A while back I talked about my inspirational library of books for costume making, and ‘The British Paintings’* catalogue from the National Gallery was one of my top picks. I love to really understand the context of different costumes and this book often has notes on the clothes that the person in the painting is wearing in it’s accompanying essays.
So I’d like to focus here on a painting of Mrs Siddons that is owned by the National Gallery in London (although it’s not currently on display), that was painted in 1785.
This painting, Mrs Siddons by Gainsborough, tells us so much about what a woman in the eighteenth century might be like. It shows that sheer fabrics would have been available, that sleeves and bodices were tight fitting, and that ostentatious hats were cool (and this one is apparently trimmed with ostrich feathers and ribbon). In addition that dress fabric is simply wonderful – and now I’m wondering what costume I could make that needs stripes… This particular dress is apparently a ‘wrapping gown’ which was tied at the waist with a belt.
Some research suggests that a wrapping gown in Britain was also known as a Banyan, and was heavily inspired by ‘Oriental’ garments such as kimonos. The Met Museum in New York has a beautiful brown silk version in it’s collection which with careful studying you can see where the seams lie.
This was almost certainly an example of a mens garment, but with a more tailored body and sleeve, as well as some fabric added to make a collar and ruffle down the edge of one side of the opening, it seems like this might be a good way to think about making the clothes shown in the painting.
In addition the text tells us that this was a woman born into a theatrical family, and this portrait was painted during her third London season when she was quite famous. This kind of outfit wouldn’t be suitable for a poor lady – this is the kind of thing that a bold, daring individual would wear. Someone who was courting public attention. The next page also shows us a painting of the same actress in costume for a production of Macbeth – giving us further information as to how costume might differ from everyday wear.
In fact if you really want a great insight into theatrical costume of the eighteenth century, and some more pictures of Mrs Siddons, you can check her out on the Google Cultural Institute website. There’s lots of inspiration there for the kind of society fashions of the time.