Dressed for Best

Clothing for Formal and Royal occasions 1700s to 1900s


Man’s Dress Suit, c.1780 - 1785

Man’s Dress Suit, c.1780 - 1785

Dressing for best is an important part of the way we mark significant events, and donning one’s smartest clothes in order to attend a special function can be an extremely enjoyable if sometimes daunting experience. The wearing of suitably smart clothing which conforms to expected codes is often central to the theatre of such gatherings. Viewed ‘en masse’, best dress can create a spectacular overall impression, and to the individual wearer such garments can bring a sense of status, belonging and confidence.

Today, depending on our walk of life, we may seldom get the opportunity to dress up in our best clothes. However, in the past, many more situations arose where ‘best dress’ was expected. The privileged few at the top of society were required to dress in strictly prescribed clothing in order to be presented to the monarch at Court. Participation in other exclusive events was also a normal part of life. Nonetheless, ordinary members of the public did not miss out on the opportunity to put on their glad rags. Attendance at formal dances or balls was a relatively common occurrence for many until at least the mid-20th century. Formality in day wear was also a requirement. One was expected to dress smartly whenever entering the public arena, particularly when making one’s appearance at fashionable locations. All of these situations had their own dress codes where status and wealth could be communicated in highly effective yet unwritten ways.

‘Best dress’ is all about making a statement. It is a key aspect of celebrating a momentous occasion, and perhaps most importantly it allows individuals, adorned in the most impressive way possible, to mark themselves out as special.

Formal Dress in the Eighteenth Century

Yellow floral silk damask sack back gown and matching petticoat. Silk c. 1740 dress style c. 1760 to 1770

Floral silk damask sack back gown and matching petticoat. Silk c. 1740 dress style c. 1760 to 1770

For much of the 18th century the powerful and well-off displayed their wealth through sumptuous and elegant clothing. Fashions first adopted by these groups tended to cascade through society. Best dress was worn for a variety of events which, depending on social standing, could vary from royal occasions to balls and assemblies, trips to the theatre and promenades through spa towns, London parks and pleasure gardens. The most dazzling and highly ornate pieces were worn to meet the monarch at Court. Such garments followed strict hierarchical rules which dictated the style and cut of clothes and accessories worn by members of the royal family downwards. The decoration tended to be rich and heavy, including precious metal embroidery and brocades. The silks were lustrous, and costly jewellery completed the look. For women it was necessary to wear hoops; a requirement which continued after they were no longer part of fashionable dress.

Only slightly less magnificent was ‘Full Dress’. These clothes were made from rich, colourful silks, often incorporating embroidery or complex and ornate woven patterns. Sack back gowns became acceptable for Full Dress wear during the 1730s. Additional trimmings including jewellery, silk ribbons, lace sleeve ruffles, a neckerchief and lappets or streamers for a cap would also have featured. The sack back is designed to be worn with side hoops; an element of Full Dress in vogue from the 1730s to the 1770s. Powdered hairstyles were also becoming increasingly elaborate from the 1760s onwards. For much of the 18th century men’s dress suits, which incorporated a full-skirted coat, embroidered waistcoat, sometimes in a contrasting colour, and breeches were worn. They too were made from rich, expensive silks with ornate decoration. Men’s Full Dress included accessories such as a sword, a hat and a powdered wig. White silk stockings and shoes with ornate buckles were also part of the ensemble. However, by the last years of the century men’s clothing was generally becoming more sober, and even at Court a much simpler style was adopted.  

Smart dress was expensive. The silk for one sack back gown might cost twice the annual wage of a house maid, and people took great pains when ordering garments. Those who lived in London were asked to fulfil endless dress-related requests for their country relatives. Care was taken to source fashionable pieces, though some modern city trends were avoided by those living in conservative rural areas. Fashions tended to emanate from Paris and fashion plates became an increasingly popular means of spreading the word. However, it was also common for fully dressed and coiffured fashion dolls to be circulated, direct from Paris, amongst wealthy clients and their dress makers.

Smart Day Dress in the Nineteenth Century

Man’s coat, c.1845 - 1855, waistcoat, c.1843

Man’s coat, c.1845 - 1855, waistcoat, c.1843

Balls and other evening occasions continued to call for the smartest dress during the 1800s, with women’s fashions galloping through a vast range of styles. However, formal events were not limited to night-time. Garments which adhered to established codes were also required for smart day wear. As the 19th century got fully underway, and particularly after Victoria came to the throne, there was a sense of growing refinement and conservatism within society. This was reflected in conversation, cultural tastes and of course in clothing, where a strict set of rules applied.

Wealthier women changed into smart day dress after their morning tasks were complete. Activity which took place outside the house, or involved receiving visitors, required a presentable set of day wear. This adhered to the latest fashions but also followed rules connected to perceptions of female modesty. Women rarely showed bare skin below the neckline during the day. Even if dresses were cut lower, a chemisette was worn to cover this area. Similarly, arms were also covered up and when the cut of sleeves became looser and wider, cotton undersleeves or ‘engageantes’ were worn beneath. Gloves or mittens were obligatory when women were out in public, and they were also expected to keep their heads covered with a hat or bonnet. For much of the 19th century best day gowns were made from lustrous, weighty silks, and skirts were floor length unless a slightly more casual ‘walking dress’ was worn.

For men, the day ‘dress coat’ was the correct attire for the smart gentleman about town during the first half of the 19th century, later to be replaced by the frock coat for all but the most important occasions. It was also called the ‘Half Dress’ coat to differentiate it from the ‘Full Dress’ evening coat which was of similar cut. The dress coat was a tail coat with the fronts cut horizontally at waist level and it was worn with pantaloons or trousers rather than breeches from the beginning of the century onwards. Colourful waistcoats, the last bastion of male flamboyance in dress, were often worn with such coats. The 19th century dress coat was a much paired down incarnation of the full-skirted 18th century version. It also incorporated elements of riding wear; an important influence on men’s fashions from the late 18th century.

A dress tail coat would certainly be called for at a wedding and continued to be worn for this occasion long after it had faded from everyday fashion. As the 19th century progressed wedding clothing began to occupy its own separate sphere. A number of traditions were established, many of which remain with us today. The marriages of Queen Victoria and her children were hugely influential. Members of the royal family had long worn white wedding gowns, but now the middle classes, keen to emulate their social superiors and reflect status in their dress, adopted this practice. The wedding dress, previously a smart day dress worn again on other occasions, was now ordered specifically for the marriage and became an essential part of the proceedings. The bride in her beautiful white gown was the focal point of an array of strictly prescribed formalities, and though her gown might follow fashion, it was now set apart from ordinary dress by its colour and the addition of a number of important accessories. These, which included a veil, floral bouquet and a long train, were all influenced by the clothing worn for royal occasions and added a touch of regal lustre to the event.

Evening Wear 1900s to 1950s

‘Robe de Style’ evening gown, c.1924 - 1926

‘Robe de Style’ evening gown, c.1924 - 1926

From the impossibly lavish creations of the high Edwardian era, though to the daring 1920s, the sinuous ‘30s and the romantic ‘50s, the evening wear of the first half of the 20th century is a wonderfully exciting subject for exploration. The myriad of ever changing fashions was driven and inspired by the glamour of the ballroom. Balls and formal evening events were an important part of the social calendar and strict conventions applied, many of which had their roots in the traditions of royalty and the aristocracy. Dress played a pivotal role and the glittering evening gowns which survive from this period are testament to the effort and expense such affairs involved.

The first nine years of the 20th century saw wealthy Edwardians following the grand styles of the late 19th century, but with even greater extravagance and enthusiasm than their Victorian predecessors. In contrast to the traditional black evening dress of men, women wore narrow-waisted feminine styles with full skirts in gleaming satins. Pale pastel shades were preferred and complex forms of frothy surface decoration, including beadwork and embroidery, lace and chiffon drapery, added further luxury and softness. For additional splendour lavish sets of jewellery were displayed to great effect above low-cut necklines. Around 1909 the tide of fashion turned. Waistlines rose and a new bold colour palette emerged. Inspired by exotic middle and far eastern cultures, oranges, reds, purples and greens took the place of pastel shades. To add complexity to the new columnar silhouette, richly decorated evening gowns featured layered panels. Fabrics included silk velvets and cloth of gold and silver. Gowns were trimmed with tassels, heavy embroidery, beadwork and fur.

The practice of drawing inspiration from far-flung places continued after the First World War. As the 1920s progressed so the cultures of Ancient Egypt, Africa, South America, China and many more were raided by magpie-like designers enthusiastically embracing new ideas and producing wonderfully eclectic garments. The familiar narrow, low-waisted silhouette of the 1920s lent itself to stunning beadwork designs that glittered in the light as wearers danced energetically to the new jazz music of the age. Skirts became shorter as the decade progressed, eventually reaching just below the knee around 1925. However, alongside the modern sophisticated styles of the 1920s was another more romantic branch of fashion. Designers such as Callot Soeurs, Paquin and most famously Jeanne Lanvin created gowns with wide, softly billowing skirts and feminine decoration incorporating lace, flowers, ribbons and tulle. Often known as ‘Robes de Style’ or ‘Picture Dresses’, they were frequently favoured by mothers buying gowns for their young debutante daughters to wear for formal balls. The ultra-modern garçonne style of the 1920s was so new and daring. Picture dresses offered a softer more innocent alternative which was nevertheless part of the general fashion spectrum.

The 1930s saw another significant shift. The stock market crash of 1929 damaged the fashion industry, but the designers that survived produced some of the 20th century’s most sophisticated and creative examples of evening wear. Houses such as Chanel, Vionnet, Lanvin, Schiaparelli and Alix (later Madame Grès) created some of their finest work. Cutting on the bias came to the fore; a complex and skilled technique. The style, which caused garments to skim the bust and hips and cling to the figure in all the right places, shifted the emphasis from surface decoration to fabric and cut. Backless gowns called for minimal underwear and added another layer of sophistication. Hollywood, already an important source of inspiration on fashion in the 1920s, continued to extend its influence as the escapism and glamour of movie costumes translated into real garments. Evening gowns were floor length once more and were made from shining silks and glittering lamés; fabrics which had originally been selected to look their best on celluloid.

Though dances requiring smart evening wear continued through the Second World War, fashion essentially stood still through much of the ‘40s until the ‘New Look’ took the fashion world by storm in 1947. Though other designers were working along similar lines, the term ‘New Look’ relates to the work of Christian Dior. He favoured tiny corseted waists and wide skirts which used shockingly large amounts of rich, expensive fabric and required many petticoats beneath. The style, which echoed the splendour and opulence of the high Edwardian period, had fully taken hold by the start of the 1950s. Strongly criticised by politicians and other members of the establishment for being too extravagant, the New Look was enthusiastically embraced by women who had suffered years of wartime austerity and rationing. If only for ten more years, extravagance and romance had stepped back into the ballroom for one last dance.

The House of Worth

Ball gown by the House of Worth, Winter 1897

Ball gown by the House of Worth, Winter 1897

The green silk ball gown featured in the Dressed for Best exhibition was made by the house of Worth; one of the foremost and earliest fashion houses in the history of dress and couture. The gown formed part of the Winter 1897 collection and was owned by Philadelphia Mary Lucy Fraser (1847 – 1907), wife of James Patrick Bannerman Robertson, Baron Robertson (1845 – 1909). She wore it to the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 with a coronet which also survives.

At the time this dress was made, the house of Worth was the most famous of an exclusive group of grand couturiers operating at the height of their success. Other names included Doucet, Paquin and Pingat, and such houses employed between two hundred and six hundred staff. Their clientele, who were the wealthiest and best connected women of the age, hailed from Britain, Europe and the United States. The most expensive fabrics, decorative techniques and trimmings were used. Their creations, which  included ball gowns, Court presentation gowns, wedding dresses and fancy dress ensembles, were modified and sometimes designed according to the individual preferences of clients. Naturally garments were made to measure; the final pieces being the result of a number of fittings carried out in luxurious premises. Worth gowns stood out as the most lavish and sumptuous of all.

The house of Worth began to trade during the Autumn/Winter of 1857-1858. It was established by English-born designer Charles Frederick Worth and Swede Otto Gustaf Bobergh and by 1869 they had gained the patronage of Empress Eugénie of France. Members of other Courts of Europe followed, and the house was well on the way to becoming one of the most prestigious in Paris. Worth employed his sons Jean-Philippe and Gaston-Lucien from the 1870s onwards.  By the 1890s they had taken on the mantle of the business; Jean-Philippe designing the clothes and Gaston working behind the scenes on the financial side. Charles Frederick died aged 69 in 1895, but the house remained a family business and continued to thrive until the 1950s.  

Court Dress and Clothing for Royal Occasions

Court presentation ensemble, 1937

Court presentation ensemble, 1937

As one might expect, garments made for royal occasions are produced to the highest standards. Sumptuous beadwork, sequins and metallic threads glitter and gleam and expensive silks ooze sophistication, wealth and privilege. Each piece conforms in its own way to long-established traditions and protocols as dictated at different moments in history.

The concept of selected subjects being formally presented to the monarch during elaborate ceremonies has a long history. People came to court for different reasons, but by the 19th century the concept of young women, known as Debutantes, being presented to the monarch before entering society or ‘Coming Out’ had been fully established.

Court dress, worn by those not entitled to wear a Court Uniform, included some fashionable elements, but also incorporated fossilised and outmoded components. During the course of the 1700s men were at first expected to wear sumptuous and elaborately embellished suits, while women’s dress ranged from the ‘stiff-bodied’ gown to the wide-hooped court mantua and eventually the sack-back gown, all with a train. Hoops were retained until 1820, long after they had disappeared from ordinary clothing. As the 18th century ended, men’s Court dress evolved into a simple suit of dark cloth. Women’s dress, though fashionable in style, was also expected to conform to rules set down in writing which covered the length of trains, forms of head-wear and colours. These rules evolved subtly over time; sometimes in line with changing fashions and the preferences of different monarchs.

The splendour of Court dress reached its apogee during the reign of Edward VII, who revived evening Courts. These glamorous events offered a more appropriate context for the splendid evening-style clothing worn. Courts were halted at the outset of the First World War but were reinstated in peacetime, only to be stopped once more as the Second World War broke out. Though presentations were re-established afterwards, the sumptuous evening courts never returned; and, a casualty of modernisation, the last official court presentation took place in 1958.