REVIEW: Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians by Anna Reynolds
Uncovers Georgian Britain through the sumptuous fashionable dress of the era.
Explore the history of Georgian clothing through the unique holdings of the Royal Collection, including masterpieces by such artists as Thomas Gainsborough and William Hogarth, along with drawings, miniatures, fashion periodicals, swords, jewelry, and carefully preserved garments and accessories of the period.
Style & Society includes examples of both high fashion and non-elite dress, as well as items commissioned, worn, and collected by members of the royal family and their inner circle. Contained within these pages are several objects with a surprising connection to revolution: the aprons adopted by Queen Charlotte, which were traditionally associated with working-class dress, and the Whig buff and blue worn by the Prince of Wales, which was inspired by American Revolutionary ideals. The book also sheds light on the cosmetics and hairstyles of the period, court ceremony and ritual, clothing worn in battle, and styles and materials imported from France, China, and beyond. Published to accompany an exhibition opening in March 2023 at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, this book serves as an enchanting guide to Georgian dress and fashion.
I love 18th C Georgian period dress though I’ve no idea why as, thinking about the logistics, it all must have been hard to get into (for the Fashionable) and uncomfortable (wide panniers, itchy wigs). But this book covers not only that but fashions through the end of George IV’s reign in 1830 so yes, there’s information about the Regency, too.
Right off the bat, I was impressed that the author stated that she aimed the book for the general reader with no prior knowledge of the period. The source material is mainly portraits – specifically the Royal Collection portraiture so most of what is discussed are fashions worn by royalty, aristocrats, and the well to do who could afford the expense of having a oil painting done – though there are other source examples (mainly sketches) used. Emphasis is placed on British styles with references from other countries as needed. Eighteenth century clothing was certainly not fast fashion as garments usually were worn and reworked until the cloth disintegrated and then became paper pulp.
Clothing did …play an influential role in demonstrating differences in status, wealth and taste, and could be used to build connections, cement relationships and codify allegiances.
The first chapter covers types of fabrics commonly used as well as the methods used to obtain colors and patterns. Some of these dye sources, such as indigo, are pointed out as drivers of the trade in enslaved people, forced to work under inhumane conditions. Several colors had interesting tidbits of information such as how the word for pink didn’t become associated with color until 1733 and puce (Regency fans will know this color!) supposedly was coined by Louis XVI when he saw Marie Antoinette wearing it.
One thing I found interesting is that the sumptuary laws were mostly abandoned by this point and thus anyone with the money could wear the most fashionable styles. Of course the people with most of the money were royalty, aristocrats and gentry. But the styles could be worn by anyone though obviously the quality of the materials and the elegance of the cut were clear indicators of wealth and status. Also of note (and often mentioned in Regencies in regard to the many-caped greatcoats worn by young bucks in imitation of coachmen) was the habit of the moneyed classes adopting clothing originally worn mainly by the working classes such as pantaloons and aprons.
There are chapters devoted to women’s, men’s, and children’s clothing with explanations of how the English wore much more casual and loose fitting clothes than most of the Continent. The ideas about childhood of philosophers of the day influenced the more relaxed dress of children with paintings of the Royal children showing how much freer their behavior was compared to past centuries and other countries.
Hairstyles, pomades, and powder are discussed and I finally (honestly, I never knew this) know why a small half bath is referred to as a “powder room.” The 1980s is known for “big hair” but we (yes, I was one) never even closely approached the heights of the 1770/80s. Toxic stuff was used to obtain that white complexion and rosy cheeks so sought after. And guess what? A royal princess had her portrait sketched wearing her glasses!
Court dress and mourning attire is covered along with how certain non-European influences (Ottoman Empire, China, and India) were incorporated into daily British dress. The latter was usually “a Eurocentric interpretation, modulated by different ideals of beauty and body image, assimilating and appropriating aspects of non-European dress into current fashions and combining components from a number of regions to create an inauthentic result.”
The book winds up with a look at military and livery uniforms and clothing worn during rebellions – think Culloden and America – and wars. Why military uniforms? There was an explosion in interest in standardizing them and (for officers) uniforms could be worn in lieu of court dress. And of course so many Regency heroes are mentioned wearing their highly polished Hessian boots.
To finish, there’s a glossary, footnotes, and a bibliography. The images of the paintings and drawings are wonderful and very illustrative but oh wow, all the actual garments are wonderful to look at. Reynolds knows her stuff and can present it coherently with just enough detail but not too much. The book accompanies an exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery which runs through 8 October 2023. B+