Late 18th Century clothing

November 5, 2009

Lecture #16: Late 18th Century

Once important aspect of the latter 18th century is that the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. This means that people are figuring out new ways to manufacturer goods and are creating many large cities. Although the French Revolution and events leading up to the French Revolution dominated the late 18th century, there were other important social changes taking place. The 18th century is generally known as the Age of Enlightenment. The English society is more and more influenced by the writings of the “naturalists” and philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau. Marx is setting forth new economical philosophies, and the Industrial Revolution is in full swing. It brings with it some social battlefields for as hundreds of laborers swarm into Manchester, England (the center of manufacturing), the overcrowded tenants, unsanitary conditions, and ill preparation take their toll.

There were many architectural excavations unearthing the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum and the writing of J. Winckelmann (History of Ancient Art) became popular, so the costume and furnishings took on a new classic look. By the last two decades of the 18th century the English had embraced the classical look. It was called neo-classic.

At the same time the “dandies” as fashionable men are called, continue to dominate the elite society. Recall the nursery rhyme:
Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on his pony
Stuck a feather in his hat
And called it Macaroni.

Macaroni refers to one of the many men’s social clubs popular in London. The eccentric clothing of the Macaronis in England (along with the fop in France) showed unrest of the times. Putting a feather in one’s hat symbolizes trying to be fashionable. There were strict social etiquette norms during the 18th century which included manners and dress. Although more commoners were able to economically be on an equal par with the nobility, there was still an obvious class system.

In America the people were struggling for independence. Under British law they were not allowed to do any manufacturing so had to import goods from England. The American Revolution of 1776 begins to change that. But during this time little was accomplished in the way of manufacturing, technology, or the arts.

Women’s clothing
The last three (the first three were in lecture #15) silhouettes or skirt styles were in the
last half of the century:
4. the pannier See figure )
5. the bustle
6. the tube.
The bell shaped skirt continued to be worn but was adjusted somewhat. Instead of letting the overskirt hang freely down it was puffed up so that it resembled bread baskets (panniers) at the sides. Later a frame was devised to catch the “polonaise” look.

Corseting was still an important feature of the female garment. See:

The pushing up of the panniers leads English women to push the fabric to the back creating the second bustle effect of the century. There were no frames for these bustles, just the pushed up fabric. Note in figure 7 the gold garment on the left has panniers for the polonaise style and the blue and green figure in the center has a bustle style.

Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, is said to have started a trend for the “shepardess” style which is based on the polonaise. In figure 7 the blue with white trim garment (third from the left) is that style. Also note the shortening of the skirts so that the ankles are visible.



The woman in brown on the left is in the shepardess style with a spencer jacket and fishu.

Filling in the neckline with a filmy light weight fabric, generally white, is the fishu.

Illustration of a woman with a skirt, a spencer jacket (which the hint of a bustle), a fishu, and mob cap. Muffs, fans, and canes were still important accessories.

In the mid century women might wear their hair highly styled for formal occasions. This continues throughout the century but gradually dies out. The remaining hair is a kind of.

The women had to sleep standing up. You can imagine the starch, powder, flour paste that went into this hair do. Hedgehog was another hair style that was very full, somewhat unkempt and losing control.

Men’s clothing


Primary source garments showing Mid- 18th century couple that are highly conservative. You will note that the museum curators have attached a cockade to the man’s frock coat. The cockade is the red, white, and blue ribbon arranged in the circle. It is the symbol for support of the French Revolution. However, since the French Revolution had not started yet, the placement of a cockade on a mid-century garment is not appropriate.

The men still favor the frock coat, but it noticeable getting smaller and smaller. There is not as much width to the hem, the cuffs are smaller, and the collar is a stand up or simple lapel collar. The waistcoat is also getting shorter with just a small extension below the waist. It will end at the waist by 1790. Knee breeches continue to be worn. However, as some riding breeches extended below the knees, the breeches or culottes begin to get longer and will then be called pantaloons or trousers. These are generally in a solid color, although the frock coat and waistcoat might be colorful and embroidered.

It is interesting to note that in the portraits the breeches fit very tight. Apparently people had many pair and although the tight breeches were the desired fashion effect, they were not always practical. So a looser pair was used for active engagements. The breeches were often made of leather since that was a fabric that would “give”. Capes were popular for men.
Men still favor wigs. Most working classes wear a short-bob wig, like George Washington. However, some of the ramille wigs had large curls at the sides and the queue would be a large curl. The increased bulk of the men’s hair paralleled the increased bulk of the women’s hair.

Movies: Tale of Two Cities
The Scarlet Pimpernel


The Industrial Revolution was one of the most important events to happen in the 18th century. During this time people were figuring out new ways to manufacture goods. As the year progressed, the 18th century entered the French Revolution changing social attitudes, and social norms. Naturalists and philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau were influenced by the English society. Though the revolution brought much violence, the fashion changes paralleled political changes at the time and was shown through garments.


The classical look, also known as neoclassical period, was the movement in art, architecture, and design in Europe and North America. Styles like the classical Greek and Roman styles were revived. This style focused on proportions and simple forms with harmony and balance. Sharp colors and strong movements in literature and music like Mozart.

18thcentury painting

neoclassicla furniture


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