Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington, 1822, Sir Thomas Lawrence. Shortly after this was painted, the female form would be locked back down in corsets for another century.
Strapless gowns continue to be a popular silhouette for young American women on their wedding days. Their mothers preferred something with lots of fabric, either in the style of Princess Diana’s gown or hippie-like Gunne Sax. That change continues a long pattern. For more than a hundred years, fashion has trended toward less coverage, more stretch and less tailoring. We seem to be at the logical end of this trend, when even celebrity nudity ceases to shock.
A satirical cartoon from the July 11th 1857 issue of Harper's Weekly.
What comes next? More coverage seems unlikely, since we Moderns have no experience living through a conservative reversal. Yet there is one precedent, in the 19th century shift from the Mode à la Grecque to Victorian sensibility.
Parisian Ladies in their Full Winter Dress for 1800, 1799 caricature print by Isaac Cruikshank.
Mode à la Grecque itself was a radical departure from what came before. During the 1790s, women's fashion underwent a dramatic transformation from periwigs, powder and panniers to natural hair and light, unrestricted clothing. This was a smart move during the Age of Revolution. The absurd and expensive clothing of the Ancien-Regime was not just out of style, it was dangerously reactionary.
The new neo-classical style was both more democratic and more revealing. “The girdle of the dress was no longer bound to the hips, but under the breast; the powder was gradually abolished, the chopsticks were laid down, the whole clothing approached more to nature, and actually to the Greek taste, in which sense one went further and further in the following years, to scarcity in clothing, which scarcely left a fold, so that the most accurate description of the body shape underneath it seemed to be the actual purpose and fame of this fashion,” wrote contemporary Austrian novelist Caroline Pichler.
Madame Moitessier, 1856, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. She may be showing décolletage, but she is carefully laced into a steel-stayed corset.
That freedom from stricture was, sadly, short-lived. By 1830, when waistlines had dropped back to the natural waist, corsets returned with a vengeance, culminating in the diabolical swan-bill corset of the early twentieth century. These 19th century corsets were actually tighter and more restrictive than what had come before the Mode à la Grecque, thanks to modern steel stays. The steel-stay corset did not disappear from general use until World War I.
Why did women ever let themselves be caught back up in the restrictive clothing that was the hallmark of the Victorian era? There were women who lamented the return to stays and a few outliers like Amelia Bloomer who pushed for healthier, more rational clothing. Most, however, just acquiesced.
Mrs. Cecil Wade, 1886, John Singer Sargent, is already showing the effects of the fashionable S-curve of the swan-bill corset. She can't sit normally.
We live in tumultuous times. What seems inconceivable today may be reality in just a few short years. Heck, girls might even start wearing sleeves again at their weddings.
Fashion is just a reflection of history, after all, and history never runs in a straight line.