They say the 1970s was the decade that style forgot – but what about the 1770s? MAXINE GORDON goes behind the scenes at a new Georgian fashion exhibition at Fairfax House, in York

JUST as the hippies were mocked for their outlandish fashions of flares, floppy hats and wedged shoes, the Georgians were ridiculed for their flamboyant clothes and accessories, notably their wigs, wide skirts and heels for men.

As for forgetting the "Gorgeous Georgians", well there's fat chance of that. Especially here in York, home to one of the period's finest townhouses, Fairfax House in Castlegate, where a new exhibition has just opened bringing to life the wonderful wardrobes of wealthy Georgians.

The Georgian Edit: Cutting Edge Fashion of the Eighteenth Century, will run until the end of the year, and allows visitors to step back in time into a world of total excess.

As Britain headed into the 19th century, it was one of the wealthiest nations in the world, explains assistant curator Sarah Burnage. There was still lots of poverty, but at the other end of the social scale, people were becoming wealthier too.

Today, we love a spot of retail therapy, and the Georgians certainly did as well – especially in York, which in the 18th century was the country's second city after London.

"There was an emerging class that could afford to shop and go shopping like we do today," says Sarah. "Shops were like gilded theatres, with lights and comfy chairs, where people were happy to spend a couple of hours."

Shop windows would be laden with goods, showing off reams of the latest fabrics – many of them from France. Rich Georgians would happily browse and window shop – just like today. The retailers were different though: silksmiths, wigmakers, haberdashers, hatmakers and sugarcraft outlets were top of the shops.

"By the end of the 18th century, there was a vibrant commercial community in York," said Sarah.

Fashion was one way to show off social status and wealth. And boy, did the Georgians like to parade like peacocks.

You can see just how ostentatious our 18th century citizens were by popping into Fairfax House. The curators have placed mannequins in full Georgian finery in each room, which helps bring the house to life – there are even four "standing" on the wide stairway, allowing you a close-up look at what they used to wear.

One of the bedrooms is set up for a young male guest. His silk waistcoat, decorated in the finest embroidery, is laid out flat in a pulled-out drawer from a dresser. A beautiful woven silk house gown is laid out on the four-poster bed. Back in the day, men would undress and wear a house gown along with a cap, explained Sarah. "Men often had shaved heads because the wigs they wore often contained fleas. There was no central heating, only fires, so they would wear a hat to keep warm. The caps were prettily embroidered, and they would wear some Moroccan slippers too."

One of the oldest items on display is a pair of exquisite male shoes dating from 1670. They are slip ons, covered with intricate glass beadwork, and have a distinctive red heel, much loved by the trendsetting King Louis of France and popular with the French court.

Men wore heels, says Sarah, to boost their height, which was equated with status.

Eagle eyes will spot a pair of red, flat leather shoes made by Jones Bootmaker, a company which still trades today. Clarks shoes were also popular at this time.

By the end of the 18th century, fashion was becoming more commercial, said Sarah, with items being mass produced whereas before they would be bespoke.

In the same cabinet as the red shoes from Jones, there is a white pair in the same design, showing how items were being produced in a range of colours.

York's glamorous Georgians, like Lord Fairfax and his daughter Anne who lived in the Castlegate house, had plenty of opportunity to show off their fashion style.

York's Assembly Rooms (now Ask pizza restaurant in Blake Street) was the place to be seen. The Fairfax family was a subscriber to the Assembly Rooms, allowing them access to all the events that took place there.

A day at the races was another occasion to show off – York's racecourse opened in 1755.

And New Walk along the river front at Fishergate was a favourite place for people to parade and show off their latest looks.

Many of the items on display in the exhibition have come from other collections and some are being shown in York for the first time in many years.

Nothing is left to the imagination and one cabinet reveals the undergarments worn by Georgian women, including corsets, linen pockets and panniers, which were worn on the hips to create the wide silhouette so fashionable at the time.

Needless to say, getting ready was quite a task, and women required assistance. They wore a cotton shift under their garments for practical reasons, says Sarah. That could be easily washed, unlike the expensive silk over dresses. On top of the shift went the corset, then the panniers, then a linen pocket – like a little handbag – that would be hidden beneath the skirt and useful for holding make-up for a touch-up. Stockings and garters came next – but no knickers. Then a petticoat over the panniers, then a gown and finally the stomacher – a highly decorated flat piece of material which would be hand-stitched into the front of the gown.

If we think that all sounds ridiculously elaborate today – similar thoughts were expressed in the 18th century.

Satirist James Gillray famously created coloured sketches of the Georgians in all manner of dress. Some are on show in the exhibition, including a triptych showing a woman getting ready over three images – implying how it took all day to get dressed for the evening.

Which it probably did.

The Georgian Edit: Cutting Edge Fashion of the Eighteenth Century, Fairfax House, York, until December 31.

Admission: Adults £7.50/concessions £6/children (6-16) £3, family ticket £17.50. Free to members of York Civic Trust.

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