Eighteenth-Century Clothing

Men and women wore very different clothes at the beginning of the eighteenth century than they did at the end. The skill of tailors and dressmakers had developed to such an extent that clothing styles were lavished with attention to detail and ornament by midcentury. However, despite the growing skills of tailors, dress became simpler by the end of the century. The dramatic changes reflected the political and cultural changes during the century, including the American (1775–83) and French (1789–99) Revolutions. Throughout Europe and the newly created United States of America, people's attitudes about dress changed. No longer were the monarchs the only trendsetters of fashion. Later, toward the end of the century, clothing styles began to simplify as people looked to the country and to nature for fashion inspiration.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, men wore outfits similar to those worn in the previous century. On their upper bodies wealthy men wore white linen or cotton shirts with a lace-edged jabot, or tie, topped with sleeveless waistcoats and a long-sleeved justaucorps, long overcoats. Below they wore satin knee breeches and silk hose held at the knee with garters. Working men wore much simpler, less well-made clothes of wool or cotton. By the middle of the century, wealthy men wore the same clothing, but the fit and decoration of these styles had changed quite a bit. The skirts of waistcoats stuck out away from the man's hips with padding or boned supports, and knee breeches fit very tightly against the leg. The fabric for men's clothes was bright and often elaborately embroidered with flowers or curving lines. Men's clothes at the end of the century, however, were very different. Most men wore dark clothes with little decoration. With the rejection of decoration, the difference between a working man's clothes and a wealthy man's became noticeable only from the cut and the quality of the fabric.

Women's clothing styles changed just as dramatically as men's. From the beginning to the middle of the century, women's clothing became larger and more laden with decoration. Wealthy women wore dresses made of brightly colored stiff silk woven with bold floral and striped designs, and many chose Chinese fabrics for their dresses. By midcentury the skirts of women's dresses held many yards of decoration, including layers of ruffles, bows, and lace, and were held out away from the hips with the help of panniers, or stiff hoops.

Typical women's dress of the eighteenth century included brightly colored fabric with bold floral and striped designs and layers of ruffles, bows, and lace. Reproduced by permission of © .
In great contrast to the width of their skirts, women's waists were cinched tightly in corsets. The front of their gowns cut deep to display the tops of their breasts and were so revealing that some women tucked lace scarves, called modesty pieces, along their necklines to hide their breasts. Most dresses had three-quarter length sleeves to which women added engageantes, or many tiers of ruffled white lace at the elbow. By the end of the century, however, women discarded these huge and elaborate dresses for the robe en chemise, a simple white cotton dress with a high waist and tiny sleeves.

Before the eighteenth century, children wore smaller versions of adult clothes. But in the mid-eighteenth century, both boys and girls began to wear simple loose cotton dresses. These were the first distinct children's clothes. They were developed due to a change in thought about children's education brought about by two philosophers, John Locke (1632–1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Locke and Rousseau said that children should be free to play and develop as individuals. Without tight corsets and long coats, children could move more easily. These new ideas took a while to catch on; it wasn't until the early twentieth century that all children were dressed in practical clothing made especially for them.


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Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Age of Napoleon: Costume From Revolution to Empire: 1789–1815. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1989.

Ribeiro, Aileen. Fashion in the French Revolution. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1988.

Sichel, Marion. History of Children's Costume. New York: Chelsea House, 1983.

Coats and Capes
Fashion à la Victime
Knee Breeches
Polonaise Style
Robe à la Française
Robe en Chemise
Incroyables and Merveilleuses
Sack Gown

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