Tuesday, April 19, 2011

FOR WRITERS: How to Undress an Eighteenth Century Lady

I put together a simple cheat-sheet for writers about eighteenth century clothing, and I thought it might not only be a good guide for writers researching the era, but also a bit of fun for your readers who love history (although you may want to note the changes I made because of the fantasy aspect of my world). So without further ado, here’s how my hero, Giles Beaumont, might go about undressing my heroine, Lady Cecily Sutton, from my upcoming release, THE LADY OF THE STORM:

1. Gown

First, Giles might wish to remove Cecily’s gown, and this can consist of:

A mantua, which is a formal dress worn at court, and is similar to a huge robe wrapped in front, held together with a girdle (belt). A decorated stomacher (more about this below) will often show through the opening of the top.

A sacque dress, which is unfitted both front and back (not drawn in at the waist) and the back has pleated material that falls from the shoulders all the way to the floor. Again, a stomacher will show through the open-to-the-waist neckline.

The skirt bottom of either of the above dresses can be opened or closed, which means it can be split to show a different or matching colored petticoat beneath. The petticoat will be as elaborate as the skirt itself in material and construction.

A day dress, consisting of a bodice (top) and skirt. This was considered ‘undress’ wear by the wealthy, and adopted by the workingwoman for practical reasons. The dress had elbow length sleeves, a fitted shape for the bodice, and depending on the lady, could be made of several types of material. Linsey-woolsey as the cheapest, progressing to satin, silk or velvet for the most expensive. The jacket bodice was usually held in place with lacing or hook-and-eye closure down the front. The skirt, like the petticoat, was tied on by a drawstring, either behind or a tie at each side, and was closed (no split).

The riding habit was also two pieces: a skirt, worn with a coat similar to a man’s but darted along the sides, with a buttoned waistcoat beneath. Also to simulate the man’s dress, a cravat could be worn around the neck and a tricorne hat on the head. Although hoops were often worn under the skirt, I use a quilted petticoat to keep mounting and riding simple.

2. Stays

Now Giles may tackle her stays, which is a boned support wrap that is tightly laced in the back, which flattens the bosom and pushes it upward. Often tied to the front of the stays is the stomacher, another boned piece of cloth with a ‘v’ at the bottom, which can be heavily embroidered and decorated for show. The stomacher is also often attached to the bodice itself, instead of the stays, usually sewn in place. Cecily finds it simpler to wear a stomacher that is attached to the stays. There is also evidence that workingwomen wore stays that released by ties in the front as well, which makes sense to me, as they didn’t have maids to unlace their backs, which were tied in a sort of criss-cross fashion, which took determination to remove. Another interesting note about stays is that they weren’t what we consider underwear. They were often worn without any covering while women worked, and often peeked through the open front of a gown, especially if they were elaborately embroidered or decorated. As the centuries progressed, and stays became known as the corset, they then became primarily underclothing. Because of consistency throughout the ages, I don’t use this fact in my books, and stick with the chemise as our modern idea of historical underclothing.

3. Petticoat

Then Giles must untie the hoop-petticoat, via a drawstring about the waist. A hoop was a petticoat reinforced with (usually) whalebone, in circular layers from top to bottom, which held out a lady’s skirt. Several types of hoops were worn during the Georgian era, but in general, they started out in a round dome shape, then graduated to a ‘fan’, where the front and back of the top of the hoop was flattened, pushing out the hoops to the sides. The oblong hoop extended the distance to the sides, creating the extravagant shape worn by Marie Antoinette. These were also called ‘elbow hoops’, since some were high enough that a lady could actually rest her elbows on them. In lieu of hoops, usually for workingwomen, a lady could wear a quilted petticoat to help shape her dress. A fancy (unboned) petticoat could be worn over the supporting hoop-petticoat, specifically when the lady wore an open skirt. Other types of support were also worn, like false hips and cork rumps, but this is for the writer, not the historian, and I try to keep it simple. (Also, the skirt of a dress was commonly referred to as a petticoat, but this can be confusing to the modern reader (and me!), so I stick with the separate terms.)

4. Chemise

Finally, Giles can remove her chemise, a thin shift which reached to about the knees. A rich woman’s chemise could be made of fine linen, elaborately embroidered or laced, especially about the sleeves, where it often peeked out from under the gown’s sleeves. The neckline was sometimes loosened by a string that gathered it closed.

5. Shoes

If she hasn’t already, Lady Cecily can kick off her shoes at this point, which resemble our modern-day clogs, where you slip your foot in. Often made of material to match her skirts, they had heels and were usually buckled or tied over the toes. She could also wear slippers, and a workingwoman might wear thick leather ones. Boots were often worn for riding.

6. Stockings

Stockings were usually white or black, held up at the top by a ribbon (garter) tied just above the knees. Usually cotton, the middle class might wear worsted, a rich lady would wear silk.

7. Drawers

I can find no evidence that a Georgian lady wore any form of what we consider panties. Which is fabulous news for Giles Beaumont, who can skip all the above and just lift her skirts when passion overwhelms him.

8. Miscellaneous

Lady Cecily might also carry/wear:

A tucker (scarf) could be tucked into the top of the bodice of any dress for modesty’s sake.

Hair was usually worn in a bun at the top in the back of the head, curls or waves of hair to frame the face. Ladies began to wear white wigs like the gentlemen, which later in the century grew to extreme heights, and were often decorated with feathers, jewels, birds, tiny hats, etc., especially for formal occasions or at court. In THE LADY OF THE STORM, the men wear wigs to imitate the elven lords’ lustrous long white hair, and use silver glitter to try to copy the sparkle. Since Giles has the original, he does not wear a wig, but will often wear battle braids at the sides.

Mobcaps were worn on the head indoors, a cap gathered in the front with ruffles at the sides, and often under hats, which varied from imitations of the men’s three cornered hat to straw hats. Pinners were worn as formal dress, caps usually made of lace, flat on the top of the head, with trailing ‘lappets’ down the sides (of the same material) that hung well past the shoulders.

Cecily may also carry/wear a drawstring purse, lace handkerchief, fan, muff, parasol, apron, umbrella and gloves (gloves were almost always worn). Aprons were not always used for practical purposes, but as an accessory to the dress, of sheer material embroidered or edged with lace.

For outerwear, she could wear a mantle, which is a long hooded cloak, often with a riding hood attached, a ‘caped hood’. A mantlet, which is a short cape. A scarf, wrapped around the shoulders. Again, the cloth varied based on wealth, but most were made of wool. Trim could be excessive, from fur to embroidery to gold piping.

This is a basic cheat-sheet for writers, and I kept simplicity in mind when putting this together. I used several references, but the primary ones are: Costume in Context/The Eighteenth Century by Jennifer Ruby ISBN 071345772, A History of Fashion in Costume/The Eighteenth Century by Anne Rooney 0816059489, Daily Life in Eighteenth Century England by Kirstin Olsen 0313299331, Handbook of English Costume in the 18th Century by C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington 0823801284.

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