During the 18th century women's clothing was dainty, frilly and extravagant. Lace, hoop skirts and fine fabrics were prized by upper-class women. Clothes that made women look as if they had a dainty feminine figure were popular. Many styles were inspired by European court dress, mainly from France. But in lower classes, the average woman owned between two to four outfits and poor women dressed plainly.
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General Women's Fashion
While fashions vary by country, many women wore full skirts with a pointed bodice, frilly sleeves and low necklines. Small waists and little shoes were vogue. Women preferred dresses made of brocades, silks, satins and taffetas. Both oval and round hoops came in style. They eliminated the need for an underskirt.
Women's Clothes in France
For most of the 1700s, French clothing was light and frilly. This was enhanced by the new light whalebone hoops that evolved near the beginning of the decade. Lightweight, soft materials such as cambric were newly imported from India. The long pointed bodice had a low square neckline. Skirts were full, but the waist was tightly nipped. The elbow length sleeves often had large draped lace edges. With this, women wore small shoes with high heels and jewelled or enamelled buckles.
When English women dressed, they were influenced by court fashions in their own country and in France. Generally, they preferred a stiff bodice with a visible petticoat and a lacy little apron. The corset was usually laced tightly, and the bodice was cut to fit very closely. The skirt was open in the front to reveal an underskirt of a different colour. Because of this, the bodices and petticoats were heavily embellished with embroidery.
Colonial American Styles
Dress in 18th century American dress varied widely due to location, religion and class. Full skirts in simple Dutch styles were worn by New York women. Quakers wore simple dark coloured clothes but added the full skirts and pointed bodice as dictated by fashion. Boston was a centre of American fashion. Wealthy women dressed as extravagantly as rich European ladies. Most American women were influenced by both French and English fashion but adapted them for practicality. They often used homemade materials such as "linsey-woolsey," a coarse cloth.
Other Fashion Trends
Several fads were popular during the 18th century. Made famous by a French painter, the Watteau sacque had a length of pleated cloth that extended from the back of the shoulders to the floor. Another style, the contouche, was like a loose robe that was worn over the dress and tied shut with ribbons. This later evolved into the skirts that opened to reveal the underskirt. The Spanish mantilla also became a fad during this century. Frills fell away at the end of the century with the political troubles of the French Revolution. Long soft straight dresses came into vogue at the very end of the 1700s.
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