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Court Dress or Tea Cozy?

It’s May, and we’re in the height of the Season…or we would have been, two hundred years ago. And in addition to husband-hunting, the Season meant something else important: being presented at court…which meant court dress.

Court dress–what one wore when being presented to the Queen–had throughout the 18th century been very specifically prescribed by royal decree: 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 this dress 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 that newfangled Mozart…and the powdered hair and wide 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 and lappets. But modern fashion couldn’t entirely be shut out…which is where tea cozies come in.

Doesn’t this poor lady, 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 hooped skirts 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?

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