18th Century high fashion and she-wees

What ladies wore to court and how they answered the call of nature.

Earlier this week I managed to spend a day at Berrington Hall in Herefordshire. It’s a Georgian mansion with gardens laid out by Capability Brown. Wandering through the rooms and strolling around the plentiful walled gardens was an absolute delight, but what really captured my imaginatiion was a dress. Not just any old dress but one belonging to Ann Bangham, first lady of Berrington. It’s a restored 18th century court mantua dress.

Ann Bangham’s 18th century court mantua dress

In case you don’t know what a mantua dress is, it’s an overgown or robe typically worn over stays, stomacher and a co-ordinating petticoat (according to Wikipedia). As I understand it, mantua dresses were court dresses, designed to be worn when a lady was presented at court to the monarch.

Think of it as a high fashion catwalk dress. Intricately embriodered and threaded through with gold silk, this one was incredibly ornate and still packed a punch, despite being around 250 years old. The picture really doesn’t do it justice. It really is an incredible sight.

Talking of fashion, we’ve probably all seen some crazy concoctions in our day. Do you remember those incredible 1980s shoulder pads and how ridiculously accentuated they were on the catwalks? Well, that’s nothing compared to the bottom half of this dress. It looks like a small sofa’s been hidden under there. It makes you wonder how the poor women managed to move in it, or even stay standing! Apparently, a dance master was usually employed to teach them the tiny steps needed to walk in it. When they were on the move, it was said that the ladies looked as if they were gliding on wheels.

As for the underwear, here’s a picture of the stays and petticoat that had to be worn underneath.

And what, you ask yourself, happened if the poor dear needed to answer the call of nature? Well, it wasn’t as tricky as you might think. Knickers weren’t invented at the time so the lady essentially went commando. If she needed to ‘go’ her maid would hand her a ‘bourdaloue’ – a gravy boat shaped jug. When she’d finished the lady would hand it back to the maid to empty. A bit like an early day ‘She-wee’ then?

A bourdaloue

I wonder if that’s where the term loo comes from? If anyone knows the answer, do let us know.

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