Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Women's Fashions: 1800. Part 1.

To the right is a miniature of Rebecca Gratz, painted in 1804-1806 by Edward Greene Malbone. She is wearing the high-waisted "Jane Austen" style of dress which came into vogue just before the turn of the 19th century. To us these dresses seem demure, but when they first appeared, they were a scandal.

The style began in Revolutionary France where all things classical were in fashion. Women sought to emulate the look of Roman statues by wearing draped white muslin dresses (and little else). They also abandoned the "big-hair" look of the 18th century which required wigs and hair pieces for its effects, in favor of simple chignons in keeping with the classical style.

The new fashion arrived in Philadelphia in 1800, to the disgust of Abigail Adams: "The stile of dress ...is really an outrage upon all decency....A...petticoat of certainly not more than three breadths...nothing beneath but a chemise....Over this a thin coat, a muslin...made so strait before as perfectly to show the whole form. The arm naked almost to the shoulder and without stays or bodice....you might literally see through [women wearing this style]."

Like the miniskirt of the 1960's this "empire" style of dress was something which women wanted to wear. They made it less scandalous by adding a long corset topped with cups which provided more coverage for the breasts under the light fabric of the dress and probably helped control jiggle. However the skirts remained straight and when moving or standing in wind or rain, women revealed the outlines of their legs and the size and shape of their derrieres, body parts which in the case of ladies had been purely theoretical for centuries.

For Part 2, click here.

(The quote from Abigail Adams' letter of March 1800 may be found on p.242 of New Letters of Abigail Adams 1788-1801, edited by Stewart Mitchell, Read Books, 2007. Information about the long corset is from The History of Underclothes, by C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, Dover Books, 1992.)

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