What Was Fashionable

On Saturday morning I wrote how friends from Alaska (I was a student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks briefly in the late 1980s) were due to visit with us here in Hertfordshire (about a 30 min train journey north from central London) for lunch. For three weeks, they had driven themselves all around southwestern England and thoroughly enjoyed themselves at the likes of Stonehenge and down in Cornwall. Today, starting at Heathrow, they begin the (2 day) travel odyssey back to Alaska.

At one point we chatted about my books. Eventually we moved on to what my latest one will be about. As I explained it, my friend’s wife jumped in about women’s fashions of that era.

Art and fashion are passions of hers. She began noting how she believed ladies dresses and clothing was “dreadful” by the time of the U.S. Civil War in the mid-19th century. She declared emphatically that in contrast she felt late 18th century styles (the era in which Conventions is mostly set: the 1780s and 1790s) in London and Paris were simply (in her words) “gorgeous.”

Louis Rolland Trinquesse, 1774. "The Music Party." Painted in Paris. [Wikipedia. Public Domain.}
Louis Rolland Trinquesse, 1774. “The Music Party.” Painted in Paris. [Wikipedia. Public Domain.}

I admitted that I knew only generalities, so I have been carefully researching details. They happened to have visited Bath too, and by coincidence while there she said they had been to the Bath Fashion Museum. She suggested if I could get there it might be worth a visit to see some of those fashions “in person.” (We’d actually lived near Bath in 2014-2015 and got to know the city pretty well; but I’d never thought to visit that. Ironic, no?)

Notice this English lady below is painted in a “Brunswick gown,” which was commonly worn by women travelers in England and France in the eighteenth century:

Pompeo Batoni, 1767. “Lady Mary Fox (1746-1778).” [Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

Fashion was not only about women. Men still wore breeches into the early 1800s. Trousers as we understand them did not start to become common until a decade or so later, in the 1820s:

Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1803. "Passer Payez." (Crossing a plank - with payment demanded by the plank owner - on a muddy Paris street.) [Wikipedia. Public Domain.]
Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1803. “Passer Payez.” (Crossing a plank – with payment demanded by the plank owner – on a muddy Paris street.) [Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

From 1795, we begin to see an evolution to a more relaxed women’s style. (It had already begun to appear among women at Marie Antoinette’s court in the 1780s and spread from there.) Essentially, we see what is described by Jane Austen in her novels of the early 1800s: the “high-waist” takes hold (no pun intended). Look familiar to you (other) Jane fans?:

Merry-Joseph Blondel, 1808. "Portrait of Félicité-Louise-Julie-Constance de Durfort, Maréchale de Beurnonville (1782-1808)." [Wikipedia. Public Domain.]
Merry-Joseph Blondel, 1808. “Portrait of Félicité-Louise-Julie-Constance de Durfort, Maréchale de Beurnonville (1782-1808).” [Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

I know that some of you who follow are fashion bloggers. And I know some of you who read my novels also love to follow fashion bloggers. I may be a guy, but, see, as this post proves…. I can be both novelist and a bit “fashion blogger”! 😉

Have a good Monday, wherever you are in the world. 🙂

UPDATE: English friend who read that just messaged me: she wanted me to know that the “high-waisted” look was also known as the “Empire Line.” I knew that: I had seen that used already.

Lots of knowledgeable late 18th-early 19th century fashion aficionados out there! 🙂


  1. Empire-era fashion elicits strong opinions from characters in other novels. Here’s an exchange between Mammy and Scarlett, in Gone With the Wind:

    “Paint!” ejaculated Mammy. “Face paint! Well, you ain’ so big dat Ah kain whup you! Ah ain’ never been so scan’lized! You is los’ yo’ mine! Miss Ellen be tuhnin’ in her grave dis minute! Paintin’ yo face lak a–”

    “You know very well Grandma Robillard painted her face and–”

    “Yas’m, an’ wo’ only one petticoat an’ it wrang out wid water her mek it stick an’ show de shape of her laigs, but dat ain’ sayin’ you is gwine do sumpin’ lak dat! Times wuz scan’lous w’en Old Miss wuz young but times changes, dey do an’–“

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  2. Here’s another from GWTW, between Rhett and Scarlett:

    “But your grandparents would probably be proud of you sad say: ‘There’s a chip off the old block,’ and your grandchildren will sigh enviously and say: ‘What an old rip Grandma must have been!’ and they’ll try to be like you.”

    Scarlett laughed with amusement.

    “Sometimes you do hit on the truth! Now there was my Grandma Robillard. Mammy used to hold her over my head whenever I was naughty. Grandma was as cold as an icicle and strict about her manners and everybody else’s manners, but she married three times and had any number of duels fought over her and she wore rouge and the most shockingly low-cut dresses and no–well, er–not much under her dresses.”

    “And you admired her tremendously, for all that you tried to be like your mother!”

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  3. And here’s one more, in the voice of Albion Hamlin, the POV character in Lydia Bailey, a historical novel set in the Empire period, by Kenneth Roberts:

    When we climbed the towering, cliff-like side of that huge black ship, I could hardly believe that I really saw what I did see upon its quarter-deck, for the spectacle belonged on a theater stage rather than on a man-of-war….

    On the windward side of the deck was spread a broad carpet; and on the carpet, on couches and upholstered benches, was an amazing assemblage of ladies in silks and officers in satin, all bejeweled, bedizened, bepainted like actors in a play.

    In the center of this gathering, talking to Captain Lebrun, was a lady I knew must be Bonaparte’s sister, General Leclerc’s wife. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old; her voice was shrill; her face as round, as regular, as vapidly pretty as that of an angel in a Raphael painting….

    Her body couldn’t have been more effectively displayed if she’d been naked, and I’m bound to say it was a marked improvement on any feminine figure that Raphael ever put on canvas.

    How her dress held to the upper part of her body was beyond my comprehension. It was supported by a filmy strap over each shoulder, but it had neither sleeves nor back. Her uncovered breasts rested in two silken cups that were supported God knows how; and below those cups the flowered white silk of her dress clung so closely to her that only a blind man could fail to see she wore nothing whatever beneath the dress except pink stockings held up by blue garters with rosebuds on them. I hope I’m not a prude, but it seemed to me there was something shockingly indecent about this lady,… and I found the sight of her downright embarrassing….

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  4. Finally, a note about male Empire fashion, also via Albion Hamlin in Lydia Bailey:

    In spite of the heat of that January afternoon, he wore white silk stockings, little black pumps, white satin breeches, a yellow vest, and a heavy blue coat stiff with padding. Its collar came almost to his ears, but–unlike the uniforms of all the other officers–the coat was severely plain, like those worn by Bonaparte in all his pictures.

    When this little man, who hardly came up to our shoulders, thrust his fingers between the buttons of his coat and stood looking up at us imperiously, I realized that he was indeed an actor; that he was dressed to look like Bonaparte, that he thought he looked like Bonaparte, and that he was doing his best to act like Bonaparte….

    I was amazed, even, that this sallow little shrimp of a man, who couldn’t have been a day over thirty, should be Bonaparte’s favorite general, favored with the hand of Bonaparte’s adored sister–who was a baggage of the first water, if rumor and her own appearance could be believed….

    (Kenneth Roberts took 6 years to research and write Lydia Bailey, which makes me feel a bit better about how long it’s taking me to research and write my current work-in-progress!)

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