Artful Nature: Fashion and Theatricality 1770-1830

Bodily Movement/Freedom

“The grace of person…is so eminently seen in many of the beauties of the present day, since they have left off the constraint of whale-bone stays, and assumed the graceful dress of the ancient Grecian statues.”

Erasmus Darwin, “On the Care of the Shape,” True Briton, October 6, 1797


Stay, late 1700s

Silk, ribbed plain weave (repp) moiré, linen, and kid leather trim

RISD Museum


English (London), Mills Junr., manufacturer

Corset, ca. 1804

Cotton, plain weave textile with silk embroidery and metal buckles

RISD Museum

Eighteenth-century stays such as these molded the torso into a cone and provided a flat front surface to support the stomach of a gown, with the breasts partly flattened and partly pushed up and covered by a chemise or kerchief. The filmy textiles and high-waisted silhouette of neoclassical dress required new types of undergarments. Many women discarded stays altogether, and some doctors hailed the greater healthfulness and naturalism of the unfettered body. This “patent corset” included cups to accommodate rounded breasts and a buckled midsection beneath to support them, much like a modern brassiere. Lightly stiffened with bones in the center front and center back, the high-waisted corset also included an attached pad at the rear, to encourage gathered trains to flow elegantly from the high waist.

Thomas Rowlandson

Rural Sports or a Cricket Match Extraordinary

Etching with hand coloring

Published ca. 1811, by Thomas

Physicians like Erasmus Darwin encouraged the bodily freedom enabled by neoclassical dress. Unencumbered by heavy drapery and long stays, women engaged in more athletic pursuits. Thomas Rowlandson produced several prints depicting such sporting women in neoclassical dress. Here, Hampshire battles Surrey as  two teams of women cricketers—with skirts hitched up and legs and breasts exposed—run, catch, and bat before a cheering crowd. According to the caption, the players “were of all Ages and Sizes.”

Charles Williams

A Naked Truth, or Nipping Frost

Etching with hand coloring

Published February 2, 1803, by S.W. Fores

Some worried that increased bodily exposure made women not healthier and more vigorous, but rather more vulnerable to disease. Thin and transparent neoclassical dress was blamed for endangering women’s constitutions, giving them “muslin disease” (a bad cold or flu) and increasing their susceptibility to tuberculosis. Cloaks, muffs, and tippets might mitigate the dangers somewhat, but the bare arms and legs of the neoclassically clad woman still made tempting targets for Jack Frost, as in this satire by Charles Williams. The filmy gown of the central woman allows us to see her stockings, garters, and bare posterior pinched by Frost’s talons.

James Gillray

Modern Grace, or the Operatical Finale to the Ballet of Alonzo e Caro

Etching with hand coloring

Published May 5, 1796, by Hannah Humphrey

From the late 1770s through the 1790s, innovators in theater, opera, and ballet strove for greater stylistic naturalism and signaled that quality with antique, rather than courtly, costume for performers. But in tandem with the less restrictive costumes emerged a new athleticism in performance. A 1796 appearance in London of the famed Parisian dancers Rose Didelot and Mademoiselle Parisot stimulated a flurry of satires on the revealing new ballet costumes, such as this one by James Gillray. He highlights not only the skimpiness and transparency of the dancers’ attire, but also the high kicks and jumps enabled by their liberating costumes. The colorist has contrasted the white and pale tones of the dancers’ dress and bodies with an intense red flush suffusing their cheeks, a sign of their vigorousness often seen in contemporary painting as well.

Gallery of Fashion: Plates 33 and 34

Etching and aquatint with hand coloring

London: N. Heideloff, 1794–1803

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Heideloff ’s Gallery of Fashion was perhaps the earliest fashion journal published in English and counted domestic and international royalty among its subscribers. The journal featured hand-colored plates and detailed descriptions. The images often showed women engaging in fashionable activities like playing music or writing letters. This illustration of “evening dresses” shows two women arm-in-arm and describes one dress as a “purple silk round gown” with a “handkerchief within,” and the other as a “petticoat and robe à la Turque” worn with a “high tucker of blonde,” a type of silk bobbin lace. Round gowns were all one piece and pulled on over the head, while a petticoat and robe were two pieces: a skirt on the bottom and a wrapped, open-front gown draped over the top.