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18th century drawings of the Georgian period of fashion

Georgian Fashion

Above: 18th century drawings of the Georgian period of fashion

If John Bull turns round to look after you, you are not well dressed: but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.

George 'Beau' Brummell

For the wealthy Georgian man or woman about town, the highlight of the year was the London Season. Running from late January to early July, the Season was a social whirl of balls, dances, theatre outings and other events designed to see and be seen. It was also the ideal place for the wealthy to find suitable matches for their marriageable children (hence it being nicknamed 'the Marriage Mart').

A daily highlight of the London Season was the time between half past four and seven thirty known as 'the Fashionable Hour'. At this time, the cream of English society (members of the 2,000 or so aristocratic families known as The Ton) paraded around Hyde Park, greeting friends, flirting and generally showing off their exquisite clothes, horses and carriages. Rotten Row, with its royal connections (the name is a corruption of La Route du Roi), was the place to be seen.

Fashion, as a means of displaying wealth, was an essential part of the Season. In the Georgian period, no wig was too high or too heavily powdered. Fine silk brocades, lace, and high heels – even for the men – were the order of the day. Fashionable London ladies took their inspiration from aristocrats like Marie Antoinette of France or Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. A feted beauty and trend-setter, Georgiana's taste for extravagantly high wigs topped with long feathers was widely copied. Ladies had to be extremely careful not to crush their headwear against the ceiling or set light to it on the chandeliers.

However, the French Revolution brought about a sea change in fashion at the end of the 18th century. No-one wanted to be associated with the excessive dress of the aristocracy. Instead, Regency ladies embraced simple, classically-inspired muslin dresses with high waists and flowing skirts. Without the need for whalebone stays to nip in the waist, for a short time, women enjoyed more comfort and freedom, if less warmth.

For men, it was the age of the Dandy. Led by George 'Beau' Brummell, a close friend of the Prince Regent, the Dandy was epitomised by his wit, taste, impeccable manners, unswerving loyalty and, of course, his elegant dress. Although of limited means himself, Brummell's style and charm soon made him the darling of London's fashionable set. He set the trend for elegance and simplicity, defining a well-dressed man as one who drew no attention to himself. Instead, he favoured plain, dark, well-cut coats over sparkling white linens, topped with an intricately-tied neckcloth. Among his many fashionable innovations was the footloop, designed to stop gentlemen's pantaloons from wrinkling.

After Brummell fled to France to escape his gambling debts, the clean elegance of his ideas began to creep towards extravagance. Neck wear, in particular, became more exaggerated. Collars became so high and stiff that they completely covered the ears and gentlemen had to turn their entire bodies rather than just their heads. In 1818, The Neckclothitania was published, satirising the many elaborate, and often bizarre, ways of tying a cravat.

Did you know?

At the age of 18, The Prince Regent spent £10,000 annually on clothes. That's the equivalent of over £500,000 today.