’s attempts to social climb. They live in a brand new mansion in Highbury, which was on the very outer fringes of north London at this time and live a life of nouveau riche luxury, which is borne out by the lavish silks and laces that they wear. Not to mention the fabulous jewels that Mr Garland likes to give as presents.

I’ve illustrated this post with some portraits from 1787, when this book opens. You can see that fashion had changed a lot since the tall hair, heavy silks and rigid corsetry of the 1770s and now  a more picturesque, dishevelled look was in favour with the ornate styles and fabrics of the past being replaced by simple muslin frocks, pulled in at the waist with a silk sash.

I think there’s a subtle difference between the clothes worn by ladies in London and those lucky enough to live in Paris. Without knowing the artist and sitter, I think it would be easy to pick out the dresses on this page that are being worn by an English lady – there is something slightly more conservative about the way that they dressed, I think. Note also that although costume dramas will have you believe that ladies in the years immediately prior to the French Revolution liked elbow length sleeves with a nice flouncy fall of lace and perhaps a cute little bow à la Pompadour, in fact three quarter length or, more usually, long sleeves with perhaps a little edging of lace at the wrist were very much in fashion.

I especially love this French silk robe à l’anglaise, which is kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It belongs to the second half of the decade and is fabulous example of the flouncy and very feminine styling of the period as well the fashionable predilection for stripes.

Dresses like this one would have been worn with a fine muslin, lawn or lace fichu arranged over the shoulders and either tied in a bow at the front or crossed over and tied behind the back.

A view from the back, showing the volume of the full skirt.

I love the small details on these dresses – the scalloped trim to the front of the skirt, the style of the bodice and the three quarter length sleeves.

A closer look at the bodice. I love the soft shell pink stripes. It’s easy to imagine that this was some young French society girl’s very favourite dress isn’t it? I can just imagine her strolling through the sun dappled avenues of the Palais Royale, the gravel crunching beneath her red leather high heeled shoes…

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