1787 fashion

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…

11 thoughts on “1787 fashion

  • urbannight

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets a tad bit flustered about writing sex scenes. And as I get older, I get more annoyed by them in the books I ready. There is nothing new to it and it interupts the story I’m reading.

    I happen to like good descriptions of clothing in the novels I read. Period clothing facinates me. There is nothing worse than seeing a dress on a cover and reading the book and quickly realizing the people doing the cover art didn’t do their homework and are using out of period dresses.

    I think the absolute worst was a roman solder in a coat with buttons. The coat was all wrong and the buttons were even more wrong. Upon closer inspection and a little research into the coat itself, it was, as I thought, a modified Civil War confederate jacket being used for a roman general.

    I have made a couple of period hats but I have not figured out how to make these very big, ornate hats.

    • Madame Guillotine Post author

      I don’t like writing them unless they occur organically and in an unplanned way, which is what happened with the one that I am writing so I am mostly okay with that. I’d be just as happy if the book went along without any though. I don’t mind them in books but I prefer to read other stuff – I get that a lot of people do like it though to spice things up a bit and add some emotion and stuff.

      I love to know about the clothes but often feel like too much detail can be a bit overwhelming and detract from the flow of the story – I usually say the colour, fabric and maybe a few little details but don’t think readers need to know the exact amount of flounces. :)

      It drives me nuts when the cover doesn’t match the period of the book as well. I’m always bitching on here about an unnamed novel I recently got which was possibly the most shoddily researched book EVER and true to type, the cover costume was more than fifty years out of date. I should just name and shame really – I’m always bringing it up in the comments on here as an example of a really bad historical novel so clearly I have a lot of pent up rage about it…

      I love the really big hats they wore in the 18th century – they call them Gainsborough hats here. :)

  • Liz

    I noticed that in none of these portraits and drawings the ladies are wearing jewelery save for pearls. Why is that?

    • Madame Guillotine Post author

      It’s interesting isn’t it? It’s very very unusual that you’ll find a portrait of someone wearing full on jewelery after a certain point and I’m not quite sure why. I wonder if Marie Antoinette, that trend setter, was behind it as there are portraits of her as a girl with diamond chokers and earrings etc but then later she was always depicted in her pearls. I wonder if this was something else that people copied? I don’t know really – that’s just musing! :)

      I was going to do a post about eighteenth century jewels with close ups from portraits at some point. :)

  • Danielle

    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.

    Although I enjoy romance novels I used to avoid reading these types of scenes altogether until only a few years ago. I still tend to find them difficult to read and skim or skip more often than not. There have been a few exceptions that have moved or otherwise positively impressed rather than embarrassed me, though. Most importantly, they focus on emotions, not mechanics. They also convey something vital about the characters that would otherwise remain secret or very complicated to find out. And they grow organically out of the plot, not being devices forced on the story merely to keep the action or conflict going or because the author is adhering to convention.

    If you are embarrassed about writing this scene, have you considered making one (or both) of the characters embarrassed, too? Or perhaps you can find some other way of turning your own conflicted emotions about the scene to your advantage. It might add just the special twist that makes it fresh, touching, and true to life :-)

    • Madame Guillotine Post author

      If it flows naturally it’s not so bad but you can tell when a writer has basically shoehorned one in can’t you? And that’s when it’s awkward to read!

      That’s a good idea – I’ll remember that, thanks! x

  • Laura Engel

    I’m an English professor who works on eighteenth-century British actresses and celebrity. I love your website — it’s gorgeous and so informative! For your research on 1787 fashion you might be interested in reading my article about muffs in portraits of actresses in the September 2009 issue of the Journal Fashion Theory. In the article I discuss a portrait of Mary Wells by Sir Joshua Reynolds which you have posted on your site! I’ve never seen it in color before and it was fabulous to come across it here! I look forward to reading your book! I’m a big fan!

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