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Though modesty is a contemporary concept, it has existed throughout the ages and has carried a different meaning in relation to the time. The dress code in the late 18th century and early 19th century reflected a culture of measure and moderation. 

As society changes, our language changes with it. We are constantly changing aspects of our communication, making new words, and assigning new meaning to old ones. For example, the word nice used to mean silly or foolish. And directly opposite, the word silly used to mean blessed or worthy! The concept of modesty has been around for a long time, but it too has evolved greatly. According to the OpenEdition Journals, the word modest primarily meant “free from excess” in the past. And over time as modesty has changed to include clothes, our perception of the word has also changed considerably. What we consider modest today doesn’t quite align with what was modest in the 1700s. So, what did modesty look like in the 1700s? 



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The “Anti-Fashion” of the 1700s 

The 1700s was an interesting time for fashion because it changed greatly throughout the era. One noticeable change was brought about by the French Revolution. As revolutionaries got more powerful, the general public began to rebel against high fashion because of its relation to the royals. Fashion instead turned to what was deemed “anti-fashion”. In this “anti-fashion,” people dressed much more conservatively, and modesty became a valued factor in clothing. 

We see value placed on modesty in the modern world as well, although in the present day, it is generally a religious value. Many Christians, Muslims, and those of other faiths attempt to dress modestly for church, and throughout their life. 

With its religious context, it's interesting to consider that the origin of modesty was set in a rebellious context. Yet, however, it originated, modesty is an important part of the lives of many and is very prevalent in the past as well as in the modern day. 

Women’s Modesty in the 18th Century 

The standard for women’s modesty in the 18th century is vastly different from those of today, mostly in the fact that it was more extreme in nature. Women’s elbows and knees were never to be exposed, and clothes were generally styled in a way that obscured a women’s figure. This was accomplished by wearing long stockings to prevent skin from showing and layering 2-5 petticoats to effectively hide curves. Women also wore capes, in favor over jackets which are more form-fitting. 

However, while showing form was generally frowned upon, the waist was often accentuated in women’s clothing in this era. This was done with a piece of clothing called a stay (similar to a corset). This accentuation of the waist was often paired with very large skirts, giving women the appearance of having a very small waist and wide hips. Generally, this was only done dramatically by those making fashion statements. Most women wore this dress is a subdued form. 



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Another interesting aspect of women’s clothing is that traditional pockets were not included in the main garments. 18th-century pockets would instead be tied under the outer layer of a woman’s clothes to be functional but secure, as one did not want to display the personal items kept within them.  



While the off-the-should sleeve look had been popular, this era brought a new neckline called the mantua, characterized by its high collar and square neckline. Women also would wear a kerchief over her shoulders and tucked into her dress neckline for everyday occasions. This was joined by a stomacher, which was a piece of fabric that filled the front opening of the bodice under the lacing. 

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Sleeve length in the 1700s changed throughout the era. In the early 1700s, sleeves would reach below the elbow and were generally very wide and frilly. By the 1790s, sleeves were full-length, and they were also form-fitting. 


Men’s Modesty in the 18th Century 

While men’s modesty standards are generally less severe than those of women, men in the 18th century followed certain fashion rules. According to Fashion History Timeline, the trend of men’s outfits in the late 1700s trended towards simplicity and was heavily influenced by menswear from England. Some of these popular styles included the frock coats, riding boots and hats of English jockeys. This relates back to the “anti-fashion” of the time, though these items were still carefully tailored to look nice. It seems that the object of the time was to look good without looking like too much effort was put in. No one wanted to look too lavish, like the royalty they were rebelling against. 

If a man were to have a more elaborate item, it would be his waistcoat, which was often the object of interest has it had more interesting patterns. 

One French man, Sebastion Mercier, while calling this style, “neat, and [implying] a most exact cleanliness of a person]” wanted his people to keep their dress French rather than following the English style. He noted an English influence all throughout France, not just in fashion. 


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Goodbye Wigs 

During this period, men began to stop wearing wigs. However, other fashion items, such as the cravat (a sort of neckband or necktie) began to make an appearance. The cravat resulted in coverage of a man’s neck and chest.  

Coats and jackets began to slim compared to previous fashions, but the skin was still covered fairly heavily. Men wore breeches reaching just below the knee, but they were paired with stockings that prevented the skin of the leg from being shown. 

At this point in time, men’s legs were seen as attractive, and even provocative. You can see this shown in paintings from the time period, as men were often posed with their inner ankle turned out in what was considered an attractive posture at the time. 



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How Class Affected “Modesty” 

Modesty in the 1700s didn’t look the same for everyone. The rich had looser modesty standards, trending away from the more moderate fashion of the time with their gaudy attire. Wealthy women were more likely to wear necklines that exposed their cleavage, donning décolleté (a term that was actually coined in the 19th century for a low neckline dress) and today is used to describe a woman's upper chest area. 

While the rich still imitated fashion from the lower classes (wearing working-class clothes) they transformed these outfits with higher-quality fabric and made them more form-fitting.  

The 1700s brought fashion far less formal than what came before. Culture in the 1700s was pushing against the previous ideologies of excess. Wigs and powder were out, and clothes styled after the working class became more popular. We can see similarities to this in our time, with styles that can still be considered fashionable but are more relaxed. Things like streetwear, grunge, etc. show this off well. Looking at past trends we can understand more about the present day.