Monday, 29 May 2017

Age and Fashion in History part 9

The Georgian era in Britain started in the early eighteenth century. Fashion was influenced by the styles of the French court which became more and more ornate as the century progressed. This was particularly so for women’s attire.

Skirts were still required dress for ladies. But what could be done to change the style of that expanse of cloth that covered the wearer from somewhere around the waist all the way down to the ground? The abundance of cloth tended to hang. Petticoats added some structure and fullness so more structure was added to the petticoat in the form of hoops, creating bell shaped skirts. These dresses look pretty when women are standing but must have been a challenge when women wanted to sit. Worse was yet to come.

The bell shape became passé. Fullness was added to the hips, gradually at first, but the sideways expansion continued until it reached beyond the woman’s extended fingertips. Getting through doorways was a challenge but there was plenty of scope for decoration with all that expanse of skirt, leading to some of those confections seen in paintings of women of the period. Liza Picard paints an amusing word picture of the challenge of wearing this fashion. “Although the static pose of portraits implies that these huge skirts were anchored to the ground, their behaviour in a high wind or a rapid walk was far from static. They swayed from side to side, or from front to back, in an alarming – or, if the wearer so intended, an enticing – way, disclosing more of the wearer than seems likely from the painted picture. (Knickers had not yet arrived.)”*


While women’s fashion was changing the female form, men’s fashion retained its look of breeches and stockings with long jackets ended just above the breeches. The changes in men’s fashion centered mainly on the head. Men and boys were wigs which were powdered on formal occasions. Women also augmented their hair as styles became more and more elaborate, in keeping with their skirts. The late 1700s saw those fantastic towering hairdos which women wore with formal dress. Much effort went into the creation of those up-dos so they were preserved for weeks on end, no doubt making sleep difficult and cleanliness even more so.  

These were the extremes of fashion followed by ladies at court. The more middling sort of person could not be impaired by their clothes or hair and still get anything done. The outline of fashion was followed by rich and poor both in the old country and the New World. 

This was true of children as well which can be seen in paintings of court life with young children wearing miniature versions of the fashions of their elders. In fact, until this era children had been treated as mini-adults. However, it was in this century that a developing sense of the specialness and innocence of childhood began to be developed. 

At the other end of the age spectrum, the elderly were a part of family and social networks both in England and in America. While still able, they helped the younger generation with familial tasks and were part of an inter-dependent network which, hopefully, would lend them support when they became frail. As to fashion for the elderly, in court circles there was disapproval of those women who followed the latest fashions despite their years. They were expected to “act their age.” No doubt the less well off elderly who were dependent upon family networks knew better than to let their dress threaten their place in the family. 


Adkins, Roy & Lesley. Jane Austen’s England: daily life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. Penguin Books, New York, 2013.

Botelho, Lynn and Thane, Pat, Women and Ageing in British Society since 1500. Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, Essex, 2001.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, Sara. The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2009

Lofts, Norah. Domestic Life in England. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1976

Mintz, Steven The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2015

Picard, Liza. Doctor Johnson’s London. Phoenix Press, London, 2000. P217*

Thane, Pat. A History of Old Age. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 2005

Ulrich, Laural Thatcher. Good Wives: Image and Reality of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750. Vintage Books, New York, 1991