Court Dress or Tea Cozy?

More 19th century stuff, ’cause that’s how I roll. 🙂

Court dress–the clothing one wore on formal occasions at a royal court, such as when being presented to the Queen–had throughout the 18th century been very specifically prescribed by royal decree: for women it meant large skirts (which were the fashion for most of the century), along with a train, lappets (streamers of lace suspended from the back of the head), and a headdress of feathers, often arranged in the Prince of Wales style (three feathers with the center one slightly taller.) The dress of course was supposed to be of particularly splendid design and fabric, because after all, why else did one go to court but to show off (and go through doors sideways, as anyone wearing the dress at right would have had to?)

But starting in the 1790s, fashion changed. The enormous hooped skirts fell from favor until by 1800, a very different silhouette was in style–the classically inspired, high-waisted and narrow-skirted shape now known as the Empire style.

However, fashion did not necessarily rule at court. King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte were conservative in taste, preferring Handel to newfangled Mozart…and the powdered hair and old hooped skirts of their youth. Which meant that what was required at court presentations in 1808 wasn’t all that different from what was required in 1788: enormous skirts and feathers. But modern fashion couldn’t entirely be shut out…which is where tea cozies come in.

Doesn’t this poor lady at right, who visited court in 1808 on the occasion of the King’s birthday, look like something popped over a teapot to keep it warm? This La Belle Assemblee  print shows what happened: bodices followed the prevailing high-waisted style, while skirts continued to follow court regulation. It made for several years of hilarious and ungainly drawing-rooms, I’m sure, and most people thought the dresses ridiculous…but Queen Charlotte remained steadfastly attached to hoops until her death in 1818.

It wasn’t until her son, the Prince Regent, became king two years later that hoops were banished as court attire and presentation dresses could reflect everyday fashion more closely. What a relief that must have been for young ladies who didn’t want to adopt the tea cozy look! A train, lace lappets, and feathers (quite a few feathers, in this case!) remained regulation attire as you can see in this Ackermann’s Repository print from July 1820, but that seems like a reasonable bargain.

So let me guess…when would you have preferred to be presented? 1808, or 1820?





Court Dress or Tea Cozy? — 9 Comments

  1. Period letters are full of comments about how expensive those court gowns were–that you could never wear again. (I guess the equivalent today would be those wedding gowns of white with gigantic skirts but no sleeves, which are impossible to ever wear again. The interesting thing is that the symbolism of the white is now utterly lost.)

    • Yeah, being a virgin is not all that common at weddings today.

      It may have been narrow-minded, but my father the preacher (his preferred term) once told the bride-to-be, who was a church member, who had been openly living with her boyfriend for several months (primarily to embarrass her stepfather, who was a deacon) that if she wanted to be married in white, she needed to find a different preacher. Just following his principles. Like George the III, I guess.

      • My wedding dress was a grayish-pink. I was pretty certain I didn’t qualify for white. Also wasn’t married in a church, so this was my own quirk and no one else’s.

        The white wedding dress is really an artifact of the well-to-do–I’ve read a number of letters from the 19th century where the brides wore black–practical dresses that were deliberately made to be used again, but were trotted out for the first time at the wedding.

        • Later nineteenth century at that, yes. Most wore perhaps a new gown, but something that could be worn again. And a lot of women simply wore their best Sunday gown.

          Victorian society developed elaborate wedding rites as funeral rites: there were first day gowns, second, day, third day, etc.

          • I didn’t marry in church so what I wore to my courthouse wedding was pretty much a “pretty dress”. It was oyster gray, for the record, but it wasn’t a “gown”, it was just a dress that fell to just below the knee, draped grecian-style, something that I haven’t had much occasion to wear later but could if I needed a special frock for some special occasion. I never got to wear the “meringue” wedding gown, and I don’t think I ever particularly wanted to…

      • Either that or shared around, if the fabrics were impossible to repurpose. For example, no one wore brocade except to court to bow before the aging queen.

  2. Forty years ago, my brother and his then wife were stationed in England and Europe while he was in the military–he made a career of the military but not the wife. Anyway they needed to dress up for a military event. He had his Class A Whites. She went to a resale shop that handled exclusively gowns wore to court or a court function that could never be seen on that individual again.

    In my brother’s terms the dress cost a bloody fortune, but she got to wear it 3 times before she ripped it up as part of the divorce. That bloody fortune was about 1/3 of the original price.

    • Now smart girls can rent them. My niece rented a seven thousand dollar gown for seven hundred bucks. (Which was a stiff price for our family, but she wanted a gigantic affair, and I have to say that dress was stunning. And she, being a six foot tall natural blonde, carried it off.)