costume scene investigation

18th century


StyleThe Rococo period was marked stylistically by the same convoluted detail and elaborate decoration which characterized the Baroque period immediately preceding it. But despite this similarity Rococo style had, at its center a radical difference.Where every aspect of the fine and decorative arts of the Baroque period had at its core an extreme solidity and heaviness, Rococo art, music and furniture had, as its basis, a lightness and fluidity which grew more pronounced as it progressed. Rococo forms in the decorative arts typically seem to float upwards in complex curvilinear patterns, defying both physical and emotional gravity. The Dance by LancretFlowers, birds, and bows became dominant motifs in a style that highlighted a kind of idealized femininity. These forms were incorporated into all the visual arts, both fine and decorative, so that it is not surprising to find that shapes used in furniture are similar to the shapes used in costume.Women's DressThe 18th Century woman was the most free and well respected member of her sex in history of Western Civilization until the 20th Century. The advent of the Enlightenment had suddenly changed the rules of Western society from one where brute force constituted power to one where intelligence and reason were the admired and powerful traits. Since women had no trouble competing in this new way, for the better portion of the 18th Century women discretely ruled society and made advances in it, becoming authors, artists, doctors and business women. It is little wonder that the arts and philosophy of the time glorified women, and that the style most associated with the 18th Century, the Rococo, is replete with what psychologists call "feminine forms." At the Opera, 1770'sThe Cut of Women's Clothes 1700-1789The style of Women’s garments in the 18th Century reflect the improving status of women in society. While the mantua of the early 18th Century was a rather simple limp garment composed of two lengths of fabric pinch pleated at the waist over the stays with wide soft sleeves sewn in, the mantua was gradually stiffened, decorated and expanded with hoops called panniers until, by mid/century it had been stylized into the Robe de Francaise a doll-cake-like structure that insured that a woman took up three times as much space as a man and always presented an imposing and ultra feminine spectacle. After 1760, women began to expand vertically as well, raising their hair with pads and pomade to a height in the 1770's that only a man on stilts could hope to emulate. (Kohler) French Hairdress of the 1770's from StibbertAfter 1780, a fashion for Rousseauesque naturalism took over and women adopted more "natural" looking fashions which still took up a considerable amount of space, but emphasized the natural sexual characteristics of the female figure with padded busts and bottoms and riots of cascading hair under massive hats.


Pancake style ‘shepherdess’ hats were popular throughout most of the 18th century, in varying brim widths. These hats were considered necessary to keep the sun away from fair complexions, especially as the parasol was not a fashionable accessory during this period.In the 1770’s (when huge wigs and hairstyles were fashionable) the ‘calash’ bonnet was worn to protect the high hairstyles from the weather. Collapsible bonnets, they were made of strips of wood or whalebone sewn into channels of a silk hood. A front ribbon allowed the wearer to hold the calash securely over her face while walking in the wind.A taste for simpler fabrics in the 1780’s, anticipated the more democratic styles that followed the French Revolution. Cotton was introduced as a fashion fabric. Simple cotton house bonnets ornamented with a separate ribbon became fashionable for all echelons of society. The elite still wore hats (sometimes atop the bonnet) with tall crowns adorned with wide silk ribbon bows. Hats fell from favour after the French Revolution. They were associated with the upper classes and it was considered stylish to be democratic. Turbans were introduced into English fashions in the 1790’s and remained fashionable until the 1820’s. Style inspiration came from England’s increased trade with India for cotton. This was necessitated by inaccessibility to other cotton markets, namely Napoleon’s Egypt and the United States, with which relations were still poor.


A curious accessory for men that has come in and out of fashion over the last roughly 200 years is the suspender or brace to hold up the pants. In the early 1820’s a company in England developed modern braces made of silk with leather buttonhole tips that would be worn under the waistcoat and attached to the high-waisted pants current in the 19th and early 20th century. Braces, or suspenders, were considered accessory underwear and would not have been seen in public.Prior to the English version, braces were worn in 18th century France though not with the attributes we recognize in modern suspenders. They would have been straps of cloth with a similar function though they tied to the pants with ribbons instead of attaching to buttons along the pant waist. As men’s fashion in pantwear changed and the waistline gradually lowered, the use of braces was replaced by the use of belts. The ubiquity of braces also declined as waistcoats were discarded with the increasing informality of daily wear and ‘underwear’ braces were thought unsightly. Suspenders have returned intermittently in fashion circles and still evoke a composure in attitude and style. They have been synonymous with the elegance of the Victorian era, the wide-pant, optimistic post-war era of the 1940’s, the nostalgic and cultish image of the radical skinhead, and again in more recent years with the waxing and waning runway trends of dated formality and urban fancy.