Friday, March 31, 2017

Elbows, Ankles and Décolletage: Myths of 18th Century Women’s Fashion Part 1

by Danielle Funiciello

DISCLAIMER: This article features discussion about nudity and exposure in drawings and paintings. No nudity is shown within the article (except through a link which is marked), but language regarding the female form is used, and may not be comfortable for young or sensitive readers.

Until the social movements of the 1960s hit the museum world in the 1970s, there were a lot of problems with interpretation of female historical figures. One might argue that there are still a lot of problems with interpretation of female historic figures, though things are generally moving in the right direction. The age old excuse has been that there are not enough sources about women, and that this problem is upon us since women were not considered historically relevant in their own time, and so sources were not saved. Documentation about women is sometimes hard to come by, especially when it comes to ladies of lower classes, and the enslaved. There are two things, however, in women’s history of which there is no shortage:  images and myths. There are so many myths about women in the 18th Century, that today we will only be focusing on a few that relate to misconceptions about historical modesty, but we will be using lots of images to address these myths!

The Myth: 18th Century people were more sexually repressed and modestly dressed that modern people. It was scandalous for women to show their ankles or elbows in public because those were sexualized body parts – that is why women wore long skirts and ¾ or full sleeve gowns. Low-cut dresses were also risqué.

Given our modern concept of body and sexuality, we have very set notions about what is and is not appropriate and, because most of us are taught that our history begins with religious settlers like the Pilgrims, we tend to imagine that all Colonists were more prudish than we are. In actuality, outside of actual Puritans (and other conservative religious groups), the Colonial era was not very puritanical. As an example, up to one third of Colonial women went to the alter pregnant, depending on the colony.

Furthermore, sexualization of individual body parts is as different from century to century as it is from culture to culture. Much of what we now think of as the strict repression of “the past” (the first sign that a historical myth is misplaced is when the time period in question is vague) became set during the Victorian era (1837-1901).

The ankles myth, for instance, is one that comes out of 19th-Century lore and was applied back to the 18th-Century. Whether the ankles myth is true within the Victorian period is outside of the scope of this article, but it was not true of women in the 18th-Century. It would have been inappropriate for anyone of the genteel class, man or woman, to show any part of their leg without a stocking. However, lifting one’s skirts to expose the stocking-footed ankle was quite common. After all, it would have been dangerous to ascend stairs or enter a carriage without arranging one’s skirts to do so. Many women’s fashions of the late 18th-Century incorporated slightly shorter skirts in a style that was meant to imitate the pastoral, working-class shepherdess - and which allowed the ankle to be seen.
Two 18th-Century French fashion plates and a dress from the Kyoto Costume Institute (center) showing the popular shepherdess style gown which was meant to mimic (albeit unrealistically) working-class women's styles through shorter hemlines and bustled up skirts. Fashion plates were published and widely distributed to show popular styles to people living outside of high-fashion cities. Far from being a pornographic display of the leg, the image on the left was meant to show the styles of shoe, stocking, and garter appropriate to wear with such a dress.

A "Robe a la Turque" on a self-portrait of
Rose-Adelaide Ducreux, which clearly
shows her elbow exposed as she bends to
play the harp.
Similarly, the myth that women’s elbows had to be covered to avoid offending delicate sensibilities stems from observation of fashion tastes rather than any 18th-Century letters, drawings, or documents that discuss the attractiveness of the elbow or the scandal of the elbow being exposed. Three quarter sleeve dresses were quite popular in the mid to late 18th-Century, and while many such sleeves would have covered the elbow, many did so just barely, such that any bending of the arm would have exposed the elbow. It is true that there were not many short sleeved styles and that even if one wore a short sleeved dress, it was typically worn over a shift with full or ¾ sleeves.

Another "Robe a la Turque". This style, while
not defined by its' short sleeves, allowed the
wearer to layer fabrics in a way that displayed
wealth, especially when rich fabrics like silk
and lace were used.
There are two likely explanations for these styles. The first is that the linen shift undergarment was worn as an absorbent layer to remove oils and dirt from skin and protect the expensive outer garments from damage inflicted by the human body. It would not have been functional in this job if the shift sleeve was shorter than the gown sleeve allowing the skin to touch the outer garment. The second explanation for the style is that longer sleeves meant more fabric and more fabric meant more money. Short sleeves could be seen as skimping on fabric costs, but longer sleeves showed off one’s wealth. Layering sleeve lengths so that one could see the edge of the shift showed off even more fabric and thereby more wealth. Full length sleeves made of fine materials showed off one’s wealth even more, but restricted arm movement making it difficult to do any labor or, for that matter, leisure activities. The style became popular because many women chose the comfort of arm mobility but, among the wealthy, could use lace cuffs, ruffles, ribbons, and other costly adornments to suggest that the shortened sleeve was not an issue of money.

Catharine Van Rensselaer Schuyler
by Thomas McIllworth
Today’s article was prompted by a very frequent visitor reaction to portraits of Catharine Van Rensselaer Schuyler and her daughter Cornelia Schuyler Malcolm. It usually sounds something like this: “I can’t believe she’s wearing such a low cut dress! In that time period?!”

This is where our perceptions of what is, and what is not a sexualized body part come into play. More importantly, how body parts were considered sexual or vulgar has changed significantly. The upper chest, neck, and shoulders - the area referred to as décolletage, was considered a beautiful, but not overtly sexual area of the female body. Where we now consider too much exposed cleavage to be inappropriate, men and women of the 18th-Century did not seem to think much of the swell of the chest. France in the 1790s took this to the extreme with fashions that allowed the breast to swell over the top of the gown. These gowns were shown in numerous fashion plates which were not intended as parody or pornography. [DISCLAIMER: Some of these fashions plates, which do contain illustrations of nudity, can be seen on this blog. The link is provided only as a location to see these images in a centralized place. Schuyler Mansion is not affiliated with this blog and the interpretations made by EKDuncan’s blog are not representative of the arguments made in this article.]
Cornelia Schuyler Morton
by Thomas Sully - on display
at Schuyler Mansion.

The French captions under each drawing describe only the style and features of the dresses. They make no mention of the exposure caused by these gowns, implying that the low-cut nature was not necessarily expected to shock or offend the viewer. This was another way of displaying one’s wealth. After all, a dress which can so easily slip off the wearer is not designed for rigorous activity. It could only be worn by someone who had no need to perform labor. This would also explain why this extreme fashion never takes foot in the Americas – even wealthy women like Catharine Schuyler, who owned slaves to do the bulk of the labor, still had more hands-on responsibilities than women in the high-courts of France.

"The Inconvenience of Dress", published by
S.W. Fores, which mocks the preferred female
shape created by fashion trends.
Strangely, more lewdness was implied in parody images of women wearing too much clothing than none at all. Things like paniers, bum rolls, and layered petticoats which, to the modern eye, cover and obscure the human figure, were considered suggestive to the point of vulgarity by some in the 18th-Century. Back in the arena of décolletage; fichu - square or triangular scarves which were tucked around the neck and into the front of the gown) - are often considered modesty pieces by modern people. However, if worn in excessive layers – as became popular in the 1780s and 90s - they too were seen as being suggestive and showy; the 18th-Century equivalent of bra-stuffing, perhaps? The fichu was more about comfort of movement and display of fabric as, you guessed it, a symbol of one’s wealth.

Catharine Van Cortlandt Van
Rensselaer. Compare to Catharine
Schuyler's portrait, above.
An additional point of interest regarding Catharine’s portrait, is that it is very likely that the body shown is not Catharine’s Schuyler’s at all. The dress was certainly not hers, as it appears on a number of other women at the time, painted by a number of different artists. This includes Catharine’s younger cousin, Catharine Van Cortlandt Van Rensselaer who is shown so identically to Catharine Schuyler, that the artist, did not even change the folds in her sleeve. In all likelihood, sketches for the body of the portrait were made from a model wearing a false gown which the artist kept in his studio – this would allow him to paint accurately draped fabric from life. The features of the dress were then painted in in mimic of another portrait, probably one of someone that Catharine wanted to emulate. This process meant that Catharine only had to pose briefly, so that the artist could make a sketch of her face from life, but the rest of the painting could be done from the
artist’s studio, saving time and money.

The fact that the body shown was not Catharine’s was not a secret. People looking at the portrait within the time period would have understood the painting process. Thereby, even if Catharine would not have been comfortable showing this much skin during her daily life, she hardly had reason to be embarrassed by someone else’s body with her head slapped on top.

We have a lot more images and myths regarding women in the 18th-Century, so check back to the blog often if you liked this article. Additionally, since 2017 is not only the 100th Anniversary of Schuyler Mansion’s opening, but also of women’s suffrage, we are pleased to announce that a program on the “Women of Schuyler Mansion” will be available both as an outreach program, and as a focus tour of the museum during the 2017 season. Further details will be available on Facebook by May 17th, the first day of our open season.


  1. I just found this post through a link from the Two Nerdy History Girls blog, and I'm particularly interested by Catharine Van Rensselaer Schuyler's portrait, because there are a couple of things that stand out to me.

    One, I wonder when in the century it was painted. I've seen a number of portraits from the 1730s/40s, and while the necklines are very low, the cleavage is not emphasized. If anything, it's played down to be quite discreet. The emphasis in this portrait seems to me to be more evocative of the work of Peter Lely, from the previous century.

    Two, I suspect that what makes Catherine's portrait so noticeable--and probably provokes many of the comments about low necklines--is that the model, who, as you say, may not have been Catherine, was a noticeably large-breasted woman, and appears to have been tightly corseted as well. This is somewhat incongruous with Catherine's face.

    So ... is this perhaps a bad case of 18th century Photoshop?

    1. The painting of Catharine Schuyler was done at some point in the early 1760s. Considering the hair style and the knotting at the front of the bodice, it was almost definitely a direct copy of Frances Cotes painting of the Duchess of Hamilton, or the 1752 mezzotint thereof - only the sleeves are different. As you can see from the link (above, and reposted here), there were many paintings spun off of this one, and the bust is emphasized in a number of them:

      Catharine's bust is, perhaps, more-so, but she WAS described as a "big, Dutch woman" by at least one visitor (though, to be fair to Catharine, this visitor came after she had had all 15 of her children, rather than after only 4-6 children, as at the time of this painting).

      The shape of Catharine's body can very much be considered 18th-Century "Photoshopping", but at the time it would not have been considered 'bad'- more like the type of Photoshopping that is done to models on the front of magazines to turn the figure into the ideal rather than the reality. These proportions look very strange to our modern eyes, but within the time period, they were neither unheard of, nor as awkward as we perceive them to be. While our modern eyes are drawn to Catharine's chest, the artist's intent was probably to use the extra exposed flesh to create the illusion of a long neck. The other thing that looks strange to us is the extreme slope of the shoulders, which, although possibly exaggerated, may have been more accurate than we'd like to believe. As Linda Baumgarten discussed when Colonial Williamsburg made a mannequin of George Washington (see The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon p. 46), both men and women of means wore stays (corsets) starting very young. This literally reshaped the body, like footbinding - pulling the ribs, and everything attached to them down and inward. Because it was a symbol that one was wealthy enough to be raised in stays, sloped shoulders became an ideal body shape. Catharine was both wealthy enough to be raised in stays and important enough that the artist would want to exaggerate these features to make Catharine look her best. Much like celebrities on the front of magazines, you did not want to be the person who gave Catharine Schuyler a bad "cover shot".

  2. I'll also add, look at the portrait and see if you agree--I think the head looks disproportionately small compared to the body, which contributes even more to the unbalanced look of the figure.