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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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.

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K-Pop does the 18th century. So I was watching the K-Pop video for BigBang’s “Fantastic Baby” (don’t judge me!) and saw these two outfits and immediately knew I had to blog them. Totally not 18th century of course, but I think they’re a fantastic look at a modern interpretation of the 18th century style.

The top looks very much like an 18th century banyan circa 1770s. Take a look at this red banyan for comparison.

The bottom is a 21st century interpretation of a late 18thc (circa 1790s, very early 1800s) French suit. Take a look at this green suit with ivory waistcoat and you can see how the cut is very similar to that of the K-Pop version above.


But y'all never thought I’d blog K-Pop here did you?

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It’s time again for FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Today’s fact is a spin off from last week (which you can read here). Last week I talked briefly about the life-cycle of clothes in past centuries. Today I’m going to elaborate on that, and explain why clothing was so commonly passed down and re-made.

As I mentioned last week, clothes were far more expensive in the past than they were now. To give you some perspective, a typical maid’s salary during the 18th century was about £10 a year. A comfortable, mid-level family would have a household income of about £100 per year. At the same time, a man’s suit would cost about £8, while a decent dress (without lace trimmings or other fripperies) would cost about £10. In other words, about 10% of a full family’s income for the entire year would go towards one piece of clothing.

Why was clothing so expensive? Well, to start with, there was no such thing as mass production. You couldn’t just run over to the Gap and pick up a new dress. One-size-fits-most items such as hats, stockings, shawls, and other such accessories could be found sold in shops, however anything requiring a true size needed to be custom made. Those with the means to do so would hire tailors to make their garments to their specification, otherwise, a woman would make her and her family’s clothing herself. The sewing machine did not become popular until the mid-19th century, meaning every stitch was made by hand. Even weaving the fabric did not become mechanized until the 19th century. Add in importation and labor costs to get the raw materials to make the fabrics, and you can understand why a single piece of clothing would cost so much.

This is why, as I mentioned last week, the average person would only be able to afford one new dress or suit a year, and older clothing would be remade to try and keep with recent styles. The new piece would typically become their “Sunday Best,” and year by year would fall down a notch, remade and repaired until it could no longer be worn. Otherwise, pieces would be made out of old fabrics to save on costs, a seen in the images above:

Circa late 1760s robe a la française, remade from 1730s silk

Circa 1785-90 robe a l'anglaise, remade from 1770s silk

Circa 1885 dress and bag, remade from a 1805-20 paisley shawl

Want to learn more about the clothing market in the days before ready-to-wear? Check out these books:

Daily Life in 18th Century England, by Kirstin Olsen

Dr. Johnson’s London, by Liza Picard

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!

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The Complex Origin of the word Syringe

The word syringe entered the English language in the early 15th century, from Late Latin syringa, which in turn came from the Ancient Greek word σύριγξ (syrinx), in the accusative forms of syringa (s), syringes (pl.) meaning a tube, hole, channel, shepherd’s pipe, related to syrizein meaning to pipe, whistle, hiss. Ancient Greek mythology holds that the minor god Pan, the personification of lust, was pursuing the wood nymph Syrinx, when she was stopped by the River Ladon which prevented her escape.  She prayed to the river nymphs for assistance and was transformed into hollow reeds.  Pan was left clutching the reeds, but the sound of the wind in the reeds made a hollow, melancholy sound which pleased Pan, and he cut them and made pipes out of them.

 While the first suction syringes were used as early as the Romans and were mentioned by no less an authority than Celsus, the syringe as we know it today wasn’t invented until 1844 when Irish doctor Francis Rynd used a hollow needle to make the first subcutaneous injections.  A decade later in 1853, inspired by a bee sting, Charles Pravaz and Alexander Wood developed a medical hypodermic syringe with a needle fine enough to pierce the skin.  There is an apocryphal story that almost as soon as it was created, Wood’s wife became the first fatality of the modern syringe, self-administering a lethal dose of morphine.  The syringe has been continually improved and remains one of the most important tools available to doctors.  

The word evolved in English from its early use (15th-mid 18th centuries) to mean a tube or catheter for irrigating wounds to common use as a hypodermic needle around 1880.

Image of vintage syringes and medical bottles courtesy PhotoAtelier, used with permission under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.  

Pan pursuing Syrinx, bas relief by Clodion circa 1770 via the Musee du Louvre.