Style and Society: Dressing the Georgians Back

Curated by Anna Reynolds (curator of paintings at the Royal Collection Trust), Style and Society: Dressing the Georgians, skilfully recounts the rich and diverse histories of the Georgians, and – drawing on portraits by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, Francis Cotes, and Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun – Style and Society traces the transformative nature of fashion through the lens of royals, aristocrats, and the working class. From the accession of George I in 1714 to the death of George IV in 1830, the exhibition weaves the story of an 18th-century industrialised Britain; characterised as the “Age of Revolution”, the 18th century was, after all, a time of great technological, social, and political advancement. Style and Society exemplifies, magnificently, how 18th-century fashionable society took inspiration from the working-class, practical styles. In amongst the bejewelled bodices, and embellished gowns, visitors can learn about the technicalities associated with the construction of Georgian garments; and, in the same vein, the changes to social concepts that both shaped, and were shaped by fashionable society – such as the Georgian concept of childhood and beauty.

British School, St James’s Park and the Mall, c.1745. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023.

In the opening room of the exhibition, the first painting that visitors encounter is the British School’s St James’s Park and the Mall (1745). It is noteworthy that this particular piece has been exhibited alongside John Graham’s The Marriage of George, Prince of Wales, and Princess Caroline of Brunswick (1795); the physical placement of both images, together, foregrounds and aids the establishment of fashion as a means of revolution. The Marriage of George, Prince of Wales, and Princess Caroline of Brunswick (1795), provides a snapshot into the formality associated with the “fossilised” styles of court; George, the Prince of Wales wears a blue velvet coat, matching breeches and a waistcoat, embroidered with silver threads and jewels. Princess Caroline’s wedding dress is predominantly silver – as was tradition for European, royal brides. Queen Charlotte (seated on the right) illustrates how court dress represented stagnant traditions of the past, as opposed to up-and-coming fashion trends; the wide structure of her skirt has been achieved through the use of a hoop petticoat – such wide skirts were largely perceived as outdated in Georgian society by 1795.

The painting of St James’s Park and the Mall (1745), draws attention to the diversity of London society, and illustrates how clothes worn in Georgian society, reflected the personal life stories, histories and status of the wearer. For example, we see an assemblage of elegantly dressed men, and women in the centre of the painting, in amongst the soldiers, and clerics. Less centralised in the image, we see a woman fixing her stocking, a working-class woman selling cups of fresh milk, an elegantly dressed black woman, a breastfeeding mother, farm animals, and dogs. Clothes worn on the streets of the Mall reflected a greater sense of freedom, than the conventional styles worn to court. The exhibition of both paintings together, in the same room, succeeds in challenging visitor’s perceptions about Georgian fashion, and reiterates that the royal and aristocratic styles associated with court attire, did not always reflect the styles of general society.

Moving onto the second room of the exhibition, visitors are initially captivated by the ornate portraits of Fredericka, Duchess of Saxe-Weissenfels, Antoine Pesne (c. 1740-6) and Portrait of a Woman, William Denune (1742); while the portrait of the Duchess exudes prestige and grandiosity, the Portrait of a Woman provides a contrasting insight into the less decadent, and less restrictive styles of Georgian dress. The unnamed woman in the portrait appears in a shift / chemise style dress, on top of which, she wears a gown, made of a heavyweight plain white silk. The chemise / shift dress is visibly on display at the neckline and also at the opening of the silk sleeves. The sitter holds a miniature of a man who may have been her husband, and there is a subtle reference to Cupid at the base of the table behind her. It is perhaps in the image of the unnamed woman that we begin to recognise the power of fashion and portraiture in the construction of historical and personal narratives; the fact that we know very little about the woman depicted, enables us to construct our own stories and navigate our own interpretations of the portrait of the unnamed woman. It is also interesting that the portrait of the unnamed woman has been physically juxtaposed with the portrait of the Duchess of Saxe-Weissenfelds; there is a certain sense of egalitarianism to be observed in the exhibition of a Duchess, with a title, prestige and honour, and an aristocratic woman baring no name; both now share the same space in the exhibition. The exhibition of these portraits in close proximity to one another reiterates the definitive nature of fashion and style – for those in the aristocratic classes, dress enabled them to construct their own appearance and public image, as exemplified in the image of the unnamed woman; though we do not know her name, or her history, we know from her dress and the background of the painting, that she must have been fairly wealthy. As with the first room of the exhibition there is a focus once again of displaying the royal family members, and the aristocracy, but also reminding visitors to the exhibition that Georgian society existed beyond the realms of the aristocracy. The following portrait: A Family Group, Hieronymus van der Mij (1728), reflects a snapshot in the life of a Georgian working-class family. While less well-off social groups would have possessed very similar styles to the wealthier classes, their clothes would have differed slightly in construction; often clothes worn by the lower classes would have been made from cheaper fabrics, probably coloured using cheaper dyes such as browns and greys.

In the third room of the exhibition, Style and Society encourages us to question the transformation of concepts such as childhood and beauty. In the lively portrait The Three Youngest Daughters of George III and Queen Charlotte (1785, John Singleton Copley) there is a marked change in the representation of childhood; the three royal children are playing together with a tambourine and dogs in an outdoor setting. This particular representation aligns with Rousseauian ideals of childhood which suggested that a child’s education should be rooted in nature: “La première leçon vient de la nature”[1] (the first lesson is derived from nature). Another abstract concept addressed in the third room, is the one of beauty. Portraits of changing hairstyle trends throughout the eighteenth century emphasise the importance of hair and wigs in achieving ideals of 18th-century beauty, and satirical prints such as Venus Attired by the Graces (1780 – 1800, John Boyne) illustrate the misogynistic attitudes towards feminine beauty in the Georgian period.

Portraiture aside, visitors can trace the history of stitched stays as exemplified by those (c. 1780s) on loan from the Fashion Museum Bath, and marvel at the fascinating history of the chemise à la reine. Style and Society offers a short, concise history of the chemise dress in England, and briefly touches on the scandalous nature of the chemise dresses worn by Queen Marie-Antoinette of France. The description is combined with a photograph of the Robe en Chemise (1783 – 90), Manchester Art Gallery. Also featuring the oldest surviving Georgian wedding dress (wedding dress worn by Princess Charlotte, 1816), and a linen shirt worn by George III (1810), Style and Society successfully combines fashion and portraiture to retell personal histories and narratives of the Georgian period, and to trace the development and transformation of key concepts, such as beauty and childhood.

[1] See Rousseau (1966): Émile ou de l’éducation, livre cinquième. Paris : Garnier-Flammarion, p. 491.