The styles and aesthetics of the classic 18th century have been revived, revised, re-imagined and rehashed multiple times after the century ended. Many times, these revivals included remaking original clothing, and/or the creation of costumes and art in the 18th century style. These pieces of art are now in museums, personal collections, and on the Internet. These pieces of art are sometimes used without dates, authors or any attributing information. Many times, without this information, we might mistake this item for the Real Deal. I’ve done it more often than I’d like to admit!
In my research I’ve come across, or come up with, some tips for telling the real from the remakes.Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.
1) Dress Style
It sounds simple, and it is: dresses that lace up the back, have princess seaming in the bodice, or have a fitted waist with a slightly dropped waist seam are almost always 19th or 20th century remakes. Sometimes these are real 18th century gowns that had been altered for the centennial revival, 1870-80s. Where do we draw the line here – are these 18th or 19th century gowns? I would argue for a new classification: they are both, since they were worn in both centuries and retain characteristics of each time.
Above: a vague remake of an 18th century gown. Apparently, the robings and stomacher have been replaced with wide brocade bands and a loose, gathered piece, respectively. This dress is featured in Margaret W. Brown’s 1952 book, The Dresses of the First Ladies of the White House (The Smithsonian Institution). It is attributed to Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, who (according to the book) wore it between 1817 and 1825. Personally, I don’t believe any of it. I think this is yet again a centennial remake of an 18th century gown, which somehow became attributed to a woman who probably never wore it. I can’t find any other information on this piece.
2) Body Shape
Body shape flows directly from dress construction. The 18th century was a century of gently curved lines in the Rococo aesthetic, until it came to women’s bodies, specifically the torso. The stays that many women wore kept them rigidly straight, and that was the ideal look. I’m not saying all 18th century women looked like this, but as far as portraits of respectable women go, it was the norm.
Above, an original Thomas Gainsborough piece from the mid-1770s. Even though she is wearing a fancy costume, Mrs. Graham retains crucial elements of 18th century fashion: she is wearing stays that give her a conical shape with a rigid vertical mark down the center front – the shape of fashionable 1770s and 80s stays.
Above, “Clarissa”, by John Everett Millais. This 1887 painting is a beautiful and brilliant take on Gainsborough – it looks more Gainsborough-y than many original Gainsboroughs, in my mind. That being said, it’s clearly not an 18th century piece. Her shape is one that doesn’t occur in the 18th century – smooth curves and that nipped-and-dropped waistline described earlier – almost the ‘cuirass’ bodice of the 1880s. Her dress also has more prominent shoulder seams (arms’ eyes) than her 18th century counterpart. This alludes to the foundation garments: 18th century stays drew the wearer’s shoulders backs with shoulder straps, while 19th century corsets tended to create rounded shoulders that were further forward.
3) Faces, Hair, and Makeup
When body shape and gown construction don’t give you enough clues, look at the face. Faces, hair and makeup are always the last things to change: whether it’s a remake of an older painting, or costume design in a movie.
Above, another beautiful John Everett Millias creation of 1868: a woman in a brocade saque. Looking closely, even with this poor digital reproduction (I couldn’t find a better image of it) you can see she’s not wearing 18th century stays. Look at her large dark eyes and the shape of her face: both are not 18th century ideals. (Another red flag: the name “Vanessa”. Check out my earlier posts on 18th century female names).
A clearer example, this one from a 1916 Baker’s Chocolate recipe booklet. You can see her face has been altered from the original by Jean-Etienne Liotard (below) – her eyes are wider and darker, and her face is rounder.
Finally, the following image ties most of my points together: supposedly this is a reproduction of a Thomas Sully portrait in the U.S. National Museum (1952). It is Martha Jefferson Randolph. Or is it?