History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

05 September 2016

How Did 18th Century Gowns Work, Part One

Got an interesting question from a fellow author this week. She was confused about how 18th Century gowns worked (the method of fastening isn't obvious). There are two main styles of bodice on most 18thC gowns: closed-front/compère and the stomacher-front (and some that are a sneaky combo!). Let's talk about the closed-front ones today.

The main thing to remember is that no matter what the new Poldark series or romance novel covers show, these gowns did NOT open in the back. They had a straight edge front opening that can be closed in several different ways.

1770s gown, Victoria and Albert Museum

The most common of which was to simply pin it shut. Yep, pins! Pins were probably the most common method of closing gowns for hundreds of years. You see it all the way back to the 14thC. This is the reason that women received "pin money". You had to constantly replace them as they bent and rusted. A friend was recently in London for a few months and took up mudlarking. She found thousands of pins in the Thames. Thousands and thousands. I've pinned a lot of gowns shut in my lifetime of re-enacting, and I can vouch for the method. It's easy and efficient (ok, it's easy for someone ELSE to pin you in; a bit harder to do yourself).

Another fairly common method is hook and eyes. Just like the ones you're familiar with. They would be set slightly inside so that when done up they'd be invisible. You will also see lacing on extant gowns (remember, no metal grommets, and my best guess is these are not fashionable gowns), and even buttons (though sometimes these are merely decorative).


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