Costume curator Pauline Rushton explores what it was like for women to get dressed in the 18th century.
“Getting ourselves dressed in the morning is one of the everyday things we all take for granted, along with brushing our hair and our teeth. But what would it feel like to have someone else dress you every day? In the 18th century, provided you had enough money and could afford to pay servants, that would be the norm, especially if you were a woman. In any case, clothes could be so complicated that you wouldn’t be able to get into them easily without someone else’s assistance. Ideas about privacy and intimacy were different then too – it was normal to be touched by a servant if they were helping you wash or dress.
You can now watch a short video (below) that shows how a well-off woman was dressed by her maid servant at that time. You can see the layers of garments that were involved, beginning with the basic linen shift, followed by the stays (the corset), and the petticoats, and finishing with the fine silk gown. Many accessories were also involved in the process, including stockings, garters, separate pockets, padded bum rolls and kerchiefs for the neckline – but no drawers!
Women in England didn’t start to wear drawers until the early years of the 19th century. During the 18th century, drawers were considered unhygienic and too masculine for women because men wore them under their knee breeches. It took a long time for them to become accepted in England, with some women only adopting them as late as the 1830s.
The blue silk gown shown in the video is based on one in a painting of 1765, Mrs Paine and her Daughters, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, on display in the Gallery. The gown, worn by one of Mrs Paine’s daughters, is a polonaise, a form of dress in which the skirt was looped up into folds and secured underneath with tapes.
In the video, you can also see the type of clothes worn by a maid servant during the 18th century. Typically, they were much plainer than her mistress’s and were made of linen or wool rather than fine silk. A maid’s linen apron had a bib pinned into position at the front, the origin of the term pinafore. Here, the maid’s clothes have been inspired by those seen in another well-known work, La Belle Chocolatière, (The Beautiful Chocolate Girl), by Jean-Étienne Liotard, of about 1743-44. It depicts a maid servant, with linen apron and crossed-over kerchief, carrying a cup of hot drinking chocolate on a tray.
Women continued to need help to get dressed throughout the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th. It was only during the First World War, when even the clothes of better-off women became simpler and more practical, that they started to be able to dress themselves. Even so, society women still kept their ladies’ maids throughout the 1920s and 30s and continued to be dressed by them as a mark of their social status and wealth. The practice only ended finally with the outbreak of the Second World War when most servants left their employers and joined the armed forces.”
Watch the video about getting dressed in the 18th century now, or come and see it and the Reynolds painting that inspired it in the recently-refurbished 18th Century Room at the Lady Lever Art Gallery.
Explore more of our paintings collections online.
You can now go behind the scenes of the video in a new blog by Crows Eye Productions.
(Comments are closed for this post.)