The fashion of the 1750ies used to have the connotation of braids and lace for me. And that about covered my knowledge of the matter until a few weeks ago.
I then was invited to an event and quickly had to learn more about mid-18th century fashion: The event was a dance-workshop featuring dances of the 1750ies, and included a get-together of the participants in costumes of the decade. We were to spend an evening in fictitious Vauxhall Gardens, the famous outdoor pleasure gardens of London. We would enjoy dancing, concerts and entertainment by a comedy troupe. We were not requested to wear a ball gown. Any costume of the period would do. This is due to the special nature of Vauxhall Gardens in the mid-18th century.
Vauxhall Gardens in the 1750ies: An Egalitarian Arcadia
Vauxhall Gardens were open to everybody, from noblemen to tradespersons and servants. The idea that the classes met as equals was very liberal for the age, and it was brought to life by the man who owned the pleasure gardens from 1729-1767: Jonathan Tyers the Elder. Mr Tyers strongly believed that all men were created equal. Thus, when he took over the gardens in 1729, he recreated them with the aim of offering recreation, entertainment and sublime ‘polite’ education.
While gentry and aristocracy appreciated the beauty of nature and the art displayed in the gardens, the lower classes would learn polite behaviour from the example of the higher classes; and by hearing concerts, seeing art and the latest trends in architecture they would improve their cultural taste.
The egalitarian concept of Mr Tyers included that no visitor was requested to spend money on elaborate dresses. You could go to the gardens in your regular clothes, but also in finery, if you preferred. The only thing not allowed in Vauxhall Gardens was the servant in livery. The liveries would be a sign of class divide and remind everybody of the reality outside Mr Tyers’ egalitarian Arcadia.
Getting ready for the year 1753
Before I could ‘experience’ the atmosphere of Vauxhall Gardens myself, I needed a costume fitting the era.
In the mid-18th century the wide silhouette with large skirts was predominant in women’s fashion. The effect was created by wearing a panier, which is a hoop that extends to the sides instead of being round. Paniers would be worn inside the house and outside, under everyday dresses and formal ball gowns alike. Even a riding habit, the typical outdoor dress for ladies, could feature a panier when worn for walking.
As a visit to Vauxhall Gardens would have been an outdoor activity, I decided to wear a riding habit.
I would not spend much money on lavish textiles, but assemble the dress from my wardrobe and only add some extras for the historical touch.
Searching wardrobe and cupboards brought to light a cotton shirt, a long, black skirt, a black jacket and some leftover lace. Shopping was limited to the panier and an ornate braid.
Transforming all components to a credible riding habit would involve some sewing. I, however, can’t sew at all. So I called my friend Lucia, wonder woman with sewing machine. Together, we took on the challenge of making me fit for Vauxhall Gardens.
Visit the latest exhibition at the Museum of Creativity to see how Lucia turned modern clothes into a 1750ies riding habit. Click here to directly enter “Braids, Lace and Panier: Making a Riding Habit for the 1750ies”.
My visit to the ‘Egalitarian Arcadia’ proved to be a very happy experience. I met majestic ladies and chivalrous gentlemen, members of the bourgeois, pickpockets, artists, and servants at an evening out. I enjoyed the atmosphere enchanted by the elegant gowns, graceful dances, and the beauty of each moment.