Sunday, April 5, 2015

Frothy, Fashionable Caps, c. 1780

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Isabella reporting,

When I visited the Margaret Hunter Shop in Colonial Williamsburg last month, the mantua-makers had just finished two complicated sewing projects, and their form of relaxing was to replicate several silk gauze caps of the late 1770s-early 1780s.

Caps had been part of an Englishwoman's day-time wardrobe for many generations before this. Ostensibly to cover the head and hair for modesty's sake, they were worn by nearly all women of every age and rank. For working women, linen caps kept hair tidy and out of the way, and offered extra protection around open fires. For the more fashionable, caps could also provided a base for the wide-brimmed hats worn out-of-doors.

By the last quarter of the 18th c., however, caps had evolved into notable fashion statements on their own. Trimmed with ribbons, bows, and ruffles and enhanced with fine stitching and embroidery, caps inflated into frothy confections to match the towering hairstyles ("heads") of the time.

These stylish caps were made of the finest silk gauze, a translucent fabric with a crisp hand much like modern organza. The narrow rolled hems, pleats, and tiny stitches were a test of skill for the mantua-makers, as Nicole Rudolph, above left, demonstrates. The original caps were so airy and insubstantial that few survive in collections today. (Our CW manuta-makers report that even after a single careful laundering, the caps
begin to wilt, and after two, they're pretty much done.)

But longevity wasn't the caps' point. They were a trend-driven fashion, with new variations appearing frequently in the London shops. They could be further personalized with different bows, as the back view of the example, lower left, demonstrates (though it could use some equally fashionable big hair beneath it for proper height.) Compared to a new gown, caps were also inexpensive, and an easy way to update an older wardrobe.

Looking at the satirical prints of the time, right, it's easy to assume that the size and foolishness of the caps was exaggerated (along with everything else) by the artists. They weren't. Apprentice Abby Cox models one of the caps copied by the shop from a print, lower right, and there's no denying its exuberant charm. Yes, the cap is extreme, and more than a little foolish to modern eyes, but to an 18th c. lady - and more importantly, to an 18th c. gentleman - there were few things more unabashedly flirtatious than a pretty young woman in a sweet ruffled cap.

Above left: Photo copyright 2015 Susan Holloway Scott.
Right: Detail, Deceitful Kisses, or The Pretty Plunderers, from an original by John Collet, printed by Carrington Bowles, 1781. Collection of the British Museum.
Lower right: Photographs copyright 2015 the Margaret Hunter Shop.


Cathy Kawalek said...

I don't know if anyone else is having this problem but about a week ago your emails would open and then disappear to just a small broken icon. This is happening in Windows/Yahoo mail.

Joanna Waugh said...

I don't think the illustrations of the time did these confections justice. The one Abby is wearing is absolutely stunning!

Nina S said...

I had a question about these kinds of caps, where they still required for daywear in the 1780s or were they only worn for fashion? I've seen some portraits where women weren't wearing them, but I think those were mainly aristocrats, so I wasn't sure about the average middle-class woman. I know in earlier periods that going bareheaded was considered immodest, and it seems in the 1780s the cap could be abandoned in public if replaced with a hat, but I don't know if it had to be worn at home.

Sarah said...

Yay, I finally got around to making myself a muslin cap, smocked to give it stretch, and at last I can sleep without being attacked by my hair. But I need a plain mob cap for that, my cap is too pretty not to wear as day wear....

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