A guest post on Georgian court dress by Dr Lucy Worsley

13 June 2012

Dr Lucy Worsley at work in her office yesterday.

Dear readers, I have an immense treat for you today as not only am I having the day off so you don’t have to read me rambling on and slipping peculiar references to goth music in amongst the historical smorgasbord that I’m attempting to tempt you with BUT, and more importantly, I also have a guest post by the fabulous Dr Lucy Worsley for you all.

I know that Dr Worsley is VERY much admired around here and that I don’t really need to introduce her but for those who don’t know, she is the Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, which is an independent charity that tends to Kew Palace, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House and the State Apartments at Kensington Palace. As well as this, Dr Worsley also writes excellent books such as If Walls Could Talk: An intimate history of the home and Cavalier: A Tale of Chivalry, Passion and Great Houses and presents some of the very best history documentaries around, most recently Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls and Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency, both of which can still be watched on BBC iPlayer.

Anyway, I’ll shut up now…

My book Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court (Faber & Faber, 2010, ISBN 978-0571238903), contains a scene set in the drawing room of Kensington Palace in October, 1742.

This particular evening saw George II’s former mistress, the drunken Lady Deloraine, fall from royal grace. The loss of her position was underlined by her being humiliated before all the court.

Initially I’d included a lengthy riff on the subject of what the courtiers present were wearing. But I had to drop it, for reasons of narrative drive. (Yes, in my opinion, historians as well as novelists are required to try to carry their readers along with the story.)

However, readers of Madame Guillotine’s blog may well be more interested than most in my excised battle between the mantua (the earlier), and the sacque (the later) form of court dress…

The female members of the Georgian Court spent hours dressing, and then had the weary business of standing and socialising for hours more in high heels and a very heavy dress spread out over whalebone hoops.

Ladies in mantuas at the Austrian court.

The immense cost of dresses appropriate for court wear lay in the expense of the materials used: the silk, and the silver lace sold by weight. The cutting out and sewing of the gown cost less than two per cent of the total bill, and discarded dresses would sometimes be melted down to recover the silver metal.

Lady Huntingdon’s dress worn at Prince Frederick’s birthday in 1738 nearly killed her with its weight: it ‘was a most laboured piece of finery’ and she became ‘a mere shadow that tottered under every step she took under the load’.1 In preparation for a trying drawing room appearance, one court lady wisely ‘rehearsed her clothes and jewels yesterday, and practised dancing with her train’.

In the 1740s, the mantua was still the formal female dress of the English court, although those outside the palace walls had long ago abandoned it as a fashionable form of costume.

The mantua remained standard wear for drawing room gatherings, for coronations and for royal weddings. It gradually fossilized into a kind of uniform, but it originated from the nightgowns of the seventeenth century. At first the mantua had been an informal, comfortable type of dress. The top part, made like a tight jacket, was left open to reveal an embroidered corset beneath, and the overskirt was looped up to reveal a decorated petticoat. Over time, the overskirt shrank in size while the petticoat grew, and the hoops beneath grew wider and wider.

In later models, the loops to hold up the vestige of the overskirt – which had once been a sizeable piece of fabric – still remained. You can see an example of this in the fabulous silver Rockingham Mantua in the collection of Historic Royal Palaces. Like the appendix in the human body, the overskirt loops still exist even though they no longer have a function. Fashion at court moved much more slowly than in the outer world, and everything was out-moded, stiff and otherworldly there.

The ‘Rockingham Mantua’, from the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Historic Royal Palaces.

Correct court dress was incomplete without the fan. ‘What grace the Fan can convey in the hands of a Lady who knows how to use it!’ we hear. ‘It weaves, it twists, it snaps shut, opens, rises, falls’. Even a vulgar, dull and plain woman ‘becomes supportable if she knows how to wield’ this drawing room weapon.2 Although the evolution of a full-blown language of the fans involving secret signals for seduction and betrayal would lie in the nineteenth century, there were already in the Georgian period six recognised elegant ‘positions’ for holding a fan and displaying the hands and wrist to advantage.3

In the popular and satirical prints sold on the streets, though, vulgar artists gave their own trenchant opinion on the fluttering fans of the fine ladies: the open fan (an inverted triangle) symbolises female genitalia and prostitution.4

In time, the court mantua would gradually be ousted from pride of place by the more sophisticated French alternative. Despite its inelegant name, the sacque or sack became the more elegant choice as the Georgian age progressed. Cut from just one piece of cloth, the sack featured the so-called ‘Watteau pleat’, a cascading pleat falling from the shoulders to the fall down the back. Seen in the elegant back views of Jean-Antoine Watteau’s delicate painted ladies, it is ravishingly weird.

Joseph Highmore (1692-1780) depicts ladies at Hampton Court wearing the sack-back.

One disadvantage of the sack was that its looseness could suggest that the wearer needed to conceal an illicit pregnancy. Scandalous (and untrue) gossip about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, for example, claimed that she was pregnant, and missed a whole summer’s church-going ‘because she was ashamed to appear in a Sack’.5 In Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), Molly Seagrim, the pregnant gamekeeper’s daughter, went to church in a hand-me-down sack to disguise her ‘alteration’ in shape (the neighbours saw through her deception and greeted her airs with ‘sneering, giggling, tittering and laughing’).6

But even the sack could not reign for forever, and would in its turn meet its downfall in the 1780s. Here’s a conversation at court overheard by Fanny Burney:

‘I can’t bear a sacque’.
‘Why, I thought you said you should always wear them?’
‘Oh, yes, but I have changed my mind since then – as many people do’.7

To find out more about these weird and wonderful dresses worn in the palace, do read the authoritative Splendour at Court: Dressing for Royal Occasions since 1700 (London, 1987, ISBN 978-0713526613), co-authored by my fellow curator at Historic Royal Palaces, Joanna Marschner, along with our former colleague Nigel Arch.

1 Lady Llanover, ed., The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs Delany (London, 1861) vol. 2, p. 28.

2 Quoted in Joan Wildeblood, The Polite World, a guide to the deportment of the English in former times (London, 1973) pp. 136-137.

3 Matthew Towle, The Young Gentleman and Lady’s Private Tutor (London, 1770).

4 Sheila O’Connell, London 1753 (The British Museum, London, 2003) p. 144.

5 Quoted in Isobel Grundy, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Comet of the Enlightenment (Oxford, 1999) p. 299.

6 Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1749; 1991) pp. 122-12.

7 Fanny Burney, Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay, ed. by her niece (London, 1842)
vol. 2, p. 191.

Many thanks to Dr Lucy Worsley!

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