Friday 5 August 2022

AGE OF ELEGANCE ... by Susan Stokes-Chapman

My last blog post focused on Georgian jewellery, the crowning glory of any outfit. Of course, while those finishing touches were undoubtedly all-important we cannot ignore the actual fashions of the era these beautiful jewels enhanced, and how tailors and dressmakers drew on the elegance and grandeur of the ancient world.

It was the Enlightenment that started it - the Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, creating ideals of living centred on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge (obtained by reason and a vindication of the senses), as well as ideas of liberty and progress. This movement inevitably led to the admiration of classical civilisations such as Rome and Greece, which began to translate into fashions most typically associated with the Regency period.

Women’s fashion lost the rigidity of corsets and embraced instead neo-classical looking clothing. Dresses were designed to make ladies silhouettes appear elegant and slender, with flowing material and waistlines that clung beneath their breasts (known as Empire Line), whereas men’s fashions took on the lean and statuesque characteristics of the Grecian hero.


It is easy to see why the Ancient World was so favourable. With the advent of archaeology and many beautiful finds becoming available for public consumption (the Grand Tour favoured by the aristocracy had much to do with it), the elegance of the imagery really drew the eye. Men were clean shaven, with attractively curling hair and strong athletic bodies to stir virile masculinity, and the women were smooth-skinned, beautifully coifed, and everything graceful - the epitome, then, of the 'ideal' human being. 

© Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum

The first Grecian-style gowns were simple shifts made of muslin. Other materials were used as well, but muslin dominated the fashion plates. These gowns had very little shape to them - shape was instead achieved with the tie under the breast that created the iconic Empire Line we all know today. This style gave a lot of freedom and comfort to the wearer as the dresses were light, needed very little underpinning and were worn with flat shoes - no heels to make your feet hurt! Shades of white were the main colour of choice, and often pale pastel colours were worn during the day while darker colours came in the form of shawls, trims and tunics tipped with gold were often worn over a plain dress, and really gave the impression of Greek and Roman styling.

Such outfits were accessorised with reticules, some of which loosely echoed the shape of a Grecian urn, and hoods which paid homage to the Grecian caul, a cloth or net that covered the hair in an elongated shape at the back:

To veer back to jewellery briefly, one particular accessory came into fashion - tiaras. They were apparent in portraits at the time, but if you consider too the mosaics and pottery discovered from digs in Greece and Rome such as those depicted below, you can understand why tiaras became particularly fashionable:

© The British Museum

Further, cameos were the more obvious accessory that acknowledged the Ancient World. In 1805 the Journal des Dames wrote: ‘a fashionable lady wears cameos at her girdle, cameos in her necklace, cameos on each of her bracelets, a cameo on her tiara.’ Below is a portrait of Queen Louise Augusta of Prussia by French portrait maker Madame Le Brun, depicting one such cameo on her tiara.

The English potter Josiah Wedgwood made a killing from his jasperware depicting classical scenes. Below is a belt clasp mounted in cut steel frames with Matthew Boulton's faceted steel studs, which shows the image of a priestess making a sacrifice. Georgian women (and some men) often wore cameos like this.

© The Walters Art Museum

And speaking of priestesses, in the below painting of Lady Hamilton (another by Le Brun), Lord Nelson's mistress is depicted as a dancing priestess. The layered garment and patterned underdress could be both Regency dress or Grecian robe, the likeness is so close! Note in the background Mount Vesuvius is erupting - the excavations of Pompeii were another source of the Georgian's fascination with the ancient world.

For men, there was a little less frippery required. Gentlemen wore breeches made of fabric that stretched comfortably across the legs which accentuated their shape, and skin-tight pantaloons gave the virile look of the much admired classical statues. The dandy Beau Brummell (bottom figure) believed that the point of men's fashion was to 'clothe the body that its fineness be revealed'.

Of course, not all body shapes are the same! For women, even if they were of a more ample figure the Empire Line dresses were still very flattering, but for men who were a little more scrawny and did not possess the muscular curvature so admired of Grecian heroes, many had no qualms about fitting themselves with false curves, as this caricature below depicts! Next to this cariacture is a surviving example of a padded stocking.

There are so many things to say about Georgian fashion, but for the purpose of this blog I simply wanted to highlight the visual similarities between Regency fashions and the ancient world. Personally I really feel they were on to something, and I think it high time the fashions of the period made a comeback. They were elegant, regal, cool in the summer, and flattered everyone no matter their shape and size - what more could you possible ask for?


My Georgian-set debut novel Pandora acknowledges this obsession with the ancient world, and you can order by clicking the image below:
Twitter & Instagram: @SStokesChapman

1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating! Ridiculously, it hadn't really occurred to me that 18thC fashions were inspired by the ancient world.