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Friday, 4 September 2015

The Great Undressed

Courtesy Library of Congress.

Traditionally, English fashion followed Parisian modes. The French Revolution (1789) overturned fashion as well as society and ladies abandoned the courtly styles of the ancien regime. They adopted a simple ‘Grecian’ or ‘classical’ look with bare arms, and gowns as straight as a wax candle. 
Lady's Monthly Museum, Dec 1798.

La Belle AssemblĂ©e (September 1807) recalled this startling change, led by the daring Mme Tallien of Paris: ‘Nakedness, absolute nakedness, and nothing but nakedness, was therefore seen at the play-houses, at the opera, at the concerts, routs, and in public walks as well as in private assemblies. When one lady left off a fichue [a piece of linen pinned or tied across the bodice], another laid aside a petticoat.  When one uncovered her arms, another exposed her legs or thighs.  Had the progress of stripping continued a little longer...French ladies would in some months have reduced themselves to be admired, envied, or blamed, as the Eves of the eighteenth century’. Mme Tallien’s rival, Mme de Beauharnois, wore ‘flesh coloured satin pantaloons, leaving off all petticoats’ under a ‘clear muslin gown’. 

White muslin gowns were a fashion staple: the elegant Miss Tilney in Austen’s Northanger Abbey ‘always wears white’.Dresses with trains were worn for morning and full dress: heroine Catherine Morland and her friend Isabella ‘pinned up each other’s trains for the dance’. However, a few years later trains fell out of favour even for full dress as gowns became shorter.
Courtesy Library of Congress. Note the short gowns.

The train’s disappearance had an unfortunate side-effect because of the diaphanous gowns in fashion. One's bottom was practically on show, so fundamentally modest ladies wore an ‘invisible petticoat’ to hide their nether regions.  This was a band of very finely knitted material, tightly fitted so that it did not slip down, but it made walking difficult. Luckily by the winter of 1807 trains trimmed with broad lace reappeared for evening dress, although petticoats were now so short that ladies' ankles could be seen by admiring gentlemen.