More than just a beauty mark and a towering crown of powdered hair, 18th century costumes allow actors to portray the different aspects of their characters while staying within the height of fashion and style. Quite different from today's casual dress of jeans and T-shirts, the costumes worn in the 18th century were distinctive with their use of luxuriant fabrics and complex design. Explore costume designs created for both men and women to learn about fashion history in the 18th century.
Fabric for men and women's costumes in the 18th century ranged from taffeta, heavy silks and wool to linen and twill. In some European countries such as England and France, legislation was passed to make it illegal for cotton to be imported. However, cotton painted with flowery patterns was still smuggled in and worn. The costumes worn by men and women of this time did not commonly use cotton and cheaper fabrics. Rather it was the brocade and ribbed silk and patterned twill and wool that graced the actors and actresses of the 18th century.
Styles of Costumes
Costumes tended to be exaggerated versions of 18th century fashion. As theatre-going was a highly visual art, elaborate designs were created to satisfy the royal court and the rest of the audience. Women's dress was made up with a long, laced bodice, with a wide and flounced petticoat. This bell-shaped dress was constructed out of wire, with luxuriant fabrics such as satin draped over top.
Men's costumes in 18th century Europe were designed with high-waisted, knee-length trousers and a loose white blouse tucked into the trousers. An elaborately decorated, knee-length coat was put on over the shirt and trousers. The coat was adorned with a row of metal buttons. The jacket traditionally had an full A-line cut in the earlier part of the 18th century. Men's jackets begin to have a more streamlined look with less fabric toward the middle of the 18th Century.
Hair and Accessories
Hair, in addition to clothing, was large and spectacular to please the viewers in the theatre. Women's hair was teased and curled in high headdresses. Women's hair was adorned with jewels, ribbons and feathers. The more curls and additions the hair could be formed into, the better the headdress. Marie Antoinette furthered the fashion of elaborate headdresses by decorating her hair with multiple feathers and ribbons.
Men were bareheaded or wore wide, boat-like hats in the 18th century. Hats with pointed feathers, embroidered lace and other additions added to the wild styles of fashion vogue. Additionally men took to wearing ties made of black ribbon, long hanging neckbands or cravats decorated sometimes with lace or embroidery.
Shoes and Legwear
Men and women both commonly wore high-heeled shoes in costume and in daily life. Both sexes wore white silk stockings to cover their legs. Men's stockings rose to the knee where the pant began, and women's stockings were longer, going up to the thigh. Shoes were commonly made out of brocade silk and leather.