The eighteenth century ushered in sweeping changes to the lives of rich and poor alike. The rural, agriculturally-based economies of Europe began a centuries-long transformation into modern industrially-based economies. The early years of the Industrial Revolution brought technological advances that improved agricultural production and sped up the manufacture of goods, laying the groundwork for the factory system that would soon dominate European countries and the newly formed United States of America. Better transportation between distant places made it possible to buy and sell more goods. England rose to become the most technologically advanced nation in the world and imposed its power across the globe.
The growth of the middle class
At the beginning of the century Europeans were divided into distinct social classes. Noblemen owned vast tracts of land on which peasants labored for very little compensation, while shopkeepers, professionals, and some skilled workers made up a small middle class. However, as trade routes between European countries and distant lands became firmly established, merchants began developing great wealth. With these economic changes wealth was spread among more people. Merchants and factory owners soon had enough wealth to dictate important parts of political and economic life and to influence fashions. No longer were wealthy nobles the only people who could afford the luxuries of life.
Along with more luxurious food, housing, and clothing, the growing middle class began devouring knowledge. A group of intellectuals developed new ideas about politics and human potential. By the end of the century the Age of Enlightenment had become a popular cultural movement that favored reason over authority. Intellectuals questioned the leadership of royalty and the church and supported free thought. The French philosophers Voltaire (1694–1778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) laid the foundations for the civil unrest that led to the French Revolution (1789–99) with such revolutionary ideas as "man is born free, and is everywhere in chains," as Rousseau wrote in his Social Contract in 1762. Their ideas led to the development of the French Republic and to future forms of democracy.
The economic and social changes that occurred throughout the eighteenth century were punctuated by several wars and revolutions. At the beginning of the century most of Europe was embroiled in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), in which England, Holland, and other countries stopped the unification of France and Spain to prevent the two countries from having too much power. Europeans fought a number of other wars during the century, but the most dramatic was the French Revolution that started in 1789, which violently toppled the monarchy, or kingdom, of France and dragged much of Europe into a number of conflicts that erupted off and on until 1815. Although the American Revolution (1775–83) charted a new course for the independent American colonies, it did not have as large an impact on European life as the French Revolution during the eighteenth century.
The wars in Europe shifted power on the continent from France to England. By the end of the eighteenth century, France had lost most of its holdings and England controlled the seas, had accumulated many distant possessions, and was the most powerful industrial economy in the world. With its newly won political and economic power, England also became a center for fashion. France had been the trendsetter for fashions up until this point, dictating ever more extravagant fashions that culminated with the Rococo style, or a decorative style of architecture, fashion, and interior design that featured purely ornamental designs and ornament with intricate floral patterns, popular between 1715 and 1775. Now English tailors triggered a trend toward well-made, somber-colored clothes for men and more severe fashions for women. By the end of the century unadorned English clothes once worn for everyday wear had become fashionable enough for royalty to wear. Although the French Revolution impacted fashion choices for a brief period, England's beautifully tailored clothes dominated the end of the century and influenced clothing styles into the next century.
The importance of clothes
The skill of English tailors was not the only factor in the popularity of English clothes during the century. Textiles were by far the largest industry in England, and mechanized looms, or weaving machines, threatened home-based production. Huge quantities of raw cotton imported from America was woven into cloth and sold around the world. New spinning, dyeing, and weaving technologies developed at the end of the century would influence the next century even more. In the eighteenth century good quality fabric was available to more people than ever before. Merchants advertised clothing to the masses. Paper dolls were printed and distributed with paper clothes in the latest fashions. Unprecedented numbers of people bought new fabrics and wore nicely tailored clothes.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Black, Jeremy. Eighteenth Century Europe, 1700–1789. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.
Contini, Mila. Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. Edited by James Laver. New York: Odyssey Press, 1965.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Kallen, Stuart A., ed. The 1700s. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2001.Eighteenth-Century Clothing
Eighteenth-Century Body Decorations