This being Fashion Week in Paris, I think—somewhere in the world, it always seems to be Fashion Week—it’s an appropriate time for the monthly look at fashion of other eras. I see the dresses that appear in La Belle Assemblée as the haute couture of their time, though it was not yet the era of big-name designers.
Then as today, only a very small minority could afford the kinds of attire my fashion posts have featured. And today, while designer names are household words, and the clothes are equally if not more costly, and there’s a good supply of one-of-a-kind, even high fashion is no longer exclusively made by hand, as it was once upon a time. I recently watched Valentino: The Last Emperor. I was very interested to learn that, yes, a sewing machine had been purchased for his seamstresses. One sewing machine. And no one would touch it. Every last stitch was done by hand—and the women work in the way the milliners at Colonial Williamsburg explained and demonstrated: draping and cutting.
It’s good to keep in mind that then as now, privileged women wore these fashions. And none of them had jobs to go to. Practicality wasn't a high priority. Display was.
Regarding the gigantic sleeves of the 1830s, readers have asked how women avoided getting the "Falieri" sleeves in their soup, and how much room the monstrosities took up at the dining table and elsewhere. I think the situation is analogous to wearing very high heels. Fashion models do it all the time and mostly manage not to break their necks. You wear them all the time, you learn how to deal with them.
For instance, in the 18th century, women knew how to manage hoop petticoats because they’d grown up wearing them.
Where people got into trouble was wearing fashions they weren’t used to—as at Court in the Regency era, when ladies were required to wear hoop petticoats generations after they’d gone out of fashion. Cruikshank offers a lively view of a Royal Drawing Room, in which both men and women in court attire encounter difficulties their grandparents probably would have handled more gracefully.
The print is George Cruikshank's "Inconveniences of a Crowded Drawing Room," 1818.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.