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18th Century - The Georgian Period | History Of Fashion And Hairstyling

18th Century - The Georgian Period


The 18th century saw two distinct extremes in fashion and styles from the early part of the century to the later part. In the early 18th century the desire for elegance persisted from the 17th century, which was apparent in the paintings, dress, furniture and architecture of the period. The Baroque style of the late 17th century had displayed a desire to simulate the elegance of Classical art but instead resulted in stiff, formal representation. The Rococo style which developed in the early 18th century brought a much lighter, frivolous approach to fashion and seemed to concentrate solely on the surface decoration, to the extreme of becoming ostentatious. Portraits of this period can been seen by looking at the work of artists Watteau and Boucher.

The French Revolution in 1789 cut off the French dominance over fashion styles, and for a while English fashion looked to the countryside for inspiration. This produced a very simple, natural countrified style. This look was made possible by the invention of machines that could make light fabrics in large quantities from the cotton imported from the colonies.

Towards the end of the century the fascination for Classical Antiquity developed into the neo-classical or Regency period, and fashion took on a totally simplistic tack, harking back to the simple, symmetrical styles of the ancient Greeks.

Dress Women

Early 18th century dress hardly changed from the fashions of the late 17th century. If anything it grew to extremes, with the dome-shaped hoops and panniers spreading extremely wide (Fig. 4.40), causing chaos in restricted areas such as doorways, pathways and corridors. The `manteau' was the formal gown that was worn over these large panniers, and was made from heavy brocaded materials. This was later replaced by lighter, softer materials, such as silks, satins and indeed cotton, which had become popular after being introduced from the colonies. The neckline usually consisted of a deep,

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square décolletage, and it became very popular to wear tucked inside concealed pockets fragrant herbs and perfume sachets, or 'nose-gays', which were bunches of fresh flowers kept in small bottles of water nestled between the bosoms. Corsets were still worn and were usually stiffened with whalebone.

Fashion changed slightly around the mid-1750s when the large hoops and panniers were replaced by smaller hoops or a type of small bustle that padded out the bottom. This decrease in framework underneath the skirts made them reach lower onto the floor, causing a train to flow behind.

Fashion dolls were sent from country to country (usually coming from France) clothed in the latest fashions and hair styles so that the fashion- conscious and wealthy could keep up to the minute with the latest styles.

Later, about 1790, fashion totally changed. Corsets, whalebone and layers of fine satins were discarded and replaced by the barest layer of fine linen, light cottons and silks. The neo-classical fashions were based on a 'chemise' cut in the style of ancient Greek dress. This was a high-waisted flimsy tunic draped over the body in the simplest way, with only the support of an elasticated band worn under the lower part of the bosom to give the required décolletage (Fig. 4.42). It was the least amount of clothes women had adorned in this climate since perhaps the ancient Roman Britons.

Woollen shawls would be worn over the dresses, and flat leather sandals criss-crossing around the ankle.


Early 18th century dress did not change dramatically. Men wore brocaded silks, long buttoned waistcoats stiffened with buckram, and double-breasted

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Fig. 4.42 Neo-classical fashions in the late 18th century.

coats (see Fig. 4.41). The neo-classical styles only changed women's fashions although men's fashions did take on a more simple, countrified look. They adapted the Englishman's hunting coat, with exaggerated tails at the back. They wore looser-fitting breeches and knee-length boots. Waistcoats became shorter and the height of the collar rose. Neck-cloths or ties became exaggerated and took on the appearance of a protruding bib. The stiff, formal figure gave way to more of a natural, dishevelled appearance (see Fig. 4.42).

Hair styles Women

During the early 1700s, after the death of Queen Anne, the `fontange' and `tour' headdresses disappeared and hair styles became simple for a while. The hair was taken back off the face into a curled bun at the back of the head with one or two locks hanging below or laying over the shoulders. Small,

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Fig. 4.43 Contrast of 18th century hair styles — early 'mob-caps' and the powdered wigs of the late 18th century.

round caps called `pinners' became popular, then later 'mob-caps', which had tied strings under the chin called 'kissing strings' (Fig. 4.43).

Later, the French influence on fashion popularised the wearing of false hair and wigs, but only for the wealthy. Hairdressers or friseurs were in great demand by the aristocracy and were fearfully guarded. Coiffure was a serious business and took a painfully long time to complete. It was particularly popular to powder the hair white with wheatmeal flour, which was applied by spraying with hand bellows high above the head so that the flour would fall evenly over the hair. Rolls of horsehair, wool pads and wire supports were used to achieve particular hair styles (see Fig. 4.43).

The shapes and fashions of the hair styles at this time literally rose to ridiculous heights. Women would comb up their hair, both natural and false, to cover a horsehair pad that would be worn on the crown and then finish it off with rows of curls at the back. These curls were usually false, being curled into shape with heated clay rollers called `bigoudis'. The entire arrangement was kept in place with pins and pomade (a gel-like substance that acted as a sort of glue and gave a good adhesion to the flour). The finished coiffure would then be decorated with ribbon, feathers, flowers. Some extreme styles would actually reach two or three feet in height and display such scenes as `ducks on a lake', 'gardens of flowers', 'hunting scenes', or a 'seascape incorporating a galleon'. These hair designs proved problematic when the owners tried to move around. Ladies had to resort to hanging their heads out of carriages or even kneeling down in them in order not to disarray their artistic creations.

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These coiffures were attended to by hairdressers, in the case of the wealthy about once a week, but for the less wealthy probably about once a month or worse. This caused hygiene problems. The pomatum that was used was based on beef marrow and often went rancid, attracting swarms of bugs and even nests of mice. Long head scratchers became widely used by both men and women.


The chief characteristic of early 18th century dress for men was the wig (see Fig. 4.41). Wigs generally fell into two categories: those with 'queues' (hair hanging down the back) or those without. The most popular was the 'full- bottomed' wig, but the 'long-bob' and the 'short-bob' were also popular. These wigs were usually set in curls, powdered, and were extremely expensive. They became a vehicle to display wealth and were cherished to the extent of becoming a bequeathed item in a will. Wig-snatching became a common crime. Young boys hidden in carried baskets snatched a wig off a victim's head and beat a hasty retreat, selling it later for a profitable sum.

The wigs were sometimes worn tied at the back in a pig-tail and because of their length and volume were quite heavy to wear. It became more comfortable to wear the natural hair quite short or even to shave the hair completely, a device the ancient Egyptians also adopted for comfort.

Later, when the fashion changed to a more natural style the powdered wigs disappeared and were replaced by the hair being cut quite short and dressed forward (after the style adopted by Napoleon). This style was called the `Brutus cut' and was intentionally dishevelled to give a windswept appearance. Side-burns also became popular (see Fig. 4.42).

Cosmetics and make-up

Make-up was used more by both sexes up until the latter half of the century. Faces were powdered white, in keeping with the whitened hair and to give a very stark look. Dark eyebrows were drawn over existing ones and lips were painted very red. The overall effect conjures up the theatrical picture of the ugly sisters in Cinderella (Fig. 4.44). Black or coloured patches were still popular in varying shapes: squares, hearts, diamonds etc., and were a successful way of drawing attention to a particular feature and the popularity of wearing cork `plumpers' from the late 17th century continued. Men revived the Elizabethan fashion of wearing earrings.