Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Young Woman Dresses for Day, c. 1775

Sunday, September 23, 2012
Isabella reporting:

Tomorrow (Tuesday, September 25) marks the release of my newest historical romance, When the Duchess Said Yes. This is the second book in my Wylder Sisters series, all set in Georgian London, and this week I'm going to be sharing a few posts connected to the story.

As anyone who reads this blog and my books knows, I have an endless love affair with 18th century clothing. Incorporating historical clothes into a story isn't easy, which may be why many writers avoid it altogether. But Loretta and I both believe that how a character dresses reveals a great deal about them. The trick is not only to incorporate descriptions of the clothing of the past as seen through the characters' eyes, but to share the experience of those clothes with modern readers - all without stopping the story. Nope, not easy at all.

So while I've done my best to describe how my heroines dress (and undress, which may be even more important in a romance), I had Abby Cox, one of our good friends from Colonial Williamsburg, show us the layers that an 18th c. woman would wear each day. As always, please click on the pictures to enlarge them for details.

In the first row of photos, left, Abby is shown wearing the basic garment of all 18th c. women, whether the queen or a milkmaid: a loose-fitting, knee-length white linen shift with short sleeves. In this era, women did not ordinarily wear under-drawers beneath their shift, as satiric cartoonists are always quick to show. She's also wearing white cotton stockings that reach over her knees, and are held in place with garters that are tied over the stockings.

Next come the stays (the 18th c. term for a corset), which Abby has also demonstrated lacing here. Then she  ties her pocket around her waist, settling it on one hip. A pocket served as a kind of purse and carry-all, keeping the day's essentials at hand; there are openings in the sides of every skirt to reach it. Next to be tied around the waist are hoops (they're sitting on the chair in the second picture). Abby's hoops here are of a modest size, and are made of shaped cane covered in red cotton.

In the second row of pictures, right, Abby adds a petticoat with the hem embroidered in wool threads. The first petticoat would have added warmth and volume, as well as adding a fashionable note of color. The second petticoat is silk, a complimentary color to her gown since it will be visible beneath.

In the third row, Abby has put on her gown (we'd probably call it a dress), an open-front garment with a bodice, sleeves, and full skirts. The front of the gown is fastened together not with buttons or hooks, but with straight pins: the two halves overlap and are pinned together, with the points safely buried against the layers of her stays. See here and here for more about pins and pinning.

In the final picture, Abby has looped up the back of her skirts with long cords, secured by buttons at the back of her waist. This is a stylish touch that increases the volume of the skirts, and displays both the gleaming crispness of the silk fabric and the petticoat beneath.

To modern women accustomed to the ease of Lycra, this may all seem like a tremendous amount of work, tying, lacing, and pinning the day's clothes together. It would, too, be much easier to accomplish with a lady's maid. But repetition makes everything easier, and because Abby wears these clothes every day for work, she dressed herself with astonishing (to me) speed and ease – just as a young woman would have done 250 years ago.

Many thanks to Abby Cox! 
All photographs by Susan Holloway Scott


MrsC said...

Nerdy lasses, I am intrigued by something and have to ask. The pictures on your novel covers are so historically inaccurate, why do you do/allow this when you are so interested in,and knowledgeable about, historical clothing?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Good question, MrsC! The truth is that there is Historical Accuracy, and then there is Marketing. As much as Loretta and I wince over some of the costumes on our covers (Backless gowns! Red sleeve ruffs! BELT LOOPS!!), we have little say in the cover art. Probably a good thing, too: these romance covers sell books, while the dream covers that we have in our Nerdy History Heads wouldn't. :)

KWillow said...

That was fascinating! It looks terribly HOT as well, but they didn't have forced-air heating, or even radiators back then, did they?

I've read your articles on pins and pinning clothes in place. Seems rather primitive- they did know about other fastenings I assume. I wonder what the advantage of pins to hooks/eyes or buttons was?

Donna Hatch, sweet romance author said...

Great pictures! I'm so glad I don't have to wear that many layers :-)

Rachel Knowles said...

What a great way of showing how a Georgian outfit is put together - thanks!

MrsC said...

Fair enough! I admit I do love your covers - they remind me of the Victoria Holt novels I devoured in my teens. Except dear old Vic wasn't too fussed about the historical accuracy of her heroines' clothes from memory! :)

Jennifer said...

I love this post. I'm wondering if you have a post about hand knit patterns and designs from this same time period. I'd love to see those, too.

Abby is a great model. I can only imagine wearing all those layers every day.

Susan said...

Although it is hard to find information on, the idea that women did not wear undergarments is false and leaves a huge problem every lunar cycle. Dating back to the 1400s garments covering the female genetalia can occasionally be found in supply stores or histories of some of the larger European keeps. Just because they did not discuss undergarments does not mean they did not exist.

Anonymous said...

In all my years of studying history of costume that is the first time I have seen the skirt looped up with the ribbons and buttons on the OUTSIDE of the skirt. Even today wedding gowns are bustled in a similar manner, called a French bustle. with all the loops and buttons INSIDE the skirt.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Jennifer, as a knitter myself, I'd love to see such patterns too. They're pretty rare for this time period - the 19th c. lady's magazines are when written needlework patterns become really popular. But I'll keep my eye out for some 18th c. ones to share....

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Susan - The idea of 18th c. lower undergarments or drawers for women is always challenging, especially in regard to how they coped with menstruation. With clothing, there are always so many variables that you can "never say never." However, in this case, the evidence of primary sources makes underdrawers for women very unlikely. They're never mentioned in letters or diaries or inventories, or in laundry lists, and none survive. For most European and colonial American women, they apparently were not worn.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Anonymous - While most 18th c. petticoats are gathered from inside, as you note, there was a fashion in the 1770s for having them looped up with ribbons as Abby is wearing them here. See this print from the Lady's Magazine, 1778:

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