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  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

Ladies' Fashion in the 1790s: A Decade of Transition

Publication Date: June 19, 2023


I would advise you merely to put on whatever of your clothes is superior to the rest–there is no occasion for anything more.”

Painting by a lady in a white round gown with shawl
Portrait of a Lady by John Hoppner, 1790

Continuing our 1790s fashion series, we'll focus on what gentlewomen of this decade would have worn. If you missed the entry on gentlemen's fashion of the 1790s, check it out here. I've chosen to focus on the 1790s for this fashion series since this is the decade in which most of my novels are set. Do note that this is not so much a focus-on-fashion discussion where we look at all aspects of their wardrobe from hairpins to stockings, rather we'll be focusing on what distinguishes the '90s from the rest of the 18th century, why this was a pivotal decade for the coming Regency fashion, and what fashion details are important to recognize and visualize. The fashion begun in the 1790s spans, with variations, until 1830.


For those who love Regency fashion rather than the wide panniers and elaborate wigs of the 18th century, rest assured that my heroes and heroines would have dressed remarkably like the heroes and heroines of the Regency era since this decade heralded the Regency fashion we know so well. This is a decade of transition, from politics to fashion, and it offers a wonderful combination of old and new fashions, where the traditionalists and formal settings would have still preferred powdered wigs and fanciful embroidery, but the trendsetters and younger generation in an informal setting would have been wearing the fashions we are most accustomed to seeing in the Regency era to come. This allows a great deal of fun for me, especially, as I can more visually distinguish personalities, values, and preferences of heroes and heroines by if they're still clinging to the lace and frill and silks of the Rococo era or if they're embracing the new, informal look of utilitarian daywear.

Woman wearing a white round gown with straw bonnet
Madame Pierre Sériziat by Jacques-Louis David, 1795

In this discussion, we'll break down the different elements of a gentlewoman's attire, with special emphasis on the cut, layering, undergarments, and hairstyling, but to get us started, let's take a quick look at what a gentlewoman would have worn during this decade. We'll dig into more style options and such, and yes, fashion changed from the beginning to the end of the decade, with the waist moving higher, the skirting becoming slenderer, etc., but this painting of Madame Pierre Sériziat offers a superbly clear visual of what to expect from the decade overall. This painting, in so many ways, epitomizes the decade's fashion for gentlewomen.


For a broader view, which includes most of the fashion options and dress stylings, enjoy this plethora of fashion plates from 1794-1795: check out the Met Museum's collection. The illustrations perfectly capture the fashion trends of the decade. You'll see the similarities to the Regency style right away, while also being able to spot some of the transitional differences that moved us from the French Rococo to the Neo-Greco-Roman fashion trends.


Here is a sneak peek from the collection linked above:



Women's fashion changed drastically from the Rococo style (and you know what that looked like! If you need a quick visual, enjoy this illustration.) to the new style. No gradual and plodding change as with the gentlemen's attire. Not only did the styling itself change drastically, but also the formal vs informal attire. While the gentlemen held doggedly to the old fashions during formal occasions, such as balls, the women shed the old fashions completely, choosing the new look for both formal and informal occasions.


Causes of Fashion Change

The catalyst for the change was the beginning of the French Revolution. For decades, the English looked to the French court for their fashion. Whatever the French aristocrats were wearing, that's what the English wanted to wear. While there were differences, and even a delay in fashion trends moving from one continent to the other, the style was predominately French. Until 1790.

Clothing choices became political and could even have someone accused of alliances with France if they hung on to the older fashions with too much zeal. As early as 1789, with the revolution beginning, England began to break from the French styles to establish its own, the new style based heavily on a combination of Classical Greek (i.e. Greco-Roman and Neoclassical) stylings and those of their own agrarian roots (riding habits, laborer and farmer attire, etc.). Even while looking into history for fashion inspiration, England looked inward--what do we have that's quintessentially ours?


Rather than the silks, velvets, and intricate embroidery, women switched to white and printed cotton for daily wear and Indian muslin for more formal wear (although the dress styling would be the same as daily wear). The columnar white chemise we're accustomed to associating with the Regency became exceedingly popular in this decade, the skirts narrowing as the decade proceeded.

Prior to this change, fashion had been a way to display one's wealth and distinguish one's social status, a more than obvious difference between an aristocrat and a laboring woman, for instance. After the change, fashion was intended to display national allegiance, practicality, informality, and everything that was not associated with France or the French court. The fashion differences, at a glance, between an aristocratic lady and a laboring woman would have now been less distinguishable.



Lady Hamilton


While the primary cause was the French Revolution, there were two influencers who stood out above the crowd, one of which was Emma Hart, Lady Hamilton, who modeled for several painters at the time, including George Romney and Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Many of her paintings invoke Greek-influenced stylings. Take the painting of Lady Hamilton (on the right) posed as Bacchante by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun--can you see how something like this from 1790 would have influenced fashion during the decade? Or how about the engraving from Piroli (on the left) of her in a classical dance pose from 1794? Rather than a reflection of fashion trends, it's said she was an influencer (or rather the artists capturing her, I suppose). While other models (or artists working with those models) influenced styles, Lady Hamilton is said to be one of the most influential, women across the country vying to imitate the look of her paintings.


Marie Antoinette


Since the fashion change was almost exclusively to do with the French Revolution, you may be shocked that one of the primary influencers of this fashion shift was none other than Marie Antoinette herself and as early as 1783.


Without going into the history of the occasion and risking inaccuracies or dipping into rumors and conjectures that may or may not have been unfounded, she was seen at her retreat outside Paris wearing not her usual corseted formal wear but an un-corseted Robe en Gaulle--simple, plain, white, loose fitting, adorned only with a sash, and made of either imported cotton or imported muslin (le gasp at the scandal!). The link I'm going to include here from an article (À la Creole, en chemise, en gaulle: Marie Antoinette and the dress that sparked a revolution by Sophie Whitehead) isn't one that goes into the scandal rather one that discusses the dress itself and the layers of scandal behind the dress, from its imported origins to the variations on its name. Historians aplenty have battled wits on just what made Marie Antoinette's wearing of the Robe en Gaulle so influential, but I thought a deeper look into the dress itself might be a nice change of pace--just keep in mind the author of the article poses her own theories, which may be in contradiction to other historians but are no less enriching.


Whatever she may or may not have been wearing, it was actually the painter Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun who immortalized and scandalized the moment by painting the queen wearing nothing but a chemise. Rather than Le Brun being seen as ridiculing the queen, it was the queen herself criticized for mocking her own station (ironic, no? She was accused of leading an extravagant lifestyle and executed for it, yet the scandal with the painting and the retreat in undress was of not being extravagant enough. Things that make you go hmm). Now, before you get too scandalized thinking she was romping around and painted in lingerie, a chemise is no such thing (after all, that painting of Sériziat I linked at the beginning? She's wearing a chemise). We'll get into that in more detail soon, but the scandal isn't so much with the chemise as it is with her wearing something informal in a world that revered formality, like showing up in one's bluebonnet-picture-taking day dress to the Queen's Platinum Jubilee. It's just not done. I mean, I suppose we can get away with it, but....


Marie Antoinette's wearing of the Robe en Gaulle directly influenced the new fashions. Even the name changed because of the scandal and painting. The Robe en Gaulle was an at-home dress one might wear in their private rooms while lounging, drinking their morning cup of chocolate, etc. Once the queen was painted in it, the name changed to "Chemise à la Reine," or the “chemise in the style of the Queen,” and eventually just "Chemise." If it was not called chemise before this, then what did they call the undergarment worn by women as their base layer? A shift. The term "chemise" arose directly from this situation, and eventually shift and chemise became synonymous, although technically, they served different roles, the shift always and forever being worn as an undergarment, but the chemise being worn as a dress.


The chemise rose in popularity after its first appearance in 1783. Throughout the late 1780s, women were wearing the chemise as daily wear, including Le Brun herself. While some blogs may say the popularity did not rise until after the revolution and after Marie Antoinette's execution, that is not the case. The chemise as daily wear became popular well before the revolution. By 1793, the chemise was one of the most popular of English dresses, becoming the main trend by 1795, but by then, it had been modified for modesty and was name-changed again to be called a "Robe en Chemise," turning the at-home dress into outerwear, although that did not help much given how sheer the fabric (not to mention the relinquishing of petticoats and stays by many women at the turn of the century, hence an alarming display of the female figure on a sunny day).


Painting of Marie Antoinette in a chemise gown.
Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1783

This article by Daniel Cole from the Jane Austen Society of North America is a great one to explore. I do find the chemise popularity almost tongue-in-cheek since the whole fashion change was a move away from French fashion, yet the prime influencer was Marie Antoinette before the Reign of Terror. Curious what that scandalous painting looked like? Enjoy it here or look to the image featured next to this text. For a painting from 1783, are you shocked at how similar it is (sleeves aside) to a typical Regency dress in terms of color, fit, and high waist?







Timeline & Dressmaking


I'm sure I linked this in the post on gentlemen's attire, but I'll link it here for your perusal of some of the historical influences and features of the 1790s wardrobe: Fashion History Timeline 1790-1799. The accompanying discussion in the Fashion History Timeline from Michele Majer from State University of New York offers a wealth of information, visuals, and scholarly references. This discussion from Susan Jarrett of Maggie May Fashions is briefer in detail, but no less great in referencing this decade of fashion. Another fun site is by dressmaker Natalie Ferguson. She has two posts that are worth enjoying, both on the 1790s fashion trends. I'll link here the 1790-1799 post.


In terms of fashion creation, two elements rose in popularity, changing the fashion scene for good. The mantua maker (a dressmaker specializing in the mantua of the 18th century) was replaced in name by the modiste since the mantua is no longer in fashion. A modiste is a bespoke dressmaker, the precursor of the haute couturier fashion designer. In almost opposition to the modiste, there was the ready-made and made-to-measure fashion industry. It was in 1790 when the sewing machine came along (for an overview of the sewing machine's history, complete with images, check out the History of the Sewing Machine: A Story Stitched in Scandal by Stefanie of Contrado), but we were still a good distance from the factory line. Instead, moderately skilled seamstresses could produce ready-made dresses to sell off the rack to those who could not afford tailored fittings and fabrics. Any ready-made dress could be adjusted for the wearer, such as decreasing the bosom, lowering or lifting the hem, etc., but these would have been the work of a moment, nothing requiring true tailoring. The made-to-measure was still considered ready-made, but it offered an in between, where rather than purchasing a dress off a rack, one could choose a dress pattern to be cut and sewn for them. In many ways, made-to-measure is that custom tailoring one might expect from a modiste, except any true modiste would not have a collection of base patterns from which to choose, rather that the modiste would design the dress for the person, completely and entirely bespoke for that person in terms of style, as well as fit and color and fabric. By today's terms, we have the difference here in couturier (Dior, Worth, Chanel, Gaultier, Givenchy, etc.), tailor, and off-the-rack department store fashion, likely made in an assembly line in Vietnam. While none of these are quite an exact equivalent, you get the idea.


This video (linked to YouTube and embedded here for convenience) from A Janeite Sews covers the fashion timeline from 1770s-1800s. We reach the chemise a la reine at about 25 minutes, and then from there move into the 1790s. The video is informal and chatty, and I would recommend switching off the closed captioning because they butcher the speaker's words so badly it could cause confusion. I do think, however, the video is fun and informative, as the speaker breaks down some of the specific elements we might miss from looking at a painting, in addition to more depth on the historical contexts. The discussion of the round gown is just lovely, I think. Speaking of the round gown, we're about to discuss this important dress-of-the-decade! Hang in there.



Daily Attire

Image of a muslin dress and yellow jacket
Muslin Dress with Spencer Jacket, 1796, from The Agreeable Tyrant

The new styles showcased the increased emphasis on hygiene. Contrary to popular myth, our heroes and heroines would have been clean, well bathed, teeth brushed, and smelling rosy. That's not to say there weren't elements of filth or that everyone at a dinner party would be sporting freshly laundered body and clothes, but our heroes and heroines most certainly would have been clean. The new fashions forced that, if no other reason did. Clothing was thinner, less layered, lighter in material, and lighter in shade (ie shades of white, or sprigged, or spotted white). This meant the body needed to be clean since one could not so easily hide stains or smells, and the clothing also needed to be laundered frequently to avoid stains and smells, all which could have been more easily hidden in the darker colors and layering of the Rococo fashion. Remember how I said the fashion of a laborer and a gentlewoman just might be indistinguishable during this decade? The color would have been a distinguishing mark even if the style of the dress was similar, as a laborer would wear earth-tones while a gentlewoman would opt for white. (Which is a curious change from Rococo when vibrantly colored fabrics were the way to go since it showed one could afford the dye, but now, white says the wearer has enough money to bathe and launder clothes frequently and isn't concerned with stains--elemental or bodily.)


Image of a muslin dress from 1798
Muslin dress with changeable silk vest, 1798, from The Agreeable Tyrant

There had been, prior to this decade, a distinction between informal and formal wear. What one might wear sitting around one's home and receiving callers would have been vastly different than what one would have worn to a ball. Now, little to no distinction was made. Informal and formal became a concept of the past, at least for women's wear (excluding court dress, of course). What one might wear at home while receiving callers could have all too readily been what she wore to a ball. There could be subtle differences, such as adding a turban, ribbons, scarf, open robe, embroidery around the hem, etc., perhaps even opting for muslin over cotton, but the basic styling was of little difference. That said, as we move into the Regency, the distinction returns, as we soon see not only a difference in what's considered full dress, half dress, and undress, but we also see an importance of what dress one is wearing at which time of day, such as a morning dress, a walking dress, an afternoon dress, etc.


Not to be missed is this video from Prior Attire on Getting Dressed For a Walk, 1790s Style (linked here and embedded for convenience). For the evening attire, check out this video, also from Prior Attire: “Dressing up for an Evening in 1790.” Wonderfully enough, in the “Getting Dressed For a Walk 1790s Style,” the presenter discusses the transitional nature of this decade, which is so important in understanding the fashion trends and combinations. Also discussed is the chemise a la reine, among other garments and elements of transition. You’ll see featured the round gown with open robe, which is going to be our primary focus of gown style for this post since that was absolutely the height of fashion in the 1790s, the most popular choice above all other options.


Full Dress, Half Dress, and Undress


Before we get into the details, there are a few terms that might be of interest, especially when reading and writing within the historical genre.


While we'll use the word "dress" in this post since it's our modern usage of what a woman might wear, the term gown now being used for certain types of garments only, know that in the Georgian era, "dress" was not used to reference the garment a woman wore. "Gown" was used instead, and that referred to anything from a morning gown to a ball gown, regardless how formal or informal. "Dress" referred to the overall type of attire worn by either gender, and that type of attire was classified and categorized by the time of day and occasion, such as "military dress" or "court dress," which is not a reference to the garment but the type of attire.


There were three main types of dress: full, half, and undress.


These types referred to the time of day or occasion rather than to how fully dressed someone was (so "undress" was not used to refer to someone without clothing).

  • Full Dress meant evening attire, specifically opera, court, and ball. So for Full Dress at the ball, a gentleman would wear his ball dress (ie his three piece suit) and a lady her ball gown.

  • Half Dress meant afternoon attire, specifically opera and dinner.

  • Undress meant pretty much everything else, or morning attire, so morning dress, walking dress, carriage dress, promenade dress, afternoon dress, and riding habit.


Again, don't confuse "dress" and "gown." A lady would wear her morning gown for her morning dress while in undress. Not at all a head spinner, right? This article by Laura Boyle from the Jane Austen website discusses it in further detail.


All this said, we're keeping our discussion in modern terms, so we'll be using the word dress as we use it now.



Dresses


To open the discussion, the styles of gowns did not change for women between day wear and evening wear, but the subtleties changed, such as choosing silk or muslin for the evening but choosing cotton for the day, choosing an embroidered hem for the evening but no embroidery for the day, and so forth. Typically women wore longer sleeves during the day and shorter sleeves during the evening, which could be accomplished by the choice of open robe--an open robe with long sleeves vs a sleeveless open robe. That said, many women could have, and likely would have, worn the same dress for day use and evening use. For example, a cotton round gown could be paired with a taffeta or silk open robe for that added elegance, and then the day turban one would have worn could be topped with feathers for a finishing touch in the evening. The addition of features with a nicer fabric for the open robe would turn a simple day dress into a gown fit for the evening. Or someone might choose to ditch the open robe for the evening and wear instead a silk round gown.


The gentlemen’s attire completely and totally changed between day wear and evening wear, as discussed in the separate post for gentlemen’s fashion in the 1790s, since they were already switching to the agrarian style for the day but clinging to the previous French fashions that dominated the 18th century for evening wear. Not so for the ladies. Day wear and evening wear were the same styles, simply differences in those subtle elements like fabric or embellishments, which transformed the same style into something quite extraordinary. It might be interesting to compare the two videos previously linked from Prior Attire for differences and similarities between daily wear and evening wear--both are round gowns topped with a turban, but worn differently enough to pass for walking attire vs ball attire. Consider the following two looks for evening wear from the Instagram profiles of Sewlateadoe and Revolt-princess.



Image of a pink open robe gown with petticoat from 1795
Open Robe with Petticoat, 1790, from The Met

Open Robe


The decade began with what was called an "Open Robe," typically worn over a petticoat, and sometimes topped with a caraco, which is a jacket bodice like one might wear for their riding habit. New features that differentiated the open robe from the Robe a l'Anglaise of the late 1780s included a variety of sleeve lengths from long to sleeveless, but for day wear always long, tight sleeves (often buttoned at the wrist), the pairing with underpetticoats with a subtle rounded shape rather than wide panniers or false bums, the raised waist just below the bosom, and the variety of fabric choices from silk, taffeta, and muslin, to cotton fabrics both plain and printed. A brilliant visual of the open robe style can be found here at the Met Museum of this 1790 dress. The pink garment in the image (sleeves, train, and bodice) is the open robe, with the white skirt being the petticoat worn beneath the open robe. A quick glance back to the evening wear images immediately before this section will show another variation, as the left image from Sewlateadoe with the young lady in red and white depicts a red open robe (sleeveless) with a white round gown (rather than petticoat).

Photograph of woman wearing a round gown with open robe
Open Robe with Round Gown from Festive Attyre

The open robe displayed from The Met offers a distinct look at that open styling to showcase the petticoat. It's interesting to compare something like this to the open robe + round gown combo from Festive Attyre (featured here, but the link provides the full details and angles of the dress), as the same open robe can be worn in different ways--such as with the round gown and fichu or with a petticoat and caraco. So many different stylings of the same piece--versatility!


The open robe was similar in function to the mantua in that it was worn as an over-gown, requiring the wearer to dress in 2-3 other garments to complete the look, such as wearing a round gown or robe en chemise with the open robe over it, or wearing a petticoat with an open robe over it, and then the caraco jacket to top of the look, as we've seen already. The open robe, unlike the mantua, was loose and casual, and stripped of all structure to allow the figure to be natural. We'll come back to Festive Attyre shortly, but I recommend popping by the site to see a brilliant set of images of the open robe--the blue part of the dress depicted here being the open robe, this variation being long sleeved.

Round Gown


As we've seen, the open robe could be paired with either petticoat or round gown, but the round gown could be styled on its own without an open robe. For that matter, by the mid-1790s, the petticoat was falling out of favor, the round gown chosen in its stead for nearly every occasion. The gown is a one-piece dress called "round gown" or "round robe," which you'll recognize as being the same style as the chemise.


Let's pause here to discuss terms. The chemise and the round gown are synonymous, depicting a certain cut, styling, and purpose. A chemise that is loose, ungathered, unstructured, and unfitted is more in keeping with a shift, but a chemise that is gathered and fitted below the bust for the high waist structure, is the beginnings of a round gown.


It was the chemise that became the round gown. Note the timeline of, essentially, the same garment: gentlewomen wear a robe en gaulle for their at-home lounging attire until Marie Antoinette wore it outside of the house and was promptly immortalized in a painting for doing so, changing the name of the "robe en gaulle" to "chemise a la reine," (same garment, different name) and soon just "chemise" for short, which with a bit of subtle adjusting was turned into daily outdoor and indoor, formal and informal attire and relabeled as "round gown."


So, to recap:

robe en gaulle = chemise a la reine = chemise = round gown.


Same silly dress, just repurposed, its name revealing when and how it was being worn.


So, focusing on the new distinction of "round gown," features were close-fitting with a narrow skirt, a round bodice (hence the name) with a gathered neckline adjusted by drawstrings using that nestled at the top of the stays, raised waistline that was also gathered, and sleeves of varied lengths (short, to elbows, or to wrists). While the round gown could be worn just as it was with no adornments, three common additions were a fichu wrapped around the neck like a scarf, then tucked into the neckline, a sash around the high waist, and a scarf that could be draped around the elbows, over the shoulders, or wherever else the lady desired.


A note on sleeves: sleeves shortened as the decade progressed. In the earlier years of the decade, we would be more inclined to see wrist-length sleeves, specifically for day wear, then by mid-decade, sleeves were more common at the elbows, and by the end of the decade, shorter sleeves showed off bare arms. Obviously this was not the rule, simply the direction of changing trends.


Let's revisit the link I mentioned earlier from Festive Attyre. This is hands down my favorite example of the round gown. Highlighted in the images here, we have the front and back of the round gown on its own, and then a close up of the open robe added over the round gown. Note the fichu tucked into the bodice. (Do visit the Festive Attyre link to see all of the wonderful pictures and angles and details. So fabulous!) This is what the majority of my heroines would be wearing, especially those in my books taking place in and around 1795 (such as Abbie in A Dash of Romance). While the round gown alone and the round gown with open robe were not the only fashions of the time, they were the most popular. Anyone who was anyone would be wearing this style.



Both the 1995 Sense and Sensibility film, and the 2008 mini-series of Sense and Sensibility, showcase the round gown, often with open robe, but not always. In the 2008 mini-series, the pair is worn most frequently by Elinor Dashwood, with the round gown without open robe worn more frequently by Marianne Dashwood, while in the 1995 film, Marianne Dashwood is the one partial to the round gown with open robe. The fichu, notably, is worn by all the Dashwoods for their daily wear. Speaking of which, this page from Frock Flicks offers an incredibly well detailed exploration of all Elinor Dashwood's dresses in 1995 film. Not to be missed!



As we pass the mid-1790s into the later half of the decade, the open robe loses popularity in favor of just the round gown/chemise by itself. Obviously the open robe was still worn, as we just showcased in Sense and Sensibility adaptations, but the round gown alone became the more popular choice, so rather than 9/10 ladies in a room wearing round gowns with open robes, 3/10 would have been wearing the pair, the rest wearing just the round gown. Essentially, by 1796, the Neoclassical look was the look. It had already been sneaking in at the turn of the decade, but by mid-1790s, this was the dominating style. Enjoy this look epitomized in the painting from 1796 by Jens Juel of The Ryberg Family Portrait. The gentlewoman in the painting is wearing a round gown with sash about the waist and topped with her shawl, a popular accessory to accompany the gown.

Painting of a family in 1796, the lady wearing a white chemise
The Ryberg Family Portrait by Jens Juel, 1796

For a complete look at the round gown (inside and out), check out this post from The Agreeable Tyrant. In addition, This look at a round gown is interesting because while it is clearly a round gown, it is designed to look like an open robe. Interesting that the dressmaker chose to go with a round gown that looked like an open robe + round gown combo rather than making it an actual combo of the two. Any thoughts as to why? You might also note with the example how "fancy" it is compared to the plain chemise. This would have been about as adorned as a dress might get for evening wear in the '90s, at least until the Regency when we see more distinction between walking dresses, morning dresses, afternoon dresses, evening dresses, dinner dresses, etc.



The round gown, I must say, is brilliant when it comes to design. Since it works by drawstrings at the neckline and high waist, it can be adjusted for comfort, worn by different family members of varying shapes and sizes, and even still be worn before, during, and after pregnancy since it is simply a matter of adjusting the drawstrings as needed for a looser fit, a tighter fit, and so forth. With the drawstrings being positioned in front, this meant anyone could dress without the aid of a lady’s maid, which would have been most difficult during the majority of the 18th century. This is one of the most versatile gowns one could own. While we can see why it was the most popular choice of the decade, we might also marvel at how anything replaced it, especially when the “anything” happened to be tighter fitting, less versatile, and requiring of a maid’s help.


For the final look of where this decade brought us, check out Painting of a family game of checkers, 1803, by Louis Leopold Boilly.


Painting of a family playing checkers, all women wearing white round gowns
Painting of a Family Game of Checkers by Louis Leopold Boilly, 1803


Shoes

Pair of yellow leather flat-heeled shoes from 1795
Shoes from 1795

The heel of the shoe began lowering early in the 1790s, resulting in a flat slipper, akin to a ballet slipper, by the end of the decade. I think when it comes to the transition in shoes, a visual tour is the best, so I've included a slideshow progression below that moves us from 1775 to 1800. You'll notice with each image the lowering of the heel and the simplification of design. Throughout the 18th century, the shoes were heeled with heavy embroidery, often using the same fabric, color, and embroidery pattern to match the dress being worn. As we reach the 1790s, that changes to be low-heel, followed soon by no-heel, the fabric becoming mostly silk or leather, the color plainer to be more versatile for multiple dresses, and little to no embroidery. The images in the slideshow are from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The order of images is thus: 1775, 1785, 1786, 1790, 1795, and finally 1800.



The stockings are nothing new in this decade, as we would still be seeing the silk, linen, or wool stockings, depending on the occasion and weather. Woven garters would be tied below the knee to hold the stockings in place. Some of the garters could be quite decorative, which is interesting since no one other than the wearer would see them.


Bonnets & Accessories

Woman wearing a straw capote bonnet
Capote Bonnet from Sense and Sensibility

Hats moved from wide brims and full crowns (check out the paintings from Dames a la Mode for a visual) to vertical bonnets with ribbons, feathers, and flowers. The typical bonnet of the 18th century was similar to what we might think of as a floppy beach hat nowadays--wide brimmed with a crown. During the 1790s, that began to shift where the brim moved forward to frame the face with the crown either covering the head like a cap or extending to the back of the hat to cradle the head. The capote bonnet originated in the 1790s and was the most popular bonnet of the time, soon to transition into the poke bonnet, which was then the most popular bonnet of the Regency. This post from author Nancy Lawrence is a great overview of the bonnet styles that gained popularity, with an emphasis on just how important bonnets were to fashion, status, and style. This brief post from Jane Austen's World offers a close examination of the capote bonnet, which became popular around 1794, increasing its popularity further after the turn of the century.

Photograph of a woman wearing a turban
Turban held with a broach from Festive Attyre

Caps were popular choices for indoors since there was no need to shield the sun but every reason to show respect. The fancier and frillier the cap, the higher one's station. For example, a maid would wear a simple cap, a housekeeper a more fanciful cap, and then the lady of the house a frillier cap still.


Turbans and bandeau-style hairbands were extraordinarily popular, especially for formal occasions like balls. We'll revisit the turban when we delve into the hairstyles, but for now, enjoy another image from Festive Attyre of the turban secured with a broach. The hair curling, turban wrapping, and broach shown in the image are absolutely perfect for what we would be seeing our 1790s heroines wearing.


Accessories rose in fashion as the dresses became slimmer. A few popular accessories at formal events would have been tall feathers in the hair plus something long and dangling hanging about the neck, typically beads or feather boas (called tippets). While the fashions of the 18th century had pockets to stow goods such as handkerchiefs, fans, etc., the new slim-lined dresses of the 1790s did not have pockets, thus reticules were introduced for carrying items--and no one would be without their fan at a crowded gathering. Reticules appeared in 1795 but were first considered scandalous. The practicality of them won, especially as we end the decade (and with it, the century), but they were not popular at first. This discussion (with visuals) from the European Fashion Heritage Association explores the scandalous nature of reticules and more.


Hairstyles & Makeup


Hairstyling would have been shoulder-length, unpowdered, natural without a wig or coloring, curled with ringlets but not yet the hyper-tight ringlets of the Regency (honestly, think of 1980s hairbands... anyone up for a bit of frizzy crimping?). The hair really is quite wonderful during this decade, as it has the elegance of the ringlets in the Regency, but it has a freer flow with body and volume, just nothing too extravagant (and never worn down or long). The style shortens and tightens the closer we get to the turn of the century. Interestingly, hair would rarely ever be styled "naked" without some sort of bonnet, turban, or something.


Once styled, the hair would be topped with a turban, lacy cap, or a bonnet, usually to be decorated with ribbons or flowers or feathers, with a bow tied either beneath the chin or even at the nape of the neck for a different look, depending on the choice of bonnet. Wide-brimmed, straw hats were still popular during the first couple of years of the 1790s, but then they were replaced quite quickly with the bonnets, not to be seen again for some time, which is a shame really, as some of those wide-brimmed hats were lovely!


You might be surprised to learn (or not) that the turban was the most popular choice for finishing the hairstyling, especially for attending parties and balls. If you’re familiar with the bandeau, the turban would have been worn similarly. A simple scarf would work just as well, wrapped about the curls. Interestingly, there were silk bonnets that had wide enough ribbons to allow for versatility in styling so that the bonnet could be worn with ribbons tied beneath the chin, behind the head, or *drum roll* wrapped in a turban styling—the best of both worlds to have a bonnet become a turban!


Enjoy this wonderful tutorial of styling with a 1790s turban from none other than Festive Attyre:



As mentioned, the closer we get to the Regency, the shorter the hair is cut until it was worn cropped similar to the gentleman's Titus style, or short around the front for ringlets and a little longer in the back for a loose bun or chignon (hair styled in a knot or coil at the back of the head). As always, I prefer a pictorial guide, and there is none better than this post from Vic at Jane Austen's World, which visually emphasizes the changing nature of hairstyles from 1780 to Regency, highlighting each individual year in the 1790s to show this decade of transition, and then continuing on through the Regency, again year by year. Phenomenal pictorial post, truly. Not to be missed! Have you clicked on the link yet?


Makeup was now natural, the rouge, powder, pastes, and patches gone with the wigs. It would have been surprising to find a gentlewoman wearing makeup in this decade and into the turn of the century, so in contrast to the rest of the 18th century, which had both gentlemen and gentlewomen wearing paste, powder, rouge, and patches. No self-respecting gentleperson of the prior decades would have been seen without their faces painted. The Powder Act of 1795 taxed powder, which put a final halt to its usage, especially with wigs, which wouldn't be of much use without hair powder, but the use of powder (and wigs) had already fallen out of favor at the beginning of the decade except for the most formal of occasions (and even then, only by gentlemen). If any makeup at all was applied in the '90s, it would have been a touch of rouge to the cheeks to add color, and maybe a touch to the lips, again, for color, and possibly a light dusting of powder about the face prior to '95. If someone is using charcoal about the eyes, pastes, heavy powders, or heavy rouge during the 1790s, then chances are they're not a gentlewoman.



Undergarments


We've already covered the undergarment situation piecemeal in our discussion, but we can break it down more specifically here.


The important point to establish is the difference in terminology and concept between then and now. What our heroes and heroines in the Georgian era considered to be undergarments is vastly different from our own. Just consider the scandal with the reticules for case in point. As mentioned in the gentlemen's 1790 fashion post, prior to 1870, the word "underwear" didn't exist. What they considered to be "undress" was any attire that was informal. Parading around in informal attire (I'm looking at you, Marie Antoinette) was scandalous, never mind the person is completely decent and, to our standards, fully dressed. If we consider a gentleman's "undress" to mean he's fully dressed except the presence of his tailcoat, that might put things into perspective. Conversely, a woman's petticoat seems as close to undergarments as we can get, yet women showcased their petticoats for view in many cases, such as with the open robe, and even if lifting the hem of their dress to walk up stairs, they could reveal that stylish petticoat beneath (always covering the ankles, of course).


So, if being without a coat was scandalous undress, yet showing one's petticoat was not, what did they consider to be undergarments, and how did those items change in the 1790s?


While underpetticoats (not petticoats) would have been considered undergarments prior to the 1790s, by the time we reach this decade, we no longer use underpetticoats, and so we have two primary wardrobe pieces that are unmentionables: stays and shift.


Before we look at those two, or touch on the petticoat's place in all this, let's take a step back. Throughout most of the 18th century, our heroines would have worn layers upon layers, from shifts to corsets to underpetticoats, to petticoats, to stomachers, and so forth. We shed those layers the closer to the '90s we get. We shed so many layers that by the time we reach the turn of the century into 1800, many of our heroines would have worn nothing except that white, fairly sheer, chemise/round robe. Many a caricature of the time mock this very thing, for with women walking around in basically revealing nightgowns, it didn't leave much to the imagination--so in opposition to what many might see as a prudish time period all about propriety. What would have been beneath that white, fairly sheer, chemise/round robe? Let me clarify. Nothing. With that overview, let's step forward for a more specific look at the two primary unmentionables and the options available for our heroines.


Photograph of a petticoat from 1790s
1790s Petticoat

In all likelihood, beneath the dress of our 1790s heroine, she would have been wearing a shift and stays, and potentially a petticoat—at this point worn like a set of overalls rather than as a skirt to match the high waistline of the new dress styles—although the petticoat loses popularity the further into the decade we move. These were all optional, but they would have added more modesty, thus more comfort. The earlier we are in the decade, say before 1795, the more likely the heroines are to wear shift, stays, and petticoat. The later we are, say after 1795, the more likely the heroine will have shed the petticoat altogether, and possibly even the shift and stays, as well, or one or the other.


The round gown was intended to be worn with shift, stays, and petticoat, but as the style changes, so does the need for those items.


Shift


This (and stays) was the true unmentionable "underwear" of the time. For clarification, the shift would be donned first, followed then by the stays over the shift, not under, and following that, either the petticoat and then the dress, or just the dress of their choice. Depending on if they wanted to opt for the round gown, the open robe with petticoat, the open robe with round gown, or otherwise, they may decide to add a fichu for additional modesty or go the other direction by opting for a shift without stays, stays without shift, or neither. Featured here is a shift, and then short stays over a shift.



The shift was nothing more than a thin, shapeless, white sack. The cut changed when we reach the 1790s in order to match the neckline of the round gown, but it was still a shapeless garment. If you watched the Getting Dressed video from Prior Attire, you'll see just what this shift is all about (and if you missed it, scroll up to find it!). As mentioned in the gentlemen's fashion post, a man's shirt and a woman's shift were essentially the same things and were considered the undergarments of the time. They helped wick sweat and keep the primary clothing free from sweat stains. But with the gentlewomen (unlike the men), the shift was still optional. I imagine Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice would not have left the house without a shift, but her sister, Lydia, likely burned hers. I joke, but you see my point.


Stays


Stays were more popular than we might immediately think, especially given how many novels reference heroines without stays or heroines discovering stays for the first time. They were not a requisite for dressing, and not everyone had them or cared, but more did than not. It would, frankly, be unusual for a woman not to wear stays, from laborer to noble. The stays of the 1790s (and on into the Regency) were unique from the rest of the 18th century. These were not corsets, although the term "corset" and variations were often still used since it was referring to a type of garment--bust supports. Don't be confused if you see the word "corset" next to a picture of stays. The stays really aren't a corset, but that's not what the term would have been referencing. I suppose it's not unlike someone referring to tighty-whities as panties. Those are two distinct types of modern undergarments, but they serve similar functions, so don't have your panties in a wad if the word is misappropriated.


A must-read on not only the different types of stays, including the transitional stays that move us from the 18th century corsets into the short and long stays of the 1790s and on into the Regency stays, but also how the lacing, boning, and styling changed each year, comes from Lucy Corsetry. Plenty of information and visuals as you watch the move from corsets to the linen bust cups.


Stays of the 1790s became high-waisted and not unlike what we might think of as a sports bra. The stays would never, ever be cinched or tightened or otherwise like a Victorian corset. They were fastened by laces (not all of them, though!), but the lacing wasn't designed to be tightened, merely secured. The laces could be in the front or the back, at the discretion of the wearer and likely chosen based on if the wearer had a lady's maid or not. Stays were intended to offer bust support, not enhance the silhouette, at least not during this time of fashion.


Now, something to keep in mind is that we do see a difference between the stays in the earlier part of the decade versus the later part of the decade. Earlier, the stays are boned, but only lightly, nothing uncomfortable or tight like our typical idea of a corset. The boning of the earlier stays gives them a striking corset look that might fool you into thinking these are the tightly cinched kind. Later in the decade, the stays are unboned and offer that true sports bra look rather than the corset look.


A wonderful post to explore on stays is from The Dreamstress wherein she goes into great detail on the making of 1790s stays. There are plenty of images to explore here, as well, which make it a win-win to visit.

There were short stays and long stays. The short stays stopped at just below the bust, and the long stays extended a little further to just above the bellybutton--typically the longer stays were worn by women who needed a little extra support in the bust department. Neither type of stays would have affected the figure or made someone look slimmer, as they were both unboned, uncinched, and as comfortable as any unlined bra on the market today (or as uncomfortable, depending on your views of modern and unlined bras). Some of the long stays can look corset-like since they extend all the way to the bellybutton, but don't be mistaken by their intent. If anything, they're almost like a halter top beneath the dress.


Monthly Courses


To answer that burning question, no, there was no "underwear," drawers, pantaloons, or anything of the sort worn by our heroines. Anything along those lines did not appear until after 1810. There are quite a few misconceptions (much like with hygiene of the time) and myths when it comes to what ladies wore under their dresses, but the reality was (a) the layering depended on the decade/year in question, as well as the comfort level of the person, and (b) no one was wearing underwear as we know it.


If you're morbidly curious about how that might have affected a woman's "time of the month," be forewarned that there are plenty of misconceptions and myths around this, as well, all happily found in blogs across the net. While I won't go into the details or include images (maybe for a future post), I'll offer a few realities: there were sanitary pads available that could be worn with a belted girdle (belt-meets-loincloth) to hold the pads in place, and there were even tampons available. The girdle had variations, depending if someone was fashioning it for themselves or purchasing from someone like a midwife, such as it being more of a belt or more like a diaper. Regardless, it held the "pad" in place. The sanitary pads were often referred in 18th century literature as "linen-cloths," although the name changes throughout history, such as being called "clouts" in the 17th century, "vallopes of Holland cloths," "menstruous rags," etc. Neither pads nor tampons were commercially available, rather homemade from the most appropriate material available, be it wool, flannel, muslin, cotton, pelt, rags, etc. Interestingly, Queen Elizabeth I owned a small collection of silk girdles that she wore once a month to secure her sanitary pads.


If a woman was menstruating, she may opt to stay home for convenience, especially if she suffered heavy days and cramps, but she did not have to, as there were quite a few options available that weren't too different than what we have available now, just homemade rather than corner-store purchased, which isn't honestly any different from parents who opt for cloth diapers over commercial disposables like Pampers. That is really the short answer to this, isn't it? Women had cloth pads rather than our modern rayon and plastic pads.


There were also herbal remedies available from midwives and apothecaries that helped lighten the flow and relieve cramps (as we still have available now for those who prefer a holistic approach to over-the-counter pharmaceuticals). Should a woman want to attend a ball or otherwise during her "time of the month," she most certainly could, and likely would have chosen that time to wear all those wonderful layers, such as the shift and petticoat, just in case.


I will say that I've read any number of blogs claiming our ladies were "freebleeders," walking around bleeding on their petticoats through the whole of their courses, and/or stuck at home while they bled out over the chamber pot. I'm sorry, but that's simply not true. Could someone with a light flow have chosen that option? I suppose. But would you? If it came between securing absorbent cloth or using a wooden stick wrapped in wool/cotton/whatever with a hand-braided string versus freebleeding on my dress during my dance with Mr. Darcy, you can best believe I'd be opting for the absorbent stick or cloth. There are records of sanitary pads and variations thereof as far back as Ancient Egypt and on forward across cultures, continents, and time.


This brings us back to the point about "underwear." Our heroines would not customarily have worn underwear as we know it (ie panties), but during their courses, they most certainly would have worn a panty-like garment to hold their "linen-cloth" or "muslin napkin" in place.

Ah, but we've digressed! This post is brief, but well worth a perusal, just a little something on those "privy matters" from Jane Austen's World.


Concluding Thoughts


This decade is one to love when it comes to fashion, truly. It has most of the fashion elements we love about the Regency, but there’s more freedom with the wardrobe. There are more color options with the dresses. The waists are high, but the necklines aren’t so low as to be indecent. The skirts are narrow but offer more flow. It’s absolutely one of my favorite decades, not only for all that was happening in the world, science, politics, philosophy, etc., but especially with fashion.


The fashion of our heroines during the 1790s was the precursor to the Regency fashions we're likely more familiar with, but there was more versatility in styles and colors, and there was also a fun combination of the narrow chemise-style dresses at a ball alongside robes a l'anglaise. There still would have been women, of course, who clung to the panniers, stomachers, and wigs of their past, especially older women who saw the new styles as scandalous. I simply love this duality where the fashions blended. More women made the transition than men at first, but by the end of the decade, everyone was ready to march into the new century in their new fashion of the age.




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