Satirical prints were in their glory in London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and for us researching Nerdy History folks, prints can be a wonderful source of information about society and fashion at the time. We just have to keep in mind that they're satire, not fashion plates.
This print is a perfect example. Glance at it quickly, and it looks like countless other prints showing the latest fashions, with three ladies showing both front and back views plus elegant hats and hair. The title of the print, Summer Dresses, makes it sound as if it's exactly that, too.
But if you look a little more closely (click on the image to enlarge it), you'll see that the women are combating warm weather by wearing less - a great deal less. They've left off their stays (corsets) and most of their other undergarments. The fabric of their gowns and aprons is so sheer that their bodies are plainly revealed (which makes those elaborate hats, stockings, and shoes a little strange by comparison.)
But it's a joke. Really. No London ladies were dressing like this. The light-hearted rhyming caption makes it clear:
My Dear fair Friends For two great Ends This Summer Dress is recommended. Your Health's secured Sweet-Hearts insured The happy Objects here intended.
In other words, by parading about like this, ladies will not only stay cool and comfortable, but attract sweethearts galore.
But as is often the case with satirical prints, there's a grain of truth, however small, at work here. Over in France, Queen Marie-Antoinette was causing a sensation by wearing a new kind of dress dubbed the chemise a la reine, right. This was a simple, unstructured dress made of white, light-weight cotton muslin that was a complete turnaround from the stiff silks and brocades, worn over rigid stays, that had dominated women's fashion for most of the century.
Although the chemise a la reine still looks like a lot of dress to modern eyes, in the early 1780s it was considered scandalously insubstantial. To the English satirical artists - the new styles were ridiculous, revealing, and above all FRENCH. See-through dresses were an easy target, and one sure to sell to the stalwart English print-buyers who must have delighted in the scantily clad women of Summer Dresses.
But such prints didn't stop Englishwomen from embracing the new muslin dresses for themselves. By 1785, fashionable aristocrats like Lady Elizabeth Foster, lower left, were posing for portraits wearing the English version of the chemise a la reine. Change was definitely in the air....
Thanks to Neal Hurst for recently posting Summer Dresses on his Facebook page.
Upper left: Summer Dresses, by an anonymous artist, London, 1782, British Museum. Right: Portrait of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1783. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Bottom left: Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Foster, by Angelica Kauffman, 1785, Ickworth House, National Trust.
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.