How Ladies & Gentlemen Got Dressed in the 18th Century: It Was a Pretty Involved Process

We can iden­ti­fy most of the last few cen­turies by their styles of clothes. But it’s one thing to know what peo­ple wore in his­to­ry and quite anoth­er to know how, exact­ly, they wore it. We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured videos that accu­rate­ly re-enact the whole process of of how sol­diers and nurs­es dressed in World War I, and how women got dressed in the four­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies. Today we go back again to the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry with two videos from Nation­al Muse­ums Liv­er­pool, one that shows us how Euro­pean gen­tle­men got dressed in those days, and anoth­er that shows us how ladies did.

One obvi­ous way in which dress­ing points to changes over the past few hun­dred years: both the gen­tle­man and the lady require the assis­tance of a ser­vant. The gen­tle­man begins his day wear­ing his long linen night­shirt and a wrap­per over it, Japan- and India-inspired gar­ments, the nar­ra­tor tells us, that “reflect British inter­ests abroad.”

To replace them comes first a volu­mi­nous, usu­al­ly ruf­fled shirt; over-the-knee stock­ings held in place with breech knee­bands; occa­sion-appro­pri­ate shoe buck­les and cuf­flinks; option­al linen under­draw­ers; many-but­toned and buck­led knee breech­es; a waist­coat (whose top few but­tons remain open to reveal the shirt’s ruf­fles); a linen cra­vat; a buck­led stock; a coat on top of the waist­coat; and of course, a fresh­ly-dust­ed wig.

Get­ting clothes on for a day in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry was even more com­pli­cat­ed for ladies than for gen­tle­men, as evi­denced by the fact that its video requires two addi­tion­al min­utes to show every step involved. We begin with the shift, an under­gar­ment worn with­out knick­ers. Like the gen­tle­man, the lady wears over-the-knee stock­ings, but she ties them with rib­bon garters (at least for days not involv­ing much danc­ing). Over that, “a knee-length white linen pet­ti­coat worn for warmth and mod­esty,” and over that, a stay made using whale baleen. Pock­ets were added in the form of bags worn at the hips, but bags known to get lost if their ties came undone — hence the nurs­ery rhyme “Lucy Lock­et lost her pock­et.”

Prop­er eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry female dress also required pet­ti­coats of var­i­ous kinds, a ker­chief, a stom­ach­er (often high­ly dec­o­rat­ed), more pet­ti­coats, a gown, a linen apron (with a bib pinned into posi­tion, hence “pinafore”), a day cap, and then anoth­er apron that “serves no pur­pose oth­er than to indi­cate the fine sta­tus of the indi­vid­ual wear­ing it.” Con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion mat­tered even back then, but so did the painstak­ing cre­ation of the ide­al female fig­ure, or at least the impres­sion there­of. Not only do these videos show us just the kind of cloth­ing that would have been worn for that pur­pose and how it would have been put on, they also show us high­ly plau­si­ble atti­tudes pro­ject­ed by dressed and dress­er alike: the for­mer one of faint­ly bored expec­ta­tion, and the lat­ter one of resigned indus­tri­ous­ness tinged with the sus­pi­cion that all this can’t last for­ev­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Get­ting Dressed Dur­ing World War I: A Fas­ci­nat­ing Look at How Sol­diers, Nurs­ers & Oth­ers Dressed Dur­ing the Great War

How Women Got Dressed in the 14th & 18th Cen­turies: Watch the Very Painstak­ing Process Get Cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly Recre­at­ed

The Sights & Sounds of 18th Cen­tu­ry Paris Get Recre­at­ed with 3D Audio and Ani­ma­tion

The Dress­er: The Con­trap­tion That Makes Get­ting Dressed an Adven­ture

How to Make and Wear Medieval Armor: An In-Depth Primer

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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