The eighteenth century ushered in sweeping changes to the lives of rich and poor alike. The rural, agriculturally-based economies of Europe began a centuries-long transformation into modern industrially-based economies.
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.
During the eighteenth century Europeans coveted Chinese imports and developed an intense interest in Chinese clothes, porcelain, tea, and other items. These items were known as chinoiserie.
Men and women could choose from among numerous different outer garments during the eighteenth century. In general people wore a cape or a coat over their clothes to keep warm or to repel rain.
The corset, a tightly fastened body suit designed to push up or flatten a woman's breasts, or to hug her waist until her figure assumed an "hourglass" shape (big on the top and bottom, but slim in the middle), was an essential foundation of fashionable dress for women for over four hundred years. Derived from the French word for body, it has been worn throughout the Western world from the sixteenth century to the present.
Up until the end of the eighteenth century, the sleeve of most women's dresses ended near the elbow. From beneath the dress sleeve, the ruffled white sleeve of the cotton undergarment was revealed.
During the later years of the French Revolution (1789–99) at the end of the eighteenth century, many fashionable young people of the upper and middle classes adopted a style called à la victime, or "like the victim." This fashion imitated the look of the thousands of people who were executed by the government during the bloodiest period of the revolution. Sporting scarlet ribbons to symbolize the blood of the dead, and cutting their hair short the way the executioners cut their victims' hair, these young people celebrated the fall of the old government while cheering themselves through a horrifying period in history.
Knee breeches, or knee-length leg coverings, were worn by men and boys alike throughout the eighteenth century. Knee breeches were worn pulled up over the hips and buttoned in the front without need for a belt or other brace at the waist.
The smallness of a woman's waist became a very important fashion element by midcentury. To accentuate the smallness of the waist, the skirts of gowns were stiffened and padded to increase their size.
Polonaise style referred to the arrangement of the overskirt of a dress into three bunched swags to give the hips the impression of width and to display the petticoat underneath. Polonaise style featured ankle-length petticoats that revealed high-heeled walking shoes.
The gown that is most associated with the eighteenth century Rococo style, or a decorative style of architecture, fashion, and interior design that featured purely ornamental designs and ornament with intricate floral patterns, popular between 1715 and 1775, is the robe à la française. Made of rich fabrics and loaded with frilly decoration, the robe à la française was worn by only the most wealthy women.
By the end of the eighteenth century, heavy, thickly decorated gowns dropped out of fashion as lighter styles, such as the robe en chemise, became popular. In the 1780s English and French women began to wear sheer white cotton dresses with high waists wrapped with satin sashes.
The sack, or sacque, gown evolved from a very informal dress of the late seventeenth century into a formal dress by the mid-eighteenth century. The sack gown was first a loose, tent-like robe worn in the home or by pregnant women.
While the wealthiest male citizens in Europe wore knee breeches in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ankle-length trousers had been workingmen's attire for many years. Before the French Revolution (1789–99), the lives of the rich and poor in France grew further and further apart.
The hairstyles and headwear worn by women changed dramatically and rather frequently during the eighteenth century. The men's styles, on the other hand, gradually became simpler as the century progressed.
One of the most fashionable hairstyles of the eighteenth century, À la Belle Poule, commemorated the victory of a French ship over an English ship in 1778. À la Belle Poule featured an enormous pile of curled and powdered hair stretched over a frame affixed to the top of a woman's head.
Small white caps made of linen or cotton and edged with lace were quite popular among women and young girls during the early eighteenth century. Two fashionable styles were a mobcap, which covered the head with a puffed white crown bordered by a lace edge, and a round-eared cap, which curved around the head to cover the ears and was edged with lace or ruffles.
The fashion of wearing large, curled wigs in the eighteenth century was impractical for some men. Soldiers developed a unique style that gave them the appearance of long, flowing, curly hair, but allowed them to be active.
A pouf was a large hat created to cover the elaborate hairstyles of the eighteenth century. Also called a balloon, parachute, or Lunardi hat (after the Italian aeronaut who was one of the first to ride in a balloon in England in 1784), a pouf was a loose, silk hat that encircled the head and had a wide brim.
The large hairstyles worn by women during the eighteenth century came to a dramatic end in 1795 when the Titus cut, a short, layered hairstyle, ushered in a fad for short hair among women. The French Revolution (1789–99), which overthrew the French system of nobility, helped popularize short hair as part of a fad.
Many of the body decorations and accessories of the seventeenth century continued into the eighteenth century. Women and some men made their faces pale with white makeup made from lead powder, a corrosive substance that led to health problems for many and death for some.
A cameo is a kind of jewelry produced by artisans, or craftsmen, who engrave a bas-relief, or raised, image on a range of single-colored or multicolored materials. In the eighteenth century cameos were made of onyx, sardonyx, ivory, agate, coral, seashell, lava, and glass.
The pocket watch was a valued accessory for men. Breeches had small watch pockets near the front of the waist and watches were attached with fobs, or decorative strings or chains that led from a clip on the waistband to these pockets.
A white linen or cotton neck scarf, often trimmed in lace, the jabot worn by men during the eighteenth century added a bit of decoration to a man's outfit. Tied loosely around the neck, the jabot concealed the closure of the shirt, leaving the lace of the jabot to decorate the opening of the waistcoat and the justaucorps, or suit coat.
Sweet smelling flowers, herbs, and perfumes enhanced a person's scent throughout the eighteenth century. The infrequency of bathing made nosegays, or small bouquets, essential for any well-dressed woman.
Invented to protect people from the sun in ancient Egypt and the Middle East, the parasol was developed as a fashion accessory in late-sixteenth-century Italy and soon spread throughout Europe. A parasol is a light umbrella, generally made of much lighter, less durable materials than an umbrella and not intended to protect the user from rain.
Jewelry encrusted with diamonds was worn extensively by the wealthy and coveted by the middle classes throughout the eighteenth century. The expense of real diamonds and other gemstones created a demand for fake jewels.
By the last decade of the eighteenth century, women's dresses had changed from heavy, multilayered gowns made of thick fabric to flimsy, lightweight dresses too delicate to hold pockets. At this time reticules, or handbags, became essential for carrying necessities.
Europeans first began snorting snuff, the pulverized form of tobacco, in the early seventeenth century, and within one hundred years it was widely used by men and women alike. Snuff boxes, tiny decorative containers for the powdered herb, became a symbol of vanity and fashion and an important part of the ritual of using snuff.
First used as a weapon, the walking stick or cane has long been a symbol of strength and power, authority and social prestige, predominantly among men. George Washington (1732–1799), the first American president, carried one, as did later U.S.
The display of wealth through fashionable clothes was also seen on the feet in the eighteenth century. Both men and women of wealth wore fancy shoes that signaled their status, a trend that died out by the end of the century.
At the beginning of the century, low shoes were the most fashionable footwear for men. Showing a man's ankles was especially fashionable.
After the French Revolution (1789–99), people began to reject obvious signs of wealth. The large buckles and elaborate patterned silk shoes of earlier days were replaced with simple, plain flat-soled slippers.