Wednesday, January 25, 2012

1790s Convertible Spencer: More Research on How "Bodies" Were Worn

London and Paris Fashions, May 1799
The sleeveless sort of spencer thingie was known, as mentioned in previous posts, by such names as the "body" and the "corset", and "sleeveless spencer". I start to see it popping up in 1796 and by the end of the decade it's pretty common in fashion plates.

In looking for documentation to go along with the sample Metropolitan spencer, I'd been all over Gallery of Fashion, hoping to find information on what sorts of garments were worn beneath, in words, not just plates. I wanted to make sure that my wearing this sort of thing over a dress was done.

It was discouraging to find that Gallery of Fashion, in 1796 anyhow, the date of my inspiration example, called for these items to be worn with petticoats and "sleeves". So it is for my inspiration garment, anyhow, and for other examples I reviewed.

Was this saying that the sleeves were actually attached to the body, and worn with a petticoat? Usually Gallery of Fashion tells us when a plate depicts a round gown (bodice+skirt together) or a robe+petticoat. Yet was this a new combination of clever little pieces? Or just imprecise wording naming the piece parts of the ensemble without attempting to tell what was attached to what. I do not know.

However, another subscription magazine, The Fashions of London and Paris, of which the Japanese Bunka Gakuen library has a copy, comes to our aid. It tends to tell us when items are dresses and when something else...expect in the cases of Parisian fashion, when often they give plates sans text. Ah well, something is better than nothing.

In May of 1799, in a page describing the latest in Paris headdresses (see illustration above), here is as much of the original description as applies:

Paris dresses.
Fig. 1. [not included here, since it only describes the headdress]
Fig. 2. Velvet toque, (cap) trimmed with lace, worked in gold. -- This is an imitation of the costume of a Venetian actress. Among the elegantes who brought it out, it is always worn with the Swiss, or half corset, of which the most common are white satin, trimmed with deep red velvet.
Fig. 3. [not included here, since it only describes the headdress]
Fig. 4. [not included here, since it only describes the headdress]
General Observations Relative to the Paris Dresses...White is the prevailing color,  the finest Indian muslins plain embroidered obtain the preference with those rich females denominated elegantes over all other manufactures.

The Espindor, which ladies of the above-mentioned class have lately shewn such partiality for, is a kind of spencer; of a deep color, not turned back, and with short sleeves; it is crossed in before, and edged with narrow slips of lace in gold and silver".

Note figures 3 and 4 are wearing little overgarments as well. From this image and description we learn that there were a variety of little garments (no surprise) and that they could have fanciful names (again no surprise). There is no image of the Espindor, but, remember the German crossed front, short-sleeved, pink spencer? Mmmm?

Plate 10.
Luxus und
der Moden.
April 1796.

Below, for August 1799, the description of figure 2, "...jacket and train of white muslin". Under General Observations, "The Jacket described in no. 2, is generally worn..."  No mention of anything under the jacket. I think this one is like the 18th century jacket, worn with a petticoat. I have never been certain what distinguishes a jacket from a spencer in contemporary texts. Danske dragter: moden 1790-1840 by E. Anderson, says that a feature of the spencer was that it was cut straight off at the waist, rather than allowed to have tails like the 18th century jacket. (p. 230.) Merriam-Webster defines the spencer as a "short, waist-length jacket".  However, many museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art included, include tailed specimens under the name "spencer". I wonder if jackets were worn, as they had been in the 18th century, with nothing under them (unless as riding dress), while spencers usually had dresses under them? If anyone is sure, please let me know.

London and Paris Fashions, August 1799.

In December 1799 after describing quite a number of dresses and their accessories in full, they write under General Observations:

Silk pelices are more prevalent than ever. Habits are much worn in the morning. Black velvet spencers or corsets; plain black velvet cloaks, and black velvet handkerchiefs, are general favorites...

Then, in the January number, they illustrate a Paris fashion (dated December 1799 because it could take a bit for the fashions to cross the channel), and they write:

Paris Figure (from the Costume Parisien)
Pointed turban, ornamented with an aigrette, or plume, and a myrtle garland. Spencer without sleeves, of purple satin or velvet, trimmed round with silver, and clasped in front. Scarlet shawl. Silver necklace and earrings.
London and Paris Fashions, December 1799
(but appearing in the January1800 number)
Image Bunka Gakuen Library.

So here we have a variety of interesting evidence, including the sleeveless spencer, so named, over a dress, described in print...we don't know if this is a full dress ensemble although given the fan, and the style of headdress, it's at least afternoon dress.

This small set of examples is a start and probably enough for me, who am not attempting to build a persona per se, but a costume.


Mimic of Modes said...

I wonder if jackets were worn, as they had been in the 18th century, with nothing under them (unless as riding dress), while spencers usually had dresses under them? If anyone is sure, please let me know.

I don't know if I'd put money on it, but I do think that spencers seem to be outerwear, like pelisses. When I was going through Gallery of Fashion for my thesis, it seemed like corsets/bodies/jackets/robes were always worn with petticoats - whereas there are plates like fig. XCI (April 1796) that talk about a spencer-cape worn over a gown, and La Belle Assemblée 1806 and 1807. You tend to see jackets and petticoats being linked together. So when it's called a "sleeveless spencer", I think it's safe to assume it's being worn over a gown and not a petticoat.

Honestly, when it comes to period word definitions, I think modern dictionaries are fairly useless, fashion history books are suspect unless they cite every statement about a definition with a primary source, and museum collections are less than useless because you never know who put the item into the system or how much knowledge they had - they might have just typed in what the cataloguer in 1935 wrote on the accession card.

Summer said...

Wow, this is amazing research!

From a practical point of view I'd think that women wore the corset/sleeveless spencer with what they had. If it worked over a dress, great. If it worked over a petticoat, you'd make that work. The goal of creating new outfits by the addition of one new piece is as important then as now.

ZipZip said...

Dear Mimic of Modes and Summer,

Exactly, Mimic of Modes, exactly! So neat to hear about your research. You put it into far better words than I did. The jacket+petticoat combination had by now been worn for ages, so why would it just suddenly die entirely and be overtaken by round gowns? While the spencer made sense going over a chilly little muslin gown.

Summer, I agree too, pretty much. With fabric still expensive and everything handmade, all except the very, very rich tended to be sensible in what they put together. Except in wearing thin muslin in winter...

As an aside: in the Danske Dragter series, which I am now reading as best I may, I have just seen a spencer double lined. Denmark was COLD!

Very best,


ColeV said...

I know it's a number of years later, but I'm working on copying two fashion plates out of Ackermann's 1812. It goes on about how new this idea is: a gown with a matching jacket so one can wear it traveling to an event, then remove it to have a proper wool/velvet evening gown. I would have never thought putting a waistlength jacket over a full gown was novel, but Ackermann's said it was!

ZipZip said...

Dear ColeV,

Good morning! The plot is certainly thickening. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? Magazine writers may have been as neglectful of memory then as they were in the later nineteenth century and certainly are today, in an effort to get subscribers. For those of us who document, it's trying.

I wish I had the time to read more personal letters. Advertisements are so often written in shorthand and rarely describe more than discrete items.

Very best,


Hana - Marmota said...

Again, years alter, but might not "sleeves" be shorthand for "shirtsleeves", i.e. a shirt?
I have two reasons for this: a 1797 plate featuring what's apparently a riding habit of a kind, because the figure has a whip, but consisting of a spencer, shirt and petticoat of different colours.
Plus, a roundabout not-English reason: in Moravian (and Slovak?) folk costumes, the shirts/blouses that get worn under the sleeveless folk costume bodices are called "rukávce", i.e. basically "sleeves", even though they're not just sleeves. I'm thinking - especially because of the existence of the word "shirtsleeves" - it might have been used the same way in English.

Natalie Ferguson said...

Dear Hana-Marmota,
You know, have a suspicion that you are on to something. Looking at numbers of these plates later, I am wondering now if there may be shirts involved in some of the more menswear-inspired ensembles. That's the sort of question that a good, solid search through all kinds of texts: lists of clothing, mantua-makers' and tailors' inventories or records, novels, diaries, etc. might help to answer.

Very best,