Dressing in early modern style: Women’s historicised fashions (1800-1830)

Dressing in early modern style: Women’s historicised fashions (1800-1830)

by Sarah Hodge, HDR candidate, Centre for Art History and Art Theory, ANU.

The first few decades of the nineteenth century were an exciting time for women’s fashionable and fancy dress. The fashion press expanded, costume or fancy-dress balls became increasingly popular, all of which provided new and expanded arenas for women to express themselves before a gallery of their peers. Even in daily attire, women of the middling to upper classes had a wide range of sources of inspiration when embellishing and decorating their dress.

In April 1810, the self-styled ‘Arbiter Elegantiarum,’ a fashion writer for women’s magazine Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, described this variety.

There can be no doubt that female dress of the present day is in much better taste than that of any former period. A fashionable assembly, from the variety it presents to the eye. Seems like a masquerade collection of costume of the different nations of the world.[1]

Fancy and fashionable dress was often embellished or inspired by historic styles. The ‘Arbiter’ suggested that women could choose inspiration from Chinese, Turkish and Pastoral, and historical themes, memorably from ancient Greece and Rome.

I like to think of historicised fancy and fashionable dress as existing on a spectrum, with fancy-dress costumes at the high end, and fashionable dress filling the remainder of the scale. Historicised dress involved a careful balance of contemporary fashions and historic elements according to the class, wealth and character of the wearer. Another variable was the occasion for which women were dressing.

This balance was clearly expressed in an 1830s essay by the “Hermit of London”, published in La Belle Assemblée. In summarising the fashions of the proceeding decades, the ‘Hermit’ described how:

Pictures were consulted, the Marie Stuart was assumed…Dress then was, and still is, not of the Gothic order, or of any of the Greek orders, but of the composite, displaying a mixture of the graces of the ancients, and the convenience and simplicity of the moderns…[2]

The notion of this “mixture” between past and present dress suggests that nineteenth-century historicised dress can, therefore, be understood as a balancing act between contemporary and historic inspirations.

Historic inspirations for dress styles in the early nineteenth century came from a variety of sources. While the dress styles of the eighteenth century were regarded with significant distaste, eighteenth-century art and early dress history publications had great bearing on the appearance of nineteenth century historic dress styles. In many cases the early nineteenth-century dress styles resembled eighteenth-century art, not fifteenth- and sixteenth-century portraiture.

The early nineteenth century popularity of dress inspired by the ill-fated Scottish monarch, Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587), demonstrate this eighteenth-century centric inspiration.  The styles most associated with her were heart shaped headdresses, pointed bodices, and double puffed sleeves.  While the Mary Stuart bonnet or cap clearly takes its shape from sixteenth century portraiture, the other styles are not obvious in those same portraits or simply do not appear at all.

This is, in part, due to Mary’s popularity in history painting during the second half of the eighteenth century. These eighteenth-century artistic recreations of Mary were dynamic, dramatic, and emotive scenes, in stark contrast with the static and regal portraits of the sixteenth century. Whether it was the wider circulation and audience for these eighteenth-century portrayals, or their more exciting subject matter, Mary’s dress in these new paintings bore a more striking resemblance to the historicised styles of the nineteenth century.

When women in the early nineteenth century adopted historicised dress styles of a so-called “composite” order, they sported sartorial creations which balanced and blended early nineteenth-century fashionable conventions and eighteenth-century artistic inventions. Rather than consuming portraiture of Mary Stuart painted during her lifetime, nineteenth century women interacted more with eighteenth-century selections and recreations of the art from those earlier periods. This meant the visual cultures associated with early modern dress in the nineteenth century were more influenced by eighteenth-century artistic conventions than representations of dress from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries.


[1] Arbiter Elegantarium. “General Observations”. The Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashions and Politics. Vol. 5. April, 1810. 263.

[2] Hermit of London. “The Progress of Fashion”. La Belle Assemblée. March 1830. 102-104.


Images in order:

i) Sleeves in the Mary Stuart style from 1828 bear no resemblance to sixteenth century portraiture. ‘Evening Full Dress’, September 1828, hand-coloured etching, line and stipple engraving, 216 mm x 110 mm, from The Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions, Manufactures, &c. Reference Collection, National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons.

ii) The lady on the left wears a cap in the Mary Stuart style. Evening Dresses as Worn in April, 1808, etching and line engraving, 220 mm x 134 mm, 1808, from La Belle Assemblée or Belle’s Court and Fashionable Magazine, Reference Collection, NPG D47515, National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons.

iii) An example of a Mary Stuart hat from 1827. ‘Evening Dress’, February 1827, hand-coloured etching, line and stipple engraving, 214 mm x 121 mm, 1827, from The Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions, Manufactures, &c. Author’s Private Collection.