The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Monday, 13 July 2015

A brief history of fashion rules

How tight will it go? 
Formula 1 racing champion Lewis Hamilton was turned away from the Royal Box at Wimbledon this weekend because he wasn't wearing a jacket and tie.

Last year's Wimbledon saw a fuss over the colour of players' knickers and former champion Roger Federer branded the general code ('almost entirely white') as 'too strict'. It was probably originally introduced to avoid any kind of sponsorship hints creeping in.

I remember many, many years ago there was a fuss about a brand of cigarettes, aimed at women, who sponsored one of the key players (forgive me, I'm not a tennis fan so I can't remember who) by providing a playing dress with subtle - but recognisable as the pack decoration - curved brown lines on it.

But these rules don't apply to the spectators - so what about poor Lewis?  I've been trying to find information on what the rules are, because I suspect that, for once, men are being judged more harshly than women over 'acceptable' dress.

A quick review
Historically women have always been told to dress in ways that were 'appropriate for polite society', but over the years the rules have changed quite a bit. For example, back in the 18th century skirts were long (no ankles visible please!) and wide; very wide.

If you think that's romantic, rather than restricting, try walking in a crinoline, or even better, sitting down in one A woman's behaviour was, of necessity, 'demure' because she couldn't physically do anything quickly while she was hampered by her skirts.  Even breathing was difficult because the requirement for a narrow waist meant corsets were tight.

High heels were already in fashion and, trust me, forcing women to walk round on uneven ground so their boobs and bums stick out is not healthy. It's not as bad as binding their feet so they always have dainty pins, but it can lead to severe spinal problems and arthritis in knees and hips.

France has always been a fashion leader and changes that took place around the time of their Revolution soon took off in England as well. Post Bastille Day, skirts were narrower but the boobs came out - forced up and thrust forward by that corseting again.

Early nineteenth century the skirts started filling out again and were made from stiffer fabrics, and waists were ever smaller. It's no surprise that Jane Austen's characters were often of the fainting kind. As the century progressed the shoulders came out and busts were emphasised by that ever-present corseted waist. And by the end of it, women were back in crinolines. (Think Gone with the Wind) Even the pre-Raphaelites didn't allow their women the freedom the artists had.

The Victorians took corseting to a new level, not just restricting the waist, but creating a whole silhouette from armpits to hips. Flat fronts and big bums were the order of the day - and absolutely no showing of shoulders, ankles, or indeed skin. 'Proper' ladies wore gloves.

But some were starting to object to the restrictions. In 1881 the Rational Dress Society launched a campaign of opposition to the kind of clothing that had potential to injure health and deform the body.

The Edwardians introduced a 'health corset' that moved the pressure off the stomach but encouraged an 's' shaped spine. Everything was still very well covered and there must be absolutely no hint of chest skin. Collars were high, often covering the neck.

Of course in the 1920s women became downright disobedient and started wearing whatever they wanted. Skirts hitched higher and higher, and some even wore (saints preserve us!) trousers. And as far as some people were concerned it all went downhill from there.

So back to the Royal Box question.
It goes without saying that all of the above styles would have applied to anyone mixing with Royalty, and perhaps that's one of the driving forces behind fashion.  Boobs out when Georgy Porgy was on the throne, but cover up when Victoria developed her 'we are not amused' attitudes following the death of Albert.

It's hard to track down Wimbledon's dress rules, but Ascot's are easily accessed online. Trouser suits are welcome there (suits, mind, not trousers and a shirt) but strapless, off-the-shoulder numbers that the early 19th century would have approved are now forbidden. No bare midriffs, and although it doesn't actually say that headgear is compulsory, there are strict hat rules. On no account may fascinators appear. Hats must have at least a 4 inch diameter. (Even if they do look like an upturned toilet seat!)

Gentlemen must wear formal grey or black morning suits, with a waistcoat and tie (no cravats), top hat and black shoes.  Poor Lewis wouldn't have even got close there!

But the question remains, was his rather natty, floral shirt very offensive? The Wimbledon authorities clearly thought so. It looked a bit like my Grandma's curtains, but it was clean, pressed and probably cooler than a jacket for a  hot day. So is it time to change the rules?


  1. Yes I have rather mixed feelings about this Anne/ I read about it in today's Times - he looked rather snazzy I thought but presumably he had read the rules so there was really no excuse.

  2. Well, this one thing I will never have to worry about.

    I enjoyed reading your very nicely put together article. Very informative.

  3. When I was quite small my father used to tell little jokes about fascinating him with her fascinator, or something like that. He loved language, and tormented us no end with unexplained words and meanings we should decipher ourselves.

  4. Interesting post today, I enjoyed it very much. I don't watch I know nothing of the sport but I obviously would not be "in" that husband does have some wild shirts:)


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