Some (Unasked-For) Advice

So, there's a stylistic issue that's started to stand out to me in 18th century costuming. And you can feel free to disregard this post if you want to; I'm not the reenactment police.

The issue is: stomachers and petticoats that match each other while contrasting with the gown.

Outlander here serves as a great example, since so many 18th century films are either set in the 1780s or have anachronistic stomacher-less bodices in earlier decades. But others do it too!

The look of a stomacher that matches the petticoat seems to have been really attractive to people through the nineteenth century, and continues to be so up to today! For starters, this illustration dates to only a couple of generations after stomacher'd gowns were being regularly worn:

Image of marriage from The Stages of Man, ca. 1815; the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection
Many museums have dressed mannequins like this through the years, matching up a gown they own with a lone petticoat, then making a stomacher to match the petticoat - which unfortunately is taken by many as evidence of practice.

There are a few period images that show this kind of styling. For instance, Zoffany's 1769 portrait of the Bradshaw family (Tate Collection N06261) shows Elizabeth Wilson Bradshaw in a green gown with a dark pink quilted petticoat and light pink stomacher, sleeve ribbons, and neck frill. Susanna Gale was painted by Reynolds in a costume-looking pink gown with what seems to be a vertically-ruched white petticoat ca. 1763. There are also a few portraits by Francis Cotes, such as this portrait of an unknown lady in 1768:

Tate Collection N04689
This is very similar to the outfit in which Cotes had painted Princess Caroline in 1767, though that has a white petticoat, and in which an unknown artist painted a Mrs. Cadoux ca. 1770. (I think it's a possibility that this was a studio outfit and that the latter portrait is also by Cotes; obviously there would have to have been certain liberties taken, removing trim for the unknown lady and such, but it seems rather a strange coincidence to me that three portraits would happen to make use of such similar gowns in this very striking combination of pieces and colors that doesn't turn up that frequently otherwise. The princesses and Mrs. Cadoux have faces that look like they could have been done by the same person, don't you think?)

But apart from a handful of examples, the majority of French, British, and American artwork pre-late 1770s - from portraits to genre prints - shows women of any means matching their petticoats to their gowns (if not also the stomacher, but if there's contrast, that's where it is most of the time). It's a simple detail, but it makes a great deal of difference when someone looks at your reenactment kit or the costume you've designed. Or at least ... it's started to make a great deal of difference to me!

Mrs. Bowles and her Child, Thomas Hudson, ca. 1755; Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum 1956.96

Mrs. Matthew Michell and her children, Matthew and Anne, Thomas Hudson, 1757-58; LAMS L.F9.1938.0.0
(an example of the contrasting stomacher effect)

Mrs. Mary Martyn, Allan Ramsay, 1761; Birmingham Museums Trust 1957P27
Sacque, petticoat, and stomacher, ca. 1760; LACMA M.56.6a-b

Madame Sophie, Lié Louis Périn-Salbreux, ca. 1773; Rheims Museum of Fine Arts

Hannah Choate Lathrop, attr. John Durand, ca. 1775; Historic New England 1991.166.2


  1. Very interesting observation. I'll be looking for more examples of extant stomachers/petticoats. And will look forward to reading more from you on the subject.

  2. Good point! I noticed that your examples of contrasting stomachers all seem to be échelles, and I've seen photos of embroidered stomachers - were there contrasting stomachers made of plain fabric too?

    BTW, having multiple échelles with matching sleeve bows is a period way of creating different looks, and it conserves space and money as one only needs a single petticoat for each gown. :-)

    1. I've seen a number of images showing women with unmatching, apparently plain white stomachers, especially in America in the 1740s-1750s - for instance - and because we have so many paintings of solid-colored taffeta gowns when extants show so much brocading, damask patterning, etc., I'm not completely sure if they really were plain or if the artist was classicizing for the sitter and deliberately not depicting embroidery or some other kind of pattern on it.

    2. Yes, leaving out complicated patterning was probably convenient both for the sitter and the artist... :)

      Perhaps some of the white stomachers may be Marseille work? I think the technique was popular around that time. There are Marseille work stomachers in Scandinavian museum databases, and I've seen one in a naive portrait somewhere (possibly from Finland), where you can actually tell it's Marseille work.

      And of course it could be other techniques as well; Heather Toomer's book on whitework has some white stomachers in embroidery or corded quilting.

    3. Really good points! And in common peoples' clothing, I've run into plain white stomachers that seem like they may not be decorative, but functional:

    4. That's an interesting observation! I've wondered, too, how they protected their clothes above waist level.

    5. Yep, can't forget about the bib and tucker! I love that post.

  3. May have been unasked for advise, but you can feel free to post masterworks with beautiful dresses anytime you get the urge, it's appreciated.

  4. YASSSS. I wonder if part of our modern "eye" for this look is influenced by those old-school "colonial dress" costumes (you know, from 1980s school pageants :) ) that are made in all one piece and use the same fabric for the "stomacher" and "petticoat." When we re-translate into actual historical silhouettes, we drag this modern interpretation with us.

    And I fully agree with representing better when "matchy matchy" should be the rule.

  5. This is one of those "once you see it, you can't unsee it" things. I'm a huge fan of period costume and now everything is just matchy petticoat/stomacher combos.


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