Posts Tagged ‘Court dress’

Copyright @Jane Austen’s World

Looking at the images in this post, one can only imagine how difficult it was for a woman in full evening dress (or court dress) to move around. Between taking care of her shawl, reticule, dance card, and fan, she had to walk upright and sedately so that her head feathers did not topple over after an abrupt movement or caught fire under chandeliers ablaze with candles.

1794-95 Court Dress

Examining the above image, one can readily see that these costumes were designed for high-ceilinged rooms that were opened by high double doors.

A lady's wig catches fire. Thomas Rowlandson. Image @Yale University

In this dramatic image, Thomas Rowlandson catches a moment of real danger both for the lady whose wig (and feathers) caught fire, and for the guests, who might have been trapped in a house fire, for water to put out flames was not easily obtained.  In the late 18th century The London Times reported on several more incidents in which ladies found ways to accommodate their head feathers, or in which the feathers (and mother nature) got the best of them.

Lady Godina's Rout

At all elegant Assemblies there is a room set apart for the lady visitants to put their feathers on, as it is impossible to wear them in any carriage with a top to it. The lustres are also removed upon this account, and the doors are carried up to the height of the ceiling. A well-dressed Lady who nods with dexterity can give a friend a little tap upon the shoulder across the room without incommoding the dancers. The Ladies feathers are now generally carried in the sword case at the back of the carriage.  – Times,  Dec 29, 1795.

Tippies of Newton, 1796 caricature by Richard Newton. Image @Wikimedia Commons

A young lady only ten feet high was overset in one of the late gales of wind in Portland Place, and the upper mast of her feather blown upon Hampstead Hill.  “The maroon fever has been succeeded by a very odd kind of light-headedness, which the physicians call ptereo mania, or feather folly.” The Ladies now wear feathers exactly of their own length, so that a woman of fashion is twice as long upon her feet as in her bed. –  Times, Dec 30, 1795.

1796, High Change in Bond Street, Gillray

We saw a feather in Drury Lane Theatre yesterday evening that cost ten guinea. We should have thought the whole goose not worth the money.  – Times, Jan 6, 1796.

A Modern Belle Going to the Rooms at Bath, James Gillray, 1796. Image @Wikimedia Commons

Here is a contrivance by which A Modern Belle going to the Rooms or Balls can go fully dressed with her feathers fixed. There is to be seen in Gt Queen Street a Coach upon a new construction. The Ladies set in this well and see between the spokes of the wheels. With this contrivance the fair proprietor is able to go quite dressed to her visits, her feathers being only a yard and a half high. –  Times, Jan 22, 1796.

Vis a vis Ladies Coop, 1776

The Times described predicaments regarding head feathers that were not new. Note how twenty years before, both high wigs AND feathers were accommodated. And, indeed, feathers, whether made from ostrich, emu, goose, or peacock, remained popular as a head dress for years to come.

The headdress, while always including a veil, also required feathers as part of it, although, the number and size of the feathers varied with the Monarchy. At the time of Queen Charlotte, young ladies wore one single towering ostrich feather, but through the years, the number of feathers required increased. By the Edwardian Era, the widespread use of feathers to decorate hats and bonnets began the passage of laws that restricted using certain types of bird’s feathers.*

Queen Victoria hated small feathers, so orders were issued that Her Majesty wanted to see the feathers as the young lady approached. Later in Queen Victoria’s reign, as well as in the court of Edward VII, the mandated headdress was three feathers arranged in a Prince of Wales plume–that is, the center feather was higher than the two on each side of it–and it was worn slightly on the left side of the head. Tiaras were worn by married women, and it was extremely difficult to keep the feathers in place, especially during the curtsy.

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Princess Charlotte's Court Dress, 1814-16, also known as the Bellflower Dress

Princess Charlotte's Court Dress, 1814-16, also known as the Bellflower Dress

embroidered-bellsWhen I saw Princess Charlotte’s bellflower court dress (1814-16) at the Museum of London I remember being transfixed and standing in front of the glass case for a half hour. I could not get over the exquisite details and embroidery of this gossamer thin gown, and wondered at the hours it took to create it, the number of seamstresses that must have toiled over it, and its cost. It was so beautiful that I mistook it for a wedding dress. The train, which showed slight damage where some of the embroidered bells were missing, is similar to the one on Princess Charlotte’s silver net wedding gown. Tradition has it that this court dress was made for Princess Charlotte on her engagement in 1814. The bellflowers were fashioned from silk covered wire and net decorated with silver thread darning and the tiny beads were made from blown glass. (The London Look, p 22)

The Museum of London website states that this sumptuous dress, which is “covered with hundreds of tiny three-dimensional bellflowers, exemplifies the technical excellence of London’s dress-makers in this period. The dress needed 600 hours of conservation work and is so fragile it may never be shown in public again.”

Detail of bells and net embroidery

Detail of bells and net embroidery

Short in stature and slightly dumpy, and not known for her fashion sense, Princess Charlotte could easily afford elaborate costumes. Her provisioners included the William King of Pall Mall, a silk mercer, and Mrs. Triaud and Mrs. Bean, London dressmakers who worked on her trousseau. (The London Look, p 22.)

According to a contemporary description, the Princess entered her mother’s drawing room in May 1815 in an exquisitely beautiful dress that (from the description) looked similar to the bellflower dress:

Gold lama and white draperies over a petticoat of rich white satin and gold twisted trimming; train of rich figured white satin, body elegantly trimmed with rich gold and blond lace; head-dress, plume of ostrich feathers, with a beautiful diadem of brilliants; necklace and ear-rings of diamonds. – The London Look, p 24

  • The London Look, Fashion from Street to Catwalk. By Christopher Breward, Edwina Ehrman, Caroline Evans, 2004

princess-charlotte-court-dress3Front of gown, Museum of London

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