circa 1770

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An embroidered lawn robe à l'Anglaise, circa 1770-80, 

Delicately embroidered in chain stitch with stripes and sprigs of pinks, convolvulus, dog roses, honeysuckle, tied with pink bows, closed-front bodice panels with drawstring to neck, the sleeves with shaped elbows adorned with ruffles; together with a pink taffeta petticoat, 18th century 

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A fine and rare pale turquoise silk damask pet-en-lair robe, circa 1770, the fabric late 1730s, early 1740s, the lightly boned short jacket with closed-front, angular elbow cuffs trimmed with matching ruffles, ‘sack’ back, with matching petticoat and narrow ruffled choker band, the fabric woven with large-scale flowerheads c.1730-40

Lorenzo Baldissera Tiepolo (1736-1776) Guitarrista y mujer joven, Guitarist and young woman, circa 1770
Pastel on paper

Lorenzo Baldissera Tiepolo was son to the better known Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and younger Brother to Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo of Pulcinella fame. Born in Venice, he like his father spent most of his career working for the Spanish Royal Court however unlike his father and brother he specialised in the medium of soft pastel producing wonderful street scenes, like the one above, depicting the colourful inhabitants of the Spanish capital. Many of his paintings include eyes peering over shoulders and fixing the viewer with an enigmatic stare.

A skim through Liza Picard’s book on London circa. 1740-1770. RE: middle/upper class men. RE: RE: Their sex habits:

• Samuel Johnson was accosted by a “woman of the town” on the Strand (so many men at this time get accosted by a pretty sex worker on the Strand and I think they must have KNOWN that it was often where prostitutes went to curb-crawl but they still insist on complaining) one night, in what he calls the usual enticing manner. He didn’t fancy her, though, so he said “No, no, my girl. It will not do” which, of course, is exactly the way one should reject sex.

• Bagnios and brothels: there is, apparently, a difference. A brothel was a brothel, usually fairly low-class but still popular amongst all classes of gentlemen because the girls were merry, fun, and pretty, albeit lacking in refinement. A bagnio was a brothel but it also doubled as Turkish swimming baths and as a posh café/restaurant. So you could have a wash, massages, shag and a nice meal all in one. The women at bagnios for the most part tended to be higher class courtesans. The most famous bagnio in London at this time was called The Turk’s Head in Chancery Lane. Most men weren’t choosy but one man, M. Grosley, wrote that he was not in the mood to visit “warehouses” (a simple brothel) and would always choose bagnios.

• Harris’ Guide to Covent Garden Ladies. The prostitution manual of the day, a guide to London’s sex workers and their various talents. Apparently, you could purchase it in ANY bookshop for around 2 shillings and sixpence.

• Casanova on London’s Bagnios: “I visited the bagnios where a rich man can sup, bathe and sleep with a fashionable courtesan, of which there are many in London. It makes a magnificent debauch and costs only six guineas. We went to see the well known procuress, Mrs. Wells, and saw the celebrated courtesan, Kitty Fisher, who was waiting for the Duke of —- to take her to a ball. She had on diamonds worth 5,000 francs! She had eaten a banknote worth 1000 guineas on a slice of bread and button that very day (or so she said)” (Harlots fans, don’t you think it’s now doubly plausible that Casanova could be in Season 2, since it’s set in the years he visited London and he met a procuress called Mrs. Wells?)

• Even though there are fashionable courtesans abound in London that contemporaries comment on observing, one can also see the negative effect that sex work has on women. A Scotsman named Smollett wrote that he had seen naked wretches in rags and filth, huddled together in a dark alley, probably suffering from some kind of venereal disease that had brought them low and had them kicked out of their respective brothels. He said that he knew for a fact that many of them, only months before, had been amongst the fashionable set of society.

• Women prisoners or women living in houses of correction (like the Bridewell) often had to or were forced to prostitute themselves to their prison guards, who often said that these women were their very own seraglio. Men off the street could visit too and have a woman for a small fee. Thank goodness Elizabeth Fry came along a few decades later to reform women’s prisons.

• One of the places one could go if one was looking for mollyhouses AKA brothels for gay men, was Devereux Court in the Temple; apparently, it was a popular haunt.

• Contemporaries write of an occurrence when the parish constables came to search the disorderly houses (brothels) of Covent Garden earlier than expected so the ladies were still in the middle of dressing. They managed to talk their way out of any punishment because the parish constables were too impressed by their breasts to do anything.

• “Fanny Hill” by John Cleland was the most famous pornographic work of its day but it was banned by authorities mainly because Fanny never actually repents of her sins. This didn’t mean it wasn’t read and hankered after however. Apparently, the young Duke of Wellington managed to pack NINE WHOLE COPIES OF it when he went to India.

• Men often had a hard time forming coherent sentences around women, or so they said, because female stays could be pulled down to reveal as much of the bosom as possible; which was quite a lot as they often pulled them right down to just above their nipples. “A state of deshabille” said M. Grosley.

• Contraception: we know that condoms were around but what about the age of “contraception” of coitus interruptus? Georgian men described it thusly: ‘to make a coffee-house of a woman’s privities; to go in and out and spend nothing.“ Charming, as per.

• Men liked to show off their pretty mistresses as much as possible as well as take them on 18th century date nights and where else to do just that than in the various bourgeoisie amusements around London? You could take your girl to the boxing, to do some gambling, to go swimming, to the theatre, to watch a cockfight, to a pleasure garden, for a carriage ride around the park, or if you were feeling really, really generous…..a trip to the lottery office.

• AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST: there was a huge barge on the Thames called The Folly that marketed itself as a restaurant and place with the best view of the city. But the second floor apartments doubled as a brothel. Apparently, lecherous Mr. James Boswell never quite got far enough down Westminster Bridge (too many pretty girls) to find out about it.

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Welcome to this week’s FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Today we’re talking about why the vast majority of historical clothes that survive today seem so small in size.

Most people probably think, that’s obvious! It’s because people used to be much shorter than they are today! Well, that’s not really true. I could write a full essay on this (in fact, several people have), but let’s stick with the basics. Average heights use to be shorter than they are today because many more people use to be malnourished, stunting their growth. However, the wealthy (and therefore properly nourished) members of society had the same variety of heights that we have today. Average heights also varied region, just as they do now, and varied by era based on ever-changing eating habits (meat based diets vs. vegetable or grain based diets, etc.) Additionally, many people have a skewed perspective of what average heights are now. Many of our celebrities are athletes, or actors who are staged to appear taller on screen, leading to the misconception that average people are taller than they really are.

So, if people (and therefore clothes) from past centuries were created in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, why do we see so many petite little dresses in museums? Simple. For one, clothing isn’t always as small as it looks. The proportions of historical gowns are very different than clothing today, often built to trick the eye into seeing a tiny waist. If we cinched in our waists and padded our hips like they did years ago, we might look as small, too. Of course, there are many pieces that actually are quite little. Why? Clothing was extremely expensive in past centuries, and the average person could only afford to buy about one new complete gown or suit a year (or the material to make one complete look.) However, the wealthy upper classes, who could afford several garments a year, were very style conscious and would discard pieces that were not in the latest fashion. They would pass down these pieces to their servants, or other less wealthy members of their communities. They were hand-me-downs, taken in or remade by the next wearer, then the wearer after that, until they were completely worn out, then used as rags or scrap fabric. The very small pieces survive because they were too petite to be passed down, taken in, re-worn, and worn-out.

Luckily for us, there is an exception to every rule, and there are surviving examples of larger pieces, as well as pieces where we can see where they have been taken in, altered, or remade. The above photos show a few of these garments:

Circa 1780 robe a l'anglaise remade from a 1740s sack back gown

Circa 1770s bed gown remade from the 1760s

Circa 1800-05 round gown remade from 1785-95

Circa 1840 evening dress remade from 1760s

Circa 1880 redingote remade from a circa 1810 man’s jacket

Want to learn more about the lifespan of historical garments? Check out these books:

What Clothes Reveals: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America, by Linda Baumgartem

The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth Century England, by John Styles

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!

Suit & waistcoat circa late 1770s/1780s. French. Court dress. Silk, silver thread, burgundy. Part of the exhibition ‘Déboutonner la mode’ (Unbutton fashion) at Paris’ decorative arts’ museum. The large silver buttons are entirely decorative.

This would be among the very blingiest of suits, even for late 18th century France.