Different times of day called for different fashions. The complex, multi-layered nature of eighteenth-century clothing meant that dressing in full splendour all of the time was an arduous, impractical task. Full Dress, the absolute expression of elegance, style and wealth, gave way at times to Undress, a fashion choice that allowed a greater freedom of movement.
For fashionable Georgian women the home was by no means simply a private sphere. In fact, it was often a setting for sociability as they received guests during the day and in turn visited the homes of other women. Lady Mary Coke wrote of a surprise afternoon visit in 1771. As she had expected to dine alone, she ‘was at that time not half dressed, so was obliged to make them wait till I cou’d put myself in a situation to appear’.
Clothing was at its most casual in the morning when it was acceptable to appear in undress within the intimacy of the home. It was in fact highly fashionable to dress somewhat déshabillé, affecting an impression of careless elegance. In order to emphasise the informal character of undress women wore simpler accessories, and usually went without hoops under their gowns. For a man this might involve wearing a loose morning coat when he rose for breakfast and to deal with the morning’s correspondence. Whilst at her morning toilette, a lady would likewise wear less structured, looser-fitting garments, such as a banyan, a kimono-like robe, or a pet-en-l’air, a loose-backed jacket before being bound tightly for the day. A lady could appear, perhaps even feel, comfortable and receive close personal visitors, but not social superiors, in this state.
In place of stays, women often wore a lightly boned garment called jumps around the house. Typically worn under looser open gowns or jackets, they often featured decorative front panels. They were also worn beneath riding jackets for horse riding as they allowed more movement than traditional stays. Women also wore fichus, or neckerchiefs, tucked into the neckline of their jacket or dress. Lace caps were employed to cover a woman’s natural hair (or lack thereof) within the home where it could be freed of the many additions and embellishments required in formal society.
In 1750, Madame du Boccage described ‘the white apron, and the pretty straw hat[s]’ of the English ladies. These white aprons presented a relaxed domesticity and elite women were often painted wearing them whilst drinking tea, sewing or reading. However, these accessories were limited in practicality as they were usually made of fine muslin or gauze. They were therefore purely decorative, and conferred a woman’s elite status within the home as she pursued daytime leisure activities.
In the eighteenth-century, rules were less rigid and distinctions more muted between what was considered underclothing, undress and full dress. The degree of formality was often determined by the materials used. For day wear, printed cottons, chintzes and muslins might be worn, while for evening wear the formality and opulence would be increased with the use of rich silks, velvets and woollens.
Attending court naturally required the most formal of full dress. Not only was it important to have the most costly fashions on show but there were strict systems of etiquette on what should be worn, running contrary to contemporary modish impulses. Queen Charlotte, consort to George III, insisted on hoops being worn long after they became considered old-fashioned outside of the court.