Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Men's Clothing in the Early 1700s

by Marie-Louise Jensen

Has there ever been a time when dress for men was more colourful, extravagant and downright splendid than the first half of the eighteenth century? I'm speaking of the wealthy, of course, who were always the privileged few who could enjoy the extravagances of fashion.
I've always found the ruffs and hose of the Tudor and Elizabethan era faintly ridiculous. And I'm not alone in that, it seems, as the series The Tudors opted for historically incorrect trousers, fearing the modern viewer might just not find the clinging hose sexy enough.
And however worthy it might have been, the severity and plainness of the Puritan era wasn't precisely eye-catching. But as we moved into the Restoration and the early Georgian era, men tricked themselves out, for a while, as gorgeous as butterflies.

Breeches generally buttoned just below the knee and were buttoned by various designs at the waist, sometimes with a large flap that pulled between the legs. For formal wear they could be made of satin. The effect was very elegant. Beneath the breeches, silk stockings would be tied with a garter above the knee. These cost quite a few shillings - extravagant indeed - and were often clocked (embroidered with a pattern). Shoes often sported a heel and a buckle. Shirts were of linen, open at the neck and with a stand up collar. Varying amounts of lace could be added on in the form of a necktie and in ruffs at the wrists. Waistcoats were often elaborately hand embroidered at stupendous cost and generally much longer than today's waistcoats. A coat would be worn too, also fabulously embellished with trim and buttons, quite possibly made of brocade silk of a quality that is (I am assured) simply no longer available today because it would cost too much. And then the wig - ah that exquisitely expensive creation! There were a number of different types at different times and for different pursuits. My favourite is the formal long-bottomed wig, popular early in the 1700s. Long loose curls were thickly powdered with hair powder and tumbled down over the shoulders. I wonder if they got powder on the coat? Powder later went out of fashion when the government was unwise enough to tax it.
A gentlemen could not be considered completely dressed without his small-sword at his side, of course, and vents were especially included in the pleats of the coat's skirts to accommodate one. Scarcely a wise addition to the costume in those days of heavy drinking and gaming. Lives were frequently lost.
File:Troost-Jeronimus.jpg
(This picture a little later than the era I'm describing. I had trouble finding an image without copyright.) When describing my characters dressed thus, I often sigh for a glimpse into a ball or gathering in the past. A few aspects of the dress may strike us as less attractive however. Under the wig (were they horribly sweaty to wear, I wonder?) the head was close shaven. Men's shoes often had heels as high as the ladies, which might seem odd to us. And I wonder how they got on washing all that brocade silk and satin? Not all that often, I shouldn't think. But don't worry. They were pretty lavish with the scent.

14 comments:

Annis said...

Does anyone remember the sumptuous costumes worn in Peter Greenawy's "The Draughtsman's Contract"? The setting for that was around 1694 (William and Mary period). I believe the costumes were exaggerated a bit for effect, but they were gorgeous, and the men's no less so than the women's!

Powdering was quite a production. Wigs could be powdered separately before being placed on the wearer's head, or you could take the option of wearing a white wig, but the process for powdering natural hair went like this:

"Powder was applied with a bellows (the powderee being covered with a cone-shaped paper face mask and fabric smock), with a puff for touchups and a knife for removal". A knife? Best not upset the valet, then!

The wig or natural hair was coated with a sticky pomade before application of the powder, presumably to keep the powder in place and prevent an unappealing dandruff-type snowstorm on the shoulders of your beautiful (and no doubt expensive) coat.

Women had the option of heading off to a room which would be set aside for powder touch-ups, hence the term "powder-room".

Katherine Langrish said...

Have you ever tried the (mental!) experiment of putting the men you know into period costume? It's quite amusing to see how some men suit one style, some another. Tudor costume is definitely one of the iffier ones. Most men scrub up quite well in Roman togas or Victorian frock coats...

The Virtual Victorian said...

What a good idea Katherine. My imagination is now running riot.

Rik Sowden said...

I have the great luck to dress in an assortment of historical forms from time to time - the periwig I own is perfectly comfortable to wear and doesn't cause much sweating, though mine is synthetic.

Given they were often made of human (or sometimes animal) hair I would imagine that they could easily get very warm, and that cleaning them wouldn't have been easy, I can see their passing as being not entirely sad for some!

Stroppy Author said...

Katherine, I've done it for real! Carnevale in Venice, a few years ago. He looked good in it. (He even took his class at UCL and flew on Easyjet in it, as it was too big for hand-luggage - not a problem they had in the 17th century, I'm sure.)

Annis - I love the costumes in that film (love the whole film), and in Barry Lyndon. Heads weren't always close-shaven by our standards. If you look at the portraits of eg Newton sans wig, they have straggly, thin hair, often quite short but definitely there. And Pope gives a great account of not only the processes of beautification but also the dangers: the wigs were very prone to vermin infestation and people often carried a jewelled stick to knock the creatures out their wigs.

Joan Lennon said...

And now I spend the day scratching phantom vermin ... but from the neck down at least, they most have looked delectable!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Rik, is that picture you? You look splendid! Katherine, yes, I do that a lot. It's fun. Note how some actors mainly get costume roles and look great, but so ordinary in modern dress - as you say it suits some people's 'look' better than others. Modern clothes are much more comfortable of course, but *sigh* how boring.

adele said...

This is such an interesting post! I often think about the smells of the 18th century...and other centuries too. Must have been quite overpowering at times. As for vermin in wigs...horrors!

Ann Turnbull said...

I love it when men have long hair (the early 1970s was a wonderful time for hair!) but it has to be their own hair. The cavalier fashions of the 1640s are gorgeous. But I also loved the 18thC fashions in Garrow's Law (is it Garrow? something like that) with those discreet, tied-back wigs.

Sue Bursztynski said...

So that's where the term "powder room" came from! I never knew. And yes, Katherine, I have been doing the costuming thing on trams and trains for years. :-)

I imagine if you were rich enough to wear that extravagant clothing you could employ servants to do any cleaning.

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Kate Doe said...

Thank you for sharing. I found this post to be very interesting. I love fashion but have never looked at it from that generation. Oh have times changed, and for the better in my opinion.

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Madeleine Macy said...

I have the great luck to dress in an assortment of historical forms from time to time - the periwig I own is perfectly comfortable to wear and doesn't cause much sweating, though mine is synthetic.

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