Women's Fashion of the 18th Century

Part Three

here be music Court manteau at the Museum of Costume, Bath, c. 1745

Court manteau at the Museum of Costume, Bath, c. 1745*

The 1740s and 50s built up to what we imagine as typical rococo fashion: Wide skirts, fine fabrics, and an overdose of embroidery.

The hoop skirts that had begun to flatten and widen reached their maximum width in the mid-1740s. It could me more than arm-span of their wearer. The different shapes included square and boxy versions, flaring ones of roughly half-circle shape, and any combination between these extremes. For informal occasions, shorter and narrower skirt supports were used.

Many people wonder how ladies mastered doors with their wideskirts, especially as the doors at that time were quite narrow. Well, depending on the width and stiffness of the skirt support, they would either grip both sides and press them towards the body, or walk through sideways.

This change of shape affected the manteau (in England) as well as the contouche and grande parure (on the Continent). The contouche was well on its way into accepted everyday, even formal dress by now. While the waist of the contouche had come closer to the body, it was still reminiscent of a dressing gown: The front of the bodice was still worn almost closed and the skirt front either closed or only the teeniest bit open.

The English mantua, of which we see a highly formal version here, was worn wide open, the gap covered with a stomacher lavishly decorated with gold/silver lace, sequins and embroidery. With the shape of the hoops, gathering up the skirt of the robe meant that all of it went to the back where it was arranged in much the same way as in the period before, affecting a bowtie shape. In this picture here the manteau skirt cannot been seen at all.

So the skirt of the robe had become an appendix, uncovering most of the jupe which now had to be decorated accordingly. The V&A has two impressive and beautiful examples of this style, one of them embroidered with breathtaking 20 pounds of silver. (BTW, a full costume of the time, including corset, panier and all, weighed from about 3 kg upwards.) The wide and boxy hoop skirt continued as standard for court and highly formal dress for the following decades.

Hairdos now were powdered but remained relatively simple, while makeup developed into a form of art. It was unthinkable for a lady over 13 years of age** to show her natural face in public. The complexion had to be as pale and translucent as possible, so white zinc paint was applied, the veins were picked out in blue, rouge was used in impossible amounts and meant to look artificial. Little silk patches (known as mouches) in the shape of moons, stars, hearts and cupids were stuck on the face and décolleté. According to their position, they had different meanings - but always juicy ones. Ladies went to great lengths to comply with the ideal: They had themselves bled on an almost daily basis to look paler, and used atropine to achieve that fashionable glazed wide-pupil look. (Atropine is the poison of the deadly nightshade aka belladonna - and belladonna means beautiful woman.)

*) A different source dates this manteau to the 1770s, but the style is 1740s. However, this could still be 1770s as the style of highly formal dress hadn't changed in between.

*) Yes, that's correct. You were considered a woman from the age of about 13 or 14. Think of the line in Mozart's opera: "una donna a quindici anni", a lady of fifteen years.


The music is the first movement of the Concerto Do maggiore con molti stromenti (1740) by Antonio Vivaldi. Sequenced by yours truly.