About the artwork
The portrait of 'Mrs Frances Hesketh', wife of Fleetwood Hesketh, by Joseph Wright of Derby, was painted in 1769. The sitter wears a gown of dusty pink silk, loosely cut, with a voluminous skirt and deep cuff to the sleeve. This is held back with a string of pearls. Her undersleeve of fine white linen is also generously cut and falls in folds around her forearm. She holds the edge of a thin striped silk scarf, attached at the back of her bodice. Another sash of blue and gold silk is tied around her waist and knotted casually before her. She does not appear to be wearing a hoop, a petticoat supported by circular canes, beneath her gown as the outline of her legs can be clearly seen in the front. Her hair is informally arranged and falls loosely over her right shoulder.
The whole ensemble appears charming and elegant to our eyes, yet it is not what Mrs Hesketh's contemporaries would have recognised as strictly fashionable dress. It is, rather, a stylised version of classical dress, a shorthand adopted by the artist to allude to the subject's gentility (as the wife of a landed squire), intellect and artistic leanings. The reference to the ancient world, and to the 18th century's re-discovery of it, is strengthened by the inclusion of a classical urn, on the right. A number of artists adopted this approach, posing their sitters in informal, classically-inspired dress, from the 1760s onwards.
In contrast to the clothes worn by Mrs Hesketh, there are many other examples of fashionable dress to be seen in the Walker's 18th century gallery. But what exactly is 'fashionable dress' and how does it differ from other forms of dress? One could define it as a dress form that constantly changes in response to outside influences, often deliberately motivated. This transient quality sets it apart from other forms of dress. Peasant or working dress and traditional or national dress tend to remain static over long periods of time.
The wealthy have always used dress as a means of showing their social status and as a way of distinguishing themselves from other sections of society. In this sense, it could be argued that they 'invented' fashion. Its constantly changing forms allowed them to stay one step ahead of other aspiring groups. Today, more complex economic factors and a worldwide industry ensure that fashion constantly changes and that we can all buy into it if we wish.
Costume in paintings can be a good source of information about what dress was like in the past. It can also tell us much about the wearer. We can see their wealth, status, social aspirations and if they belonged to a particular group. Equally, it can be revealing about the artist and about what he or she was trying to say about their subject, as we can see in the painting of Mrs Hesketh.
The Walker's 1717 portrait of 'Henrietta, Lady Ashburnham', by Michael Dahl, is a good starting point if one wishes to study mainstream fashion of the period. The sitter wears a pale blue silk satin wrapping gown, lined with white silk, over a fine white linen chemise. This was a typically informal garment of the early 18th century, simply wrapped over in the front and secured with a belt or sash. Sometimes, a loose, quilted waistcoat was worn underneath for extra warmth.
Unlike today, people in the 18th century had a very clearly-defined sense of what was 'dress' or formal wear and what was 'undress' or informal wear. There were rules governing the circumstances in which either could be worn. To some extent, these rules were influenced by the wearer's social status and wealth. The time of day and the activity in which they might have been engaged was also important. Lady Henrietta's attire in definitely 'undress' and would probably have been worn in the privacy of her bedroom or boudoir.
Another, more restrained example of 'undress' wear for women can be seen in Arthur Devis' famous painting of 'Mr and Mrs Atherton' of 1743. Mrs Atherton wears a white silk satin 'nightgown'. This peculiarly English garment, despite its name, was never worn in bed. It was also known as an 'open gown', due to the opening in the centre front of the skirt. This allowed for the display of a matching or contrasting petticoat. In this case, Mrs Atherton wears it with a pale blue quilted silk satin petticoat, both fashionable and warm. It is probably lined with calamanco, a hard-wearing mixture of silk and wool. The cone-shaped bodice of the gown is smoothed over a tightly-laced corset, known to contemporaries as 'stays'. The full skirt and petticoat are held out over a wide hoop. Beneath both stays and hoop was worn a fine linen chemise, with lace neck and sleeve ruffles. The ensemble is completed by a small linen and lace cap on the typically neat hairstyle of the 1740s. The overall impression is that of a solidly respectable if provincial couple, which is indeed what they were. Mr Atherton was an Alderman and later Mayor of Preston in Lancashire.
In more fashionable contrast to Mrs Atherton, Mary Wright, Lady Cunliffe, as painted by Francis Cotes in 1768, wears the French-style sack-back gown or 'robe à la Française'. Such clothing was certainly considered to be 'dress' wear. Made from a dusty pink and green shot silk, it has the typical, wide 'Watteau pleat' at the centre back of the bodice. This was named after the French artist who often portrayed it in his work. The silk bows down the bodice front and at the sleeves, together with the multi-layered frothy lace undersleeves and the ruffled silk 'robings' down the sides of the bodice and skirt opening, all combine to give a much more feminine, sophisticated and indeed expensive impression of dress than that worn by Mrs Atherton.
Men's dress in the 18th century was also subject to the vagaries of fashion. A typical example of male 'undress' wear, similar to the female wrapping gown, was the 'banyan' or 'Indian nightgown'. This can be seen in Jonathan Richardson the Elder's 1732 'Portrait of the Artist's Son'. The sitter wears a red silk banyan, arranged in folds over his fine white linen shirt. He also wears a matching nightcap, which despite its name could be worn at any time of the day but never in bed. This form of headgear was put on at home, in informal surroundings when one removed one's wig. It often denoted both informality and artistic leanings in equal measure. We can see that the sitter's head has been shaved, which was commonly done to make the wearing of the wig more comfortable.
Two other examples of men's fashionable dress among the Walker's paintings are worth noting. The first is a typical form of 'undress' wear, comparable in social standing to that worn by Mrs Atherton in Devis' painting. This is the 1768 portrait of 'Richard Gildart', by Joseph Wright of Derby. By 1768, the sitter, a wealthy sugar merchant, was an old man of 95. He had been an MP for 20 years and three times Mayor of Liverpool. His dress marks him out as one of the solid merchant class, wealthy but with few social pretensions. There is no apparent desire to flaunt his money through dress. He wears a pale aubergine-coloured 'frock', an informal coat, of finest broadcloth wool, with deep 'bucket' sleeves, over a rust-coloured wool suit. The wool is expensive but not showy. His neckcloth is of fine white linen, but he wears plain grey wool stockings rather than silk. The deep cuffs on the coat were going out of fashion by 1768. Older men like Gildart, however, often clung to the fashions of their earlier years.
The second example, in contrast to Gildart's attire, is typical of 'dress' wear for men. 'Sir Robert Clayton Bt', of 1769, by Thomas Gainsborough, is shown wearing a full dress suit of pale gold silk. His coat and waistcoat are both decorated with gold metallic braid. The lace cuffs and ruffle on the cravat are rendered in a loose, impressionistic way, making it impossible to identify the exact type of lace. Sir Robert wears a short, powdered wig and holds a black wool felt or beaver tricorne hat, also trimmed with gold braid. Sometimes referred to as a 'chapeau bras' or 'arm hat', these accessories were often not made to be worn at all but to be flourished about instead. His whole demeanour, strengthened by his dress, proclaims Sir Robert a member of the landed gentry, as opposed to being in trade like Gildart.
Dress in paintings can have plenty to say, if only we know how to read its language. The costumes on display in the Walker's 18th century paintings are a rich source of information about the people of that period, their aspirations, achievements and beliefs.