18th Century Movement
The art of moving gracefully in the 18th Century was an integral part of daily living for the upper classes and the rising middle classes. In this highly class conscious era, movement was the ultimate status symbol, since it was the one art that could not be purchased, but had to be painstakingly learned over time. The art of movement was learned from three main sources; dancing masters, etiquette books, and costumes, the latter re-enforcing the teaching and dictums of the previous two.
Of all the motions, dancing was the most difficult and most admired. Learning to dance gracefully helped to teach one to move gracefully, and was, therefore, taught to upper class children almost as soon as they could walk. To re-enforce the correct movement patterns children were also dressed like miniature adults at an early age, and corseted to insure correct posture.
The most popular dance of the entire 18th Century was the minuet, a stately, disciplined dance that required superb body control concealed beneath apparent effortlessness. Its movement patterns highlighted the clothing to its best advantage, and the clothing in turn dictated the movement patterns.
For example, men’s heads were to be held up “free and easy” without sudden movements, a stance that was re-enforced by the wig, which was held on to the head by faith alone.
Women, who wore their own hair were allowed to tilt their heads to one side as long as they avoided all “affected motions of the head” which might disturb their coiffure.
Shoulders and arms had to look relaxed, the upper arms curving gently away from the torso not dropping down straight at the sides, a pattern re-enforced by the very high cut armholes which made it uncomfortable to do anything but hold the arms slightly away from the torso. Elbows were always slightly bent, and the cut of 18th Century sleeves is curved at the elbow to allow for this.
Men’s legs showed very clearly in tight breeches and stockings and so they adopted a permanent balletic stance of 4th position “turn out” to show the curve of the legs to the best advantage.
If a gentleman led his body with his calves a lady led with her bosom. Her corset did most of the display work for her, compressing her shoulders and waist, straightening her posture and pushing her bosom up and forward. The instant a lady started to slump, a gentle prod from her corset bones reminded her to straighten up.
However, a woman’s skirt was the most challenging item to manage in motion both for herself and for those around her.
Panniers were a visible status symbol, extending out the skirt up to four feet on each side. To manage panniers, a woman had to think before she moved. Too narrow doorways would have to be entered sideways, chairs could only be sat on if they were without armrests, carriages had to be entered carefully, often with a footman pushing from behind.
Panniers posed challenges to those surrounding the lady as well. For walking, a gentleman had to stand slightly in front of the lady’s skirt in order to take her arm. While moving on the dance floor, he was obliged to dance at arm’s length.
Since the panniers added so many challenges of their own to the skirt, trains were not very popular and the skirt usually cleared the floor by a few inches. This called attention to the lady’s feet as the only part of her lower anatomy shown in public. Beautiful but uncomfortable, shoes were then shown in the graceful small footwork highlighted in dances such as the galliard, minuet, and gavotte.
What is obvious is that clothing in the 18th Century was constructed not for comfort in movement, but for beautiful movement, meant to give pleasure to the viewers, and to transform the self into a living work of art. Or as it is put in The Art of Dancing in 1724: “Let us imagine ourselves as so many living pictures drawn by the most excellent masters, exquisitely designed to afford the utmost pleasure to the beholders.”
Country Capers/English County Dance