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2 Mar 2020

Celebrating Women’s History Month

Written by Cecilia Malmberg and Emma Harvey
Two ladies, one dressed in Georgian clothing, hold an omega-shaped sign, saying National Trust for Scotland LOVE.
Cecila Malmberg and Emma Harvey
In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts written by our volunteers and staff, highlighting both historical female characters and their influences at their properties.

In the first of these posts, Cecilia Malmberg (Visitor Services Assistant) and Emma Harvey (Volunteer), both from the Georgian House, take a look at female fashion in the Georgian period.

The Georgian era was a time of great political, economic and social change in Britain. With continual warfare raging throughout the western world, the kick-start of the Industrial Revolution in the major cities, and Jane Austen novels in vogue, the 18th century saw the emergence of new inventions and ways of thinking. But one area of constant and drastic change that is often overlooked was that of women’s fashion.

A lady models a white 1800s-style gown in the drawing room of the Georgian House. She holds the skirt out to each side.
Emma Harvey, volunteer at the Georgian House, models a 1800s-style gown – one of her own creations.

For the majority of the 18th century, the clothes women wore often exaggerated and distorted their natural shape. Women hid their figures under layers of skirts, corsets and all manner of contraptions designed to give them an unnatural silhouette. One enduring and popular trend was to have wide hips, ranging from a slight exaggeration to expanding nearly two metres in width! By emphasising the hips, fashion was highlighting the capability for women to bear children (child-bearing hips) – an important role for many 18th-century ladies. Unlike their male counterparts, women also wore corsets, which had two main purposes. The first was to mould the body to the fashionable conical silhouette; the second was to provide a solid foundation for the many layers of clothing women wore. 

For most of the Georgian period, France and the French court dictated fashion trends. French fashion was often highly decorative and elaborately constructed. However, by the late 18th century, trends were beginning to be simplified, influenced by English fashion and in particular English country and sporting fashion. This new English style was altogether plainer, requiring less hip padding and often incorporating just a small bum roll.

A lady sits in a chair and models a 1800s-style gown as she looks out of the window of a Georgian drawing room.
Emma Harvey, volunteer at the Georgian House, models a 1800s-style gown – another of her own creations.

At the beginning of the 19th century, fashion took a drastic turn towards simplicity. Gone were all forms of artifice as women began to celebrate their natural silhouette. Influential French philosopher Rousseau believed life was becoming too complicated and he advocated a return to nature and simplicity. This philosophy, coupled with a new appreciation for classical history, had a massive impact on late 18th-century attitudes towards fashion. 

Excavations carried out at Pompeii and Herculaneum during this period saw the discovery of ancient Greek and Roman white marble statues. The diaphanous and robe-like style of ancient fashion appealed to the late Georgians. Long corsets were abandoned as waistlines moved from their natural position to just under the bust. During the French Revolution, this style of dress was even worn as a political statement to symbolise allegiance to the revolution and support for democracy, which was founded in ancient Greece. The influence of Neoclassicism grew stronger in the 1800s, and gowns were further simplified by the use of plain or embroidered white muslin. However, the gradual return of colourful gowns, prompted by the policies of Napoleon Bonaparte, was seen only a decade later. This period saw the reintroduction of stiffer fabrics and new shorter hemlines, giving fullness to the skirts and creating a more traditional and feminine bell-shape silhouette.

The late Georgian period was an interesting and unusual period with regards to fashion, representing a break from the confining garments and corsets of the early Georgian period before their reintroduction in the Victorian era. 

If you’d like to learn more about the changes in fashion between 1760 and 1810, keep an eye on our Events page for details of our Costume Talks, hosted by our fashion enthusiast, Emma Harvey.