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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