Honorable Gentlemen and Weaker Vessels
by PAUL JOHNSON
In clothes fashions, honors were evenly divided between London and Paris. It was during these years that the great axiom of modern sumptuary law was laid down: for fashions, men looked to Savile Row, women to the Rue de Rivoli. The French Revolution had brought about dramatic changes in women's dress, introducing a simplicity that the French believed they had taken from the English rustic custom.
Women's dress was supposed to be puritanical, but with its skimpy, clinging textiles and low neckline it rapidly developed not only a high exposure of female flesh but underlined the curves of what was still nominally covered. The English notion of "gay Paree" dates from the brief Peace of Amiens, 1802-1803, when English visitors flocked to the French capital and brought back shocked-intrigued tales of how little the Parisian ladies wore. From that moment, French fashions dominated the lives of middle and upper-class Englishwomen, who pored over Parisian magazines smuggled in at some danger, along with the brandy and scent.
Once Waterloo was over, the grand Whig ladies actually bought their clothes in Paris. They also adopted another French innovation, the corset, originally known as a divorce, because it was the first undergarment to separate the breasts, pushing them up to form a fleshy shelf.
What women would not do, for a long time, was wear drawers or knickers, which the new style really demanded, partly because, until now, drawers were worn only be men, prostitutes, and high-kicking opera dancers, especially in Paris. Instead, women wore "invisible petticoats," like strait waistcoats but drawn down over the legs, forcing the wearer to take short steps. But gradually, as the 1820s progressed, the disadvantages of ladies not wearing drawers became apparent — Thomas Rowlandson specialized in depicting one of them — and by 1830 the basic components of modern women's underclothes were in place.
Equally if not more important for most women was the growing cheapness of easily washable cottons. The reformer Francis Place (by trade a tailor), in his manuscript notes on "Manners and Morals," now in the British Museum, welcomed the dramatic improvement in the appearance of working-class women in the 1820s, made possible by "cleanly cotton gowns made pretty high round the neck."
For men, modernity came with the adoption of trousers, perhaps the greatest of all watersheds in the history of men's fashion. Indeed, it might be said that of all the enduring achievements of the French Revolution, the most important was the replacement of culottes, or breeches, by the baggy trousers worn by peasants and working men, the sans-culottes. The adoption by the new French ruling class, in the 1790s, of trousers as a sign of solidarity with the masses was greeted with horror elsewhere. Several countries tried to ban them.
But the term trousers that was generally adopted was, significantly, English, dating back to the late sixteenth century, and once the Savile Row tailors began to produce the garment, they quickly took it up-market, making it tight fitting and attractive to wear. One of the key innovations of George "Beau" Brummell was to introduce a strap at the bottom of each leg, which went under the shoe or boot and stretched the trousers still tighter. These fashionable versions were made of light-colored nankeen, a close-woven cotton, or of fine doeskin leather for riding.
The result was that they showed off the male leg to even greater advantage than breeches and satin stockings, which did justice only to the calf. Older men in authority, whose spindle shanks did not benefit from advertisement, denounced them as obscene and Pope Pius VII condemned them outright in a bitter rearguard action which lasted until his death in 1823.
We now come to an important historical point, a change which in some ways permanently altered the relationship between the sexes. Until the second decade of the 19th century, both sexes had dressed for display, wearing the richest fabrics and the brightest colors their means afforded. As part of their uninhibited masculine display, men sought to draw attention to the best points of their bodies, just as women did, and were admired accordingly. This was the last period in history in which men could closely scrutinize the physical beauty of their own sex without being thought homosexual and women could comment on the male form without raising eyebrows.
By 1830 male makeup had been virtually abandoned. By this date, indeed, the modern sartorial chasm between the sexes, with the men moving towards monochrome society and uniformity, was beginning to open, at any rate in English society. In appearance, at least, men were becoming more obviously masculine; the line that marked them off from women was being more firmly drawn that ever before. Yet, paradoxically, there was one exception to this trend. In the early 19th century gentlemen ceased to wear swords and took to carrying umbrellas instead.
Paul Johnson is a historian living in Great Britain. In 2006, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This excerpt is taken from his book The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830, which you can buy here.
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