Last Updated 17 Jun 2020

European Women’s Fashion in the Eighteenth Century

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Fashion has been always been a dominate part within every society throughout the years. Fashion is “a prevailing custom or style of dress, etiquette, socializing, etc. ” and “conventional usage in dress, manners, etc. , especially of polite society, or conformity to it” (“fashion”). When it comes to fashion, Europe happens to be the most influential continent. For centuries, Europe has always been fashion-forward, influencing many other continents and countries with its style.

There has always been the misconception, as stated by fashion historian Aileen Ribeiro in Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, “[that] most think immediately of Paris and the French court when they ponder that time [of eighteenth century fashion], forgetting reverberations in England, Italy, and elsewhere worldwide” (Cullen). However, in the eighteenth century (around the 1750s), France was well-known for its rococo style, which was simply “wide skirts, fine fabrics, and an overdose of embroidery” (“Women's Fashion of the 18th Century”).

Like most French fashion, it spread across Europe. The rococo style emphasized the love of shell-like curves and decorative arts (“Rococo Fashion Era”). During this time in the late eighteenth century, certain undergarments, gowns, shoes, and simple, refined hairdos and make-up were essential for the fashionable European woman. In the late eighteenth century, women only wore certain undergarments. For example, they wore chemises, stays, panniers, free-hanging pockets, and waistcoats, but they did not wear underwear during this time.

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The chemises that the women often wore had very low necklines and elbow-length sleeves that flushed out fully. Over the chemise, they wore stays, or corsets, in hopes of attaining the correct, fashionable posture of a woman during this century, which consisted of standing with the shoulders back only slightly; stays generally kept women with cone-like torsos and accentuated large hips. Stays were also usually tied tight but comfortably and offered women back support. At the hips were panniers, or side hoops, which were important when it came to court fashion because they dilated the hips.

Free-hanging pockets were tied about the waist, and waistcoats or petticoats were worn over the corsets for warmth. These were the types of undergarments that most late eighteenth century women wore. (“1750–1795 in Fashion”; Cullen) Aside from the necessary undergarments, low-necked gowns were typical attire in the 1750s. Usually, the gowns had skirt attachments, and the skirts would have an opening in the front to expose the petticoat that the woman wore beneath it. If the gown’s bodice had an opening, then there was usually a stomacher pinned to the corset that was beneath the gown for decoration.

The sleeves of the gowns normally had tight elbow-length sleeves that flushed at the ends with frills or ruffles. During this period, gowns were very popular and versatile and could be worn extravagantly or plainly. Upper class women would often have the more expensive, extravagant gowns while the middle and lower class normally settled for the plain “shortgowns. ” (“1750–1795 in Fashion”) When it came to shoes during the late eighteenth century, women wore them like they wore their clothes.

Much like now, in most societies, people dress in terms of their wealth, i. . the rich dress fanciful and the poor dress in what they can afford. The same rules apply to women of the eighteenth century. Women wore shoes with high, curved heels made of colorful silk or delicate leather, sometimes decorated with gold and silver lace and braid. Even though most women of this time dressed in silk gowns that were heavily decorated (as is a requirement of the rococo style), it was rare that the women would have shoes of the same, matching material. The reason for this was that it would just be too expensive.

Some of the women’s shoes were laced, and some had decorative buckles. The toes of their shoes were either pointed or a bit rounded. However, further into the eighteenth century, the extravagance behind the fine shoes was simplified. (“Eighteenth - Century Footwear”). Lastly, women of the eighteenth century didn’t necessarily change their hairstyles much. Women rarely wore wigs, aside from special occasions. Normally, women kept their hair powdered and coiffed, decorated with a small bonnet or flowers, jewelry, and bows (“Rococo Fashion Era”).

Along with the hairstyles came make-up. These hairstyles were fairly simple, leaving more focus onto the woman’s face and her make-up. The point of make-up in the eighteenth century was to make women look “artificial,” hence why many women strived for pale skin (“Women's Fashion of the 18th Century”). It wasn’t until later, after the rococo era, that high wigs became fashionable. Fashion has always been an important aspect in history. As mentioned earlier, Europe has always been the “fashion-forward” continent in the world, influencing many other countries around the world.

The rococo style, also known as the baroque style, was one of the influential fashion changes that occurred throughout Europe and was emphasized by the French. With a popular style that emphasized shell-like curves and elaborate decoration, the fashion-forward European woman of the eighteenth century embraced the new era – the rococo era – taking in the customs of only wearing certain undergarments, gowns, shoes, and simple, refined hairdos and make-up. This was fashion in the eighteenth century.

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