It was around this time last week that an image in one of our blogs sparked a debate over the representation of a woman’s body. As an apprentice Milliner & Mantua-maker, the Making History team immediately reached out to me for historical perspective. I hope this explanation helps clarify why the image was indeed period correct in its representation. I’d also like to use this opportunity to initiate a discussion of the female body and how it was viewed in the 18th century versus today.
The image in question is the one below–an American Girl feature of employees reproducing the original covers of the Felicity book series.
Let’s start with a quote from one of Colonial Williamsburg’s favorite tutors, Philip Vickers Fithian, who provides us with a great deal of amusement and information on fashionable Williamsburg culture during the mid-1770s.
“She was pinched up rather too near in a long pair of new fashioned Stays, which, I think, are a Nusance both to us & themselves – For the late importation of Stays which are said to be now most fashionable in London, are produced upwards so high that we can have scarce any view at all of the Ladies Snowy Bosoms; & on the contrary, they are extended downwards so low that whenever Ladies who wear them, either young or old, have occasion to walk, the motion necessary for Walking, must, I think, cause a disagreeable Friction of some part of the body against the lower Edge of the Stays which is hard & unyielding – I imputed the Flush which was visible in her Face to her being swathed up Body & Soul & limbs together.” Phillip Vickers Fithian Private Journal and Letters July 1774, Williamsburg, VA.
The presentation and societal view of the “Ladies Snowy Bosom” in American culture has shifted alongside fashionable clothing throughout our history. Viewed as one of the most beautiful parts of the woman’s body, the presentation and visibility of the bosom and upper body of the female has not been without a great deal of controversy. Especially, if we view 18th-century culture through the lens of 21st-century mores.
It is without a doubt that America is a very “body conservative” and private culture in comparison to our Western counter parts in Continental Europe. After declaring our Independence in the 18th century, we have quickly evolved into a unique and diverse society that is dissimilar from the countries where our ancestors originated.
In Scandinavian countries, like Sweden, for example, it is a common social practice to go to a sauna. Saunas are traditionally done in the nude, with a towel to sit on. My first time in Sweden and at a sauna, I was shocked by how comfortable all of my Swedish (and Finnish & Norwegian) friends were sitting in the nude with each other. I, being the American, was the odd one who was deeply uncomfortable with being privy to such intimate details.
This discomfort with exposing one’s body, is an interesting quirk of American culture, and it is my theory that the reason we are so uncomfortable is that we have a tendency to over-sexualize the body. In other countries, it’s just a body, and may or may not carry sexualized overtones. It simply depends on the situation.
But back to the 18th century. At this point in time, western society seems to be a bit more comfortable with exposing that part of the female anatomy than we would be today (at least for modern average dress during the day, formal/cocktail dress and celebrity fashion aside). It is extraordinarily common for the bosom to be on display in 18th-century female dress. That part of the body was considered to be very beautiful, and celebrating and showing it off was normal.
Young children to adult women could reveal shockingly (for 21st-century views) low necklines in the 18th century depending on what was deemed fashionable. To have a wide and low neckline flatters almost every female body and helps encourage the hourglass-like silhouette that is traditionally deemed the most attractive female shape. By having a low and open neckline it helps give the illusion of a broader and fuller bust, which then, helps create the illusion of a more narrow waist. The final addition of a false rump or hoops, which enlarge the backside and hips of the woman, complete the look.
Now, what is “appropriate” to wear in or around this low neckline depends. Traditionally, a woman would wear either a neck kerchief or “tucker”. A tucker is just a ruffle that goes around the neckline of the woman’s gown or jacket. It could be made out of a simple cotton, silk, or elaborate lace. It helps finish the look of the gown and would traditionally match the elbow ruffles, cap, and even apron that the woman would wear. This is what is called a “suit” in 18th-century millinery terms (not to be confused with a man’s suit which is a different thing).
Especially in formal or very fashionable situations, it was expected that a woman wear a tucker vs. a kerchief, since, at times the kerchief might be deemed too informal for that particular social situation. So the rules of when to wear a kerchief vs. a tucker would change whenever fashion changed—which was very quickly. A kerchief is a large piece of fabric cut in a square or triangular shape that is tucked into the neckline of the outfit or even worn over top, depending on the fashion and woman’s preference. They too could be made out of a variety of materials including linen, cotton, and silk. They could be white or different colors, printed or woven with designs, trimmed in lace, or quite plain. It was up to the individual woman. It is important to note, that they are regarded as a highly functional garment commonly worn by working women to help maintain cleanliness and a fashionable appearance.
In the Millinery shop today, we prefer to wear our kerchiefs. First, they are common in fashionable and work-a-day dress. Second, we find when we do not, it is without fail that we will receive a comment or question that can potentially make a lot of people in the room (coworkers included), very uncomfortable.
This is, again, a reflection of modern American cultural mores, and not a representation of 18th-century views. We always try to use that moment to start an open and dynamic discussion of the female body, fashion, culture, and body image (something that I am very passionate about as a female of the millennial generation). While we often try to turn the question into a teachable moment, sometimes, it just makes everyone blush with embarrassment. So, we prefer to try and save everyone from that and wear our kerchiefs. However, we always clarify that it is our personal decisions to wear the kerchiefs and not because the low necklines were considered immoral in the 18th century because again, they were not.
N.B. Below are more images of American or British women and children. They have various necklines to help show some of the diversity that was around throughout the 18th century.
Slide Show Image Citations: Eunice Dennie Burr by John Singleton Copley, 1758-60, St. Louis Art Museum via WikiCommons; The Romps by William Redmore Biggs, 1790s, Leeds Museum and Galleries; Sophia Drake, c. 1784, by Ralph Earl, Private Collection via the-athenaeum.org; Her Royal Highness Princess Louisa Anne, c. 1750, British Museum, 1902,1011.2656; Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Winslow (Jemina Debuke) by John Singleton Copley, 1773, Public Collection (via artrenewal.org); Mrs. George Watson by John Singleton Copley, 1765, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1991.189; Margaret “Peggy” Custis Wilson (Mrs. John Custis Wilson) by Charles Wilson Peale, 1791, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Acc. 2014-46,A&B; Elizabeth Allen Deas (Mrs. John Deas), 1759, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2012-91; Elizabeth Riddick Carr (Mrs. Samuel Carr) by John Durand, 1774, CWF, Acc. No. 1978-82, A&B; Louisa Airey Gilmor & Her Daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, by Charles Wilson Peale, 1788, CWF, 1967 – 364 A&B; Mary Orange Rothery (Mrs. Matthew Rothery) by John Durand, 1773,Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1991-150, A