7 Year Tea Party Winners: Susan Craft's winner of her trilogy novels - The Chamomile, Laurel, and Cassia is: Lucy Reynolds, The winner of a copy of The Backcountry Brides is: Tammy Cordery, the winner of a silver quill charm is: Kathy Maher, Choice of one of three books by Carrie Fancett Pagels in paperback: Joy Ellis, A Bouquet of Brides Collection by Pegg Thomas winner is: Becky Smith, Janet Grunst's Selah-Award winning novel, A Heart Set Free, is: Sherry Moe.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

An 18th Century Ladies Fashion Primer

This is my first post to Colonial Quills and I'm so happy to be here. I'll be sharing about fashion, textiles, and colonial Louisiana.

Unlike the 19th and 20th centuries, fashion in the 18th century didn’t change very much for several decades. One can identify a dress from the 18th century with only a couple of tools in her arsenal.

The first is silhouette. When most people think of dresses in the 1700’s, their mind immediately conjures up the riotous cartoons from Louis XVI’s France. Cartoons of wild, towering wigs decorated with birds or fruit or even boats. The cartoonists weren’t just lampooning Marie Antoinette’s wigs. They were going after the pannier too, which reached ridiculous proportions in the 1750’s and was brought back by Marie.

I found this picture from the University of Michigan. I have no idea if the photograph is in their collection or if the pannier and stays is in their collection. It’s a good example of a pannier and stay of the time. I don’t know the date, but I’m guessing it’s from sometime in the 1750’s to the 1770’s.

There are stories of Catherine the Great, Empress of All The Russias, once having worn a pannier that was eight feet across from one end to the other. The blue dress here is a British court dress from the 1750’s in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

At the beginning of the century, the silhouette wasn’t all that different from the 15th and 16th centuries. Full skirts, three-quarter length sleeves with lace at the cuffs, ribbons, embroidery and sometimes garish prints. That silhouette flowed into the mantua, a cone shape silhouette so popular that for decades, tailors and seamstresses were often called mantua makers.

From the conical shape of the mantua, came the pannier. Introduced probably in the late 1740’s for court dress, it quickly became popular, reaching its zenith of size in the 1760’s with the above referenced dress worn by Catherine.

Only in France did the pannier continue to be popular. In the 1760’s a style of dress commonly called the saque dress came into style. While still having that definitive big hips silhouette, it was much smaller and featured what I think is one of the most flattering things in all of historical costume: a pleated back that fell from the neckline to the floor in one graceful piece of fabric. See what I mean? I love it. These two dresses are also at the Met in NYC.

From here we enter the 1770’s and the styles seen at Colonial Willamsburg and on the American Girl doll Felicity. The pannier is still present, but it’s continuing to shrink in width. By 1785, panniers had almost completely disappeared and the silhouette returned to a more normal shape. But if you look closely at the skirt, it’s not hard to imagine where the bustle of the 1870’s and 1880’s came from. There truly is nothing new in fashion. If you look back far enough, with the exception of the mini-skirt, it’s been done before.

In 1790, the pannier is dead, never to be resurrected. The silhouette is columnar in form, with a skirt that’s losing fullness by the year and a waistline that’s moving up. In 1800, the Regency/Empire style is in full force.

The second tool is fabric choice, though it’s not as reliable as silhouette. Western block printing was perfected in the mid 1700’s and this led to an explosion of elaborate, striped floral fabrics. For some reason they also loved bows and ruffles. Lots of them. At the same time. On fabric with very busy patterns. Particularly in France. It’s really quite easy to see why French fashion of that century was a favorite subject for cartoonists.

Next time we’ll take a look at men’s fashion. As boring as that is, it must be done.


  1. Welcome to our new "Quiller". What a brave lady to take on the topic of 18th century fashion. I love the fashions of this time period so much. Very feminine and pretty. Although, as you pointed out some where so extreme and over the top, but especially in Europe. Here's another cool picture of stays and panniers http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O13864/stays/.
    I cannot imagine wearing such contraptions. Though pretty on the outside, the construction was ridiculous, but I suppose that was the ingenuity of the designers. They must have had some interesting wardrobe malfunctions back then with all the hardware and securing clothing together with pins, though at least there was fabric aplenty to cover up.
    I'm looking forward to hearing about the men's clothing.

  2. Great post, Rachel, and WILD panniers! I can just imagine the little kids getting out of the way if Mama had those on! So glad to have you on board with CQ! Welcome!

  3. Hi Rachel, You're touching on a subject dear to my historical heart - fashion:) And I had to chuckle at the boring men's dress though I must admit I need the refresher. I clicked and enlarged on the blue gown with the HUGE pannier above and it is just stunning in detail!! But like Carla said, it is hard to imagine our forbears wearing such laughably outlandish things that were so impractical. But then only the wealthy wore them, I guess, when they didn't have much to do but sit or stand and be looked at. Still, I can't imagine dancing in a pannier that big! Thanks for a wonderful post and welcome to CQ!!

  4. So happy to have found Colonial Quills with a plethora of historic detail to help my constantly inquiring mind put all the pieces together of past times and bygone lifestyles. I am especially interested in fashions - the what and why-for's. Not sure we'll ever know what was in their mind to be adapting panniers in the extreme, but, have you seen what the fashion industry is foisting on us these days? Some extremes there to be sure - and not nearly as elegant or complimentary to the feminine and beauty as in the past - even with designer faults of the day.
    Looking forward to more on the subject!
    Miss Kathy

  5. The blue dress is one of the most beautiful court dresses I've ever seen from this century. Stunning! And after having been to NYC three times and living on Long Island for three months, I have yet to make it to the Met.

    Yes, the wealthy wore panniers. The average colonial American woman didn't wear them very often. As Carla said, too impractical.

  6. Hi Rachel--
    Great post! I'm sorry, but when I first caught a glimpse of the picture of the corset and panniers, I couldn't help but think of a spider...yikes! :)
    And the blue gown? It had to be for the European wealthy of course, because of their over-the-top palaces and estates, and I'm sure the height of ceilings...and in this case, the entrances from one room to another. Makes a person wonder what came first--the dress or the doors. The green gown is absolutely lovely, though.
    But give me a plain muslin gown, and the back woods anytime--God's country!

  7. That's funny, Carrie. I imagine that a whole slew of kids could hide underneath Mom's skirts if the bad guys came.

  8. Thanks for this post, Rachel, and it's great to have you aboard! I've heard that one reason for the wide panniers was to display the elegant and expensive fabrics of the gowns, but who knows? I sure wouldn't want to have to wear those contraptions underneath--they look dangerous! Thankfully sooner or later the pendulum always swings back in the other direction. lol!

  9. Those first 2 pictures of dresses are scary! Glad we don't dress like that now!

  10. The blue dress is a British court dress, so would have been worn by a wealthy member of the aristocracy or nobility, in appearance at the royal court.

    They definitely had some amazing fabrics then.

  11. Fun post, Rachel! That blue gown is fascinating, but in a scary sort of way to me. I'm with Pat, give me a muslin jacket and petticoat and the back woods any day over all that elegance. I can remember getting a sore neck as a girl having to wear a dress and pantyhose and pinchy shoes to church. Oh, the delight of getting home and changing into my jeans! Guess that's partly why I like to write about frontier settings. I'm amazed at what women put up with in order to be fashionable, in the 1700s and today.

  12. I'm the opposite, Lori. I love the "city" fashion! In my next book, set in 1860 New Orleans, I plan to give my heroine a makeover just so I can have some fun clothing scenes. She needs to look her station and has never had anyone treat her like a beautiful woman.

  13. I knew the minute I saw the photos and subject, this was Rachel posting!

    You're always so ready to share your knowledge--thankfully--and I'm always impressed.


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