Talbot Hughes was a painter of romanticized genre and historical and landscape scenes who exhibited at the Royal Academy from the age of seventeen (1871) to 1903. For historical accuracy in his paintings he began to collect costumes from the 16th century to the 18th century. The collection was eventually displayed in 1913 at Harrod’s, and the clothes were afterward donated to the Victoria and Albert museum as a gift to the nation.
“The artist…has made the powder and patch era a special study, amassing wardrobes of sacques, flowered brocades, high-heeled mules, and full-bottomed wigs.” He dressed the models for his genre scenes in these clothes, styling hair and accessories to match, mor or less. His painting The Union Jack, for example, shows a ‘comely wench, with elaborately curled locks and a gold and white brocade sacque’. The neoclassical floral stripes of her silk jacket would seem to date from the late 1770’s, whilst her hairstyle and neckerchief are styled to the 1785-90 period. This painting was first shown at the Fine Art Society gallery in London in 1902. – Establishing Dress History, Lou Taylor, 2004, p. 115.
This link leads to a fascinating site that describes the collection and includes turn of the century photographs of the costumes: Old English Costumes Selected from the Collection formed by Mr. Talbot Hughes A SEQUENCE OF FASHIONS THROUGH THE 18TH & 19TH CENTURIES Presented to the. VICTORIA& ALBERT MUSEUM, South Kensington, by HARRODS LTD. London S. W. Descriptive notes were rewritten from “The Connoisseur,” November:
With the French Revolution an entire change of fashion took place, admirably shown by the costumes collected by Mr. Talbot Hughes. The elaborate splendour of the patch-and-powder period gave way to an extreme simplicity of dress in the classical style. The heavy brocaded and stiff flowered skirts were replaced by light gauzes and dainty muslins, which revealed the soft contours of the female form with a delightful and child-like grace. This lasted throughout the Empire period, and, indeed, for many years after Waterloo, until the crinoline came to put out the clinging draperies.
So startling was the change that in 1799 a Russian officer, accustomed at home to estimate the rank of a lady by the warmth of her clothing, offered a woman of fashion a penny in Bond Street, under the impression that, from her scantily clothed appearance, she must be a pauper.
There are some delightful specimens of this period in the Talbot Hughes collection – little, clinging frocks that must have fitted the ladies inside as closely as a glove, with low bodices and high waists, and with no room for a petticoat over the silk or cotton slip. Describing the fashion in Old Times, John Ashton writes: “I do not say that our English betters went to the extent of some of their French sisters of having their muslin dresses put on damp, and holding them tight to their figures till they dried, so as to absolutely mould them to their form, but their clothes were of the scantiest. As year succeeded year the fashion developed, if one can call diminution of clothing development.”
That was again the exaggeration of fashion among smart women of high society; but in the middle classes the period was chiefly noted for a charming simplicity. It was Jane Austen’s period, and, wandering among these costumes with Mr. Talbot Hughes, I was reminded again and again of the dear, delightful Jane.
Here is one of the “coquelicot,” or poppy-coloured sashes, which she so much favoured, and the cambric muslins which one reads of so often in her letters, as when she wrote:
“I shall want two new coloured gowns for the summer, for my pink one will not do more than clear me from Steventon. I shall not trouble you, however, to get more than one of them, and that is to be a plain brown cambric muslin for morning wear; the other, which is to be a very pretty yellow and white cloud, I mean to buy in Bath.”
Here are high-waisted gowns such as Jane Austen’s heroines wore when they “pinned up each other’s things for the dance,” and little white caps which saved Jane herself “a world of torment as to hairdressing,” and a cap of “satin and lace with a little white flower perking out of the left, ear, like Harriet Byron’s feather,” and the cloak, or pelisse, such as Jane wore when she went out for a walk in chilly weather, and the huge muff which is so characteristic, in pictures or the time.
The colours of these silks and cotton prints are delicate and “chaste,” as Jane’s young ladies would have said, but they must be described in the language of the time, which was somewhat fanciful.
“One lady,” wrote Hannah More, “asked what was the newest colour. The other answered that the most truly fashionable silk was a soupcon de vert, lined with a soupir etouffé, et brodée de l’espérance. Now you must not consult your old-fashioned dictionary for the word espérance, for you will there find that it means nothing but hope, whereas espérance in the new language of the time means rose-buds.”
The middle-class ladies of this time were very cunning in their way of [retrimming] old materials with new adornments, and one is reminded of Jane Austen’s announcement:
“I have determined to trim my lilac sarsenet with lilac satin ribbon, just as my chine crape is. Sixpenny width at bottom, or fourpenny at top. Ribbon trimmings are all the fashion at Bath. With this addition it will be a very useful gown, happy to go anywhere.”
The photographs that accompany this 1913 article are especially interesting. Although the women were dressed as Regency ladies, they definitely have an early 19th century sensibility, made especially so by the hair, make-up, sets, and props. Compare and contrast our modern interpretation of regency fashion with these turn of the 20th century views. Generations from now, our images of that era will seem as dated as these nearly century old photographs.
- Click here to read Talbot Hughes’ book about dress design: Dress Design: An Account for Artists and Dressmakers, Talbot Hughes, 1920