Not Your Average 18th Century

What’s Old is New is Strange Again!

Darejan, wife of Erekle II of Georgia, 18th Century

As years pass, memories get a little fuzzy, facts get a bit muddled up, and stereotypes take over. We gloss over eras and simplify them for good reason; after all, if we kept track of every tiny piece, we’d never have enough time to learn it all (imagine having to take every single course a university has ever offered in order to earn a degree). Plus, it make finding something a little different than “normal” exceptionally exciting! Fashion trends get skipped, everyday items become obsolete, and whole countries get ignored. Here are a few 18th century items with uses, tweaks, tricks, or origins that make them unique:

Jet Shoe Buckles, circa 1735

There are plenty of shoe buckles out there from the 18th century. They were made of many different materials–brass, pewter, silver, gold– and were often decorated. Many have sparkly cut paste stones made of clear glass backed with silver or colored foil. What makes this pair unusual is that it’s made from jet, an organic gemstone. Jet is usually associated with the 19th century because of its use in Victorian mourning jewelry. Jet actually became exceptionally popular earlier, around 1730, and even before that during the Roman period. The warm black stone was used to fashion all sorts of jewelry like bracelets, rings, and pins. It fell out of fashion as softer color pallets began to come into favor during the mid 1760s, but jet’s popularity would soar again in the 1830s.

Pink Silk Gown, circa 1770-80

I love this dress not just for the color, but for its unique front. I love the crossing straps across the bodice! Auction pictures aren’t always accurate in their posing of garments, but the long front straps on this one baffle even if they weren’t made to make that fantastic criss-cross. This dress is from the Tasha Tudor collection which contained hundreds of beautiful gowns that spanned 3 centuries and all classes. The collection has lots of pieces that show the ingenuity and creativity of seamstresses throughout history.

Stays or Bodice, circa 1700-1720 (according to Augusta Auctions)

Okay. So there’s this. I will profess that I cannot tell if it is a set of stays or a bodice. It’s boned like stays, but the shape is beyond unusual. In fact, I might dare to suggest that these might date earlier than 1725, perhaps even as early as 1680 when mantuas with long, conical bodices were in fashion. This peculiar set of stays is actually quite similar to 17th century stays in the V&A Museum. Gowns from the 17th and 18th centuries both shared similar features, however, including stomachers, which became a major part of fashion in the 18th century. These stays are missing a stomacher, but that doesn’t distract too much. The most fascinating feature of this piece is the back. Those two wide seams are actually jointed with laces threaded through a series of tiny metal rings.

Lacing Detail showing the Metal Rings

So these may actually be from the mid-to-late 17th century rather than the 18th century, but I’m leaving there here because they are so fascinating!

Man’s Indian Court Costume, 18th century

It’s hard to look past the European side of fashion. Sometimes it takes European adoption of an exotic trend to open up the fashion vacuum a bit. For example, by the 18th century, India had been colonized by Europeans for its rich resources like gemstones and spices. Thanks to colonists and merchants, Indian textiles became highly fashionable throughout Europe. Beautifully embroidered and woven robes, like this Indian man’s court costume, became influential during the 18th century. This cotton chintz gown was imported from India to Holland in the first quarter of the century:

Painted and Dyed Cotton Chintz Gown, early 18th century

The elegant, sweeping line and open robe front are very similar to Indian court robes. Dresses made from Indian chintz called “wentke” became popular throughout northern Europe. This gown’s somber color pallet suggests it may be a mourning gown. Most textiles from India were bright and colorful, famed for their prints and patterns. The most famous of these patterns is no doubt the paisley, which would rise to dizzying fame during the Victorian era. Indian textiles melded with other trends to produce unique dresses, like this very late 18th century Empire gown that boasts a trendy high waist inspired by Classical Greek and Roman style mixed with a bold Indian floral print:

Cotton Dress, circa 1795-1799

This late 18th century woman’s dress is quite similar to the early 18th century man’s robe. One has to wonder if later generations looked back at grandma’s and grandpa’s old clothes and adopted, re-imagined, and revamped the styles in unorthodox ways, much like we are doing today with early-to-mid 20th century clothes.

Ivory Flea Catcher, 18th-19th century century

There’s a reason why Marie Antoinette’s purported favorite color of purple was called “puce.” Puce is the French word for flea. The color is said to be the color of the bloodstains remaining on linen or bedsheets, even after being laundered, from a flea’s droppings or after a flea has been killed (Wikipedia). And there were fleas everywhere in 18th century Europe. Before fumigators and our modern era of obsessive cleanliness, pest and parasites were a common daily occurrence. Fleas were especially widespread. Have you ever had to deal with a flea-covered cat or dog? Trying to get all those nasty little critters off your pet is a nightmare. Now we have monthly drops, repellant collars, carpet sprays, bug bombs, and other chemical solutions to the problem, but in the 18th century, there wasn’t too much you could do. Enter the flea catcher!

Flea Catcher, 19th century

Flea catchers worked like decorative fly paper. The trap would be filled with a sticky substance like honey and the fleas would crawl in and get stuck. For the trap to be extra effective, a few drops of blood could be added to a little slip of paper or fabric strip that was subsequently placed inside the trap. What flea can resist such temptation? Quite a few, I imagine, but it probably felt exceptionally satisfying to open the little catcher up to see a few fleas that weren’t biting you! Flea traps were popular gifts and were worn on a cord, held in a pocket, or placed in clothing chests.

Silk Dress Fabric, circa 1760

Leopard print is historically accurate. My life is now complete.

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!

Update on the Sew Fortnightly: The wool fabric I ordered is now out of stock, so I’m scrambling to re-calibrate my plans and I only have 9 days left! Cross your fingers, light candles, say prayers, or do whatever it is you do to make heaven smile a little bit more favorably on my endeavors next go-round!