Big Bucks Fashion: New Buckingham Palace Exhibit Showcases 18th Century Style
Glittering gowns of improbable proportions. Gravity defying updos that expand like marshmallows in a microwave. An obsession with implausibly pearly grins that are anything but God-given.
We’re not talking about celebrities strutting their stuff at New York’s Met Gala or the latest film debut. Rather, these are some of the 18th century trends highlighted in Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians, a new exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace in London.
“Fashion is by no means a modern phenomenon,” insists Anna Reynolds, curator of the exhibition, which features more than 200 objects, including beautifully preserved garments, jewelry and accessories displayed alongside portraits of famous subjects ranging from Queen Charlotte to Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI to Lord Byron, and George III to his nemesis, George Washington, who became the first president of the colonies which “the mad king” once ruled.
“Clothing is a universal concept,” Reynolds explains. “It’s something that can bring us together with each other, and with people from the past. We can imagine how it might feel to wear something, how it might feel to touch.”
The undisputed highlight of the exhibition, running through October 8, 2023, is the pairing of a mid-18th century court dress with Thomas Gainsborough’s 1781 painting of a similarly attired Queen Charlotte. This full-length portrait, which usually hangs in Windsor Castle, was supposedly painted in a single night by candlelight, and it showcases the glimmering metallic threads of the Queen’s full, elaborately embroidered skirts. Just steps away, visitors can admire what might have been that gown’s glass-encased sibling, so prodigiously proportioned at the hips that it could more than accommodate Kim Kardashian at her bootylicious best, with plenty more room for pudding.
Indeed, long before the advent of Instagram and its throng of be-thonged influencers, it was all about the bass. This is further evidenced by Reynold’s inclusion of Thomas Rowlandson’s 1785 sketch “The Bum Shop,” in which flat-bottomed ladies peruse an assortment of cheeky underpinnings.
But bottoms weren’t the only area where bigger was better in the Georgian era. Consider the towering coiffures favored by Queen Charlotte and her ilk in paintings throughout the exhibition. Visitors learn that these OTT 18th century beehives were usually constructed using a woman’s own locks, shaped over pads and rollers, and augmented with hairpieces. Then the entire confection was dusted with powder, using a bellows like one exhibited here, alongside a man’s grey poodle-esque toupee, with tight curls reminiscent of the weekly wash-and-set beloved by grandmothers everywhere in the mid-20th century.
While men can also be vain, it’s typically women who take the heat. This is exemplified by John Boyne’s pen and watercolour cartoon lampooning an older lady with a coterie of attendants tending to her from head to toenails, eliciting the sort of uncharitable thrill we might feel today when glimpsing someone’s real face behind TikTok’s “Bold Glamour” filter.
Perhaps the most unexpected revelation of this exhibit is the rise of dodgy dentistry in the 18th century, when it became the rage to extract healthy teeth from willing(ish) donors–often poor and desperate for any meagre fee. Those choppers were then inserted into the gummy gaps of wealthy recipients, hoping they might take root. This practice is illustrated in a pair of cartoons by Thomas Rowlandson, while another solution for the orally unfortunate—dentures—is hinted at in a painting of George Washington.
“Before sitting for this portrait, he was wearing dentures made from seahorse ivory,” Reynolds reveals. That sounds like his replacement teeth would be impossibly tiny, but the reality is quite horrifically the opposite, as “seahorse” is an antiquated term for a hippopotamus. No wonder Washington looks like a grumpy chipmunk hoarding nuts for the winter.
Then as now, when it comes to style, trends can take unpredictable turns. In 1775, for instance, France was entranced by a peculiar shade of pinky-brown, which Louis XVI likened to a puce (French for “flea.”) “That season, the fashion periodicals reported colours that were flea’s head, flea’s belly, and flea’s thigh,” Reynolds reveals. Louis XVI even sports a puce suit—in flea’s left flank, perhaps–for his portrait in this exhibition.
For all their odd flights of fashion fancy, however, the Georgians were admirably well-grounded when it came to upcycling their apparel—even if this had less to do with “going green” than clinging to their silver. Clothing, which was entirely handmade and labor intensive to produce, was considered so valuable that it was itemized in marriage contracts and wills.
“We find examples of recycling everywhere we look,” Reynolds says. “There’s a waistcoat in this exhibition that has a small piece of fabric inserted into the back that would have made it larger. So rather than throw it away, it was adjusted to fit the wearer.”
“Garments were made with an eye to the future,” she continues. “They used pleating rather than cutting wherever possible, so that garments could be unpicked and remade as fashions changed.”
This was true even among royalty. The silver, empire-waist wedding dress which Princess Charlotte, granddaughter of George III, wore in 1816 was altered at least once, and possibly even twice, in its history. A tailoring bill from George IV shows that he often had his clothes adjusted, and Queen Charlotte’s book of psalms—never displayed before—is covered in the only known surviving scrap of silk from one of her dresses.
“This idea of ethical clothing–buy once, buy well—is something the Georgians very much adhere to,” Reynolds says. “Using the tailor and really treasuring the quality of the materials is something that has particular resonance today.”
Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians continues through October 8, 2023, at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Ticket info: www.rct.uk, tel: +44 (0)30 3123 7301. Adults £17, Ages 18-24 £11, Disabled and Ages 5-17 £9, Under 5 Free.