The wide hooped dresses worn by women at Queen Charlotte’s court in the 18th century were not only the style of the time, but also a royal requirement.
But in the pleasure gardens and cafes a fashion revolution was taking place. Women and men were discarding the ceremonial grand costumes of the Georgian aristocracy in favor of new fabrics and more comfortable clothing.
“It was a pivotal moment,” said Anna Reynolds, curator of Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians, an exhibition opening this spring at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.
“During this period, we’re starting to see court wear fall behind street style, with people from a much wider social spectrum than ever before setting fashion trends.”
The exhibition includes more than 200 works from the Royal Collection, including paintings, drawings and rare surviving examples of clothing and accessories, providing a snapshot of what Georgians wore at court alongside changing trends on the streets.
A rarely seen full-length portrait of Queen Charlotte by Thomas Gainsborough, which usually hangs at Windsor Castle, shows her in a magnificent hooped gown covered in gold sequins and fringe.
In contrast, St James’s Park and the Mall, attributed to the British School, presents a scene from the most fashionable meeting place in 18th-century London, considering Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his lavishly dressed companions alongside soldiers, sailors and the working class serving women.
“The painting is actually a poster for the exhibition. You have people from all walks of life. There’s the Prince of Wales and his friends, and women selling glasses of cow’s milk, a lower-class woman breastfeeding her child, a fireman — a real mix of society,” Reynolds said.
As well as amusement parks and gardens, people dressed to be seen in new cafes and theatres. “A new fashion is spreading here.”
Aprons, which working women wore as a protective item, became a style item. “They became elegant, maybe made of lace. Even Queen Charlotte wore an apron. You start to see trends moving up, rather than down,” Reynolds said.
“In the street, men start to wear a kind of coat known as a tailcoat, characterized by a small turn-down collar, actually originating from workers’ clothing. Whereas in court you would have to continue to wear your coat with the collar turned up.”
By the end of the 18th century, women’s clothing was much less structured. A new fabric, cotton, began to be widely used. “You have a type of dress known as a shirt, which was initially criticized for looking like women’s underwear. They were made of a much more comfortable fabric that could be washed and were worn by everyone from maids to princesses.”
The exhibition also explores advances in hair care, cosmetics, eyewear and dentistry, the birth of specialist fashion printing and the development of shopping as a leisure activity.
Style and Society: Dressing the Georgians runs at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, from 21 April to 8 October.