The first thing that struck me once I was tied into the blue velvet dress trimmed with lace was the weight of my petticoats. Eighteenth century clothing for women was bottom heavy. Even poor, working women wore petticoats down to the ground over a slip. Waists were gathered in and skirts were voluminous, a great swathe of material hanging down to your feet. If I turned too quickly I might swing myself over as the skirts continued without me. It made my movements more cautious, less free. Walking was a very different swishing sensation and unless I picked up the skirts and carried them like a baby in my arms, striding was a tiring option and running was impossible. And the formal single hooped petticoat that I’d tied around my waist beneath the velvet open fronted skirt – far less stiff and rectangular than the first half of the 18th century – gave me the added challenge of width. Rather like a cat using it’s whiskers, I had to judge the width of doorways or the space between rows of shelves, before attempting to pass through them. The humiliation of being stuck, wedged between racks of shoes and needing to be saved.
I was trying out my 18th century clothing experiments in a warehouse in South London that has every costume and accessory imaginable, hanging on rails two rows high. The National Theatre Costume Hire is a treasure trove of historical styles and they very kindly allowed me and my dresser to spend the morning in a changing room by the entrance, next to the hats and masks, scouring through their endless collections. We searched through boxes of lace caps and black tricorn hats; formal stays and normal boned ones; petticoats with hoops, single and triple layered that could be tied around the waist; little fitted jackets that hooked at the side and frock coats in brocade; white linen aprons that hung down the front of skirts and linen slips to go underneath everything; coats with tails that slipped over ball gowns and dresses both to be admired or to scrub floors in. I tried on as much as I possibly could in two hours – sometimes unsuccessfully because although I’m small, I’m clearly not as narrow as many of the actresses for whom these costumes were made. It was a sad moment when I realised that I couldn’t be done up in the green taffeta ball dress or tied into the red and gold corset. I understood how Cinderella’s ugly sisters must have felt as they tried to squeeze their gullumphing feet into a glass slipper.
I’d got in touch with the National Theatre because I was struggling to imagine what it actually felt like to inhabit the clothes I was writing about for The Posture Girl. I’d read books by brilliant historians like Anne Buck and Aileen Ribeiro, studied the portraits of Romney, Reynolds and Gainsborough, and spent afternoons at the V&A with Marie Antoinette’s manchua gown in white with gold thread, but I lacked the experience of the clothing. I couldn’t quite imagine the tangible and sensual feeling of it; both held in and loose at the same time. What did it feel like to be tied into stays? How easy was it to balance a straw hat on my head? Could I sit down? Bend down? Run or hop in petticoats? How long would it take me to get out of these clothes and stand naked before my lover? What did it feel like to be dressed by someone else? How did hip pads and bum rolls change how I felt about my bottom? Did I like having my breasts squashed up and out? My legs completely hidden? And although the costumes aren’t original and were made for contemporary performances, they gave me the impression, the sense of how it felt to inhabit female clothing of the 1780s, that I’d found so elusive.
It’s all about layers of clothing, and the wealthier you were, the more layers you could afford and the less functional you needed to be. So, I started with a slip, like a long thin night shirt down to my knees, then the hooped petticoats worn at formal occasions. Decent women didn’t wear pants – a discovery to be written about further. If you could afford it, stays would be made especially for you as they are extremely uncomfortable if they’re made for a different body shape – I can now vouch for that. And once I’d had the stays tied, the bum rolls and hip pads fixed around my waist, layered the petticoats to brush along the floor and squeezed myself into the gown, the curve of my body was emphasised in an entirely unfamiliar way. My waist looked tiny against the padding in my skirts. The size of my bottom, the shape and length of my legs, even the slenderness of my ankles didn’t matter at all beneath my petticoats. Whereas the size of my breasts and my waist did. Being flat chested or having no waist would be problematic in stays created to narrow the middle and push up breasts. But I didn’t feel modestly covered up either. I might not be wearing skin tight clothing but I was even more conscious of the expanse of skin from my neck to my chest being bare, the back of my neck, and the aesthetic importance of my hands and wrists.
I did find the endless layers and fixings tedious and can only thank my long suffering dresser, Gloria Peto, for coming with me – and these were costumes made for quick changing between scenes with all the modern conveniences of zips and mass produced buttons and small metal hooks. And I lacked many of the accoutrements that defined the truly fashionable. My hair wasn’t bulked up with horse hair or wooden blocks, lace and feathers with a silk and straw hat pinned to one side of it. I wasn’t wearing kid gloves or a taffeta sash tied in a perfect bow at the back or a fitted ridingote or satin slippers with silver buckles. The bon ton wore such elaborate clothing that they needed to be dressed into and out of it and the whole process could take hours. And, of course, so many people were employed in the process of dressing, from maids to seamstresses to stays makers to milliners. The sumptuary laws might not have been enforced but I found that having someone kneeling by your side and pinning you into a velvet and lace gown put everyone in their place.