Thursday, March 24, 2011

Dress? Gown? Dress Gown?

I have to cop to one of my biggest pet peeves as a historical fiction reader. It's really, really stupid. But I hate--with the twitchy variety of fiery passion--when our lovely eighteenth-century herione is described as wearing a "dress."

This is really not that big of a deal. I swear, it's not. But it bugs me because...

...in the eighteenth century you didn't wear a dress. You wore a gown. To us modern people, gown has a very formal connotation, but in the eighteenth century it just meant a certain shape of garment that you wore over stays and a petticoat. It could be formal, informal, made of gorgeous silk or boring old linen, regally trimmed with silk ribbon and silver tread, or tattered and filled with burn holes. Either way, it's a gown. Now, this is silly of me because, um, authors are writing for a modern audience who understands that a dress is a dress. But my eighteenth-century imbued soul wrings a little bit nonetheless.

The word dress in the eighteenth century wasn't used much as a noun (aside from description of a cultural norm: ie, the dress of the common clown is rather silly). Rather, it was generally used in common speech as a verb, just as it also is today: She dressed herself; she dressed the salad. Using dress to mean preparing something or fixing something up was more common, it seems, than now--we rarely say that we are dressing the chicken when we mean preparing to cook it, yet we do say, as did they, dressing a wound in medical terms.

It was also used as an adjective indicating level of formality. You find that adjective, I've noticed, with military parlance (Dress Blues, Dress Whites) to indicate degrees of formal wear, and this is also how it was used back then--dress and undress indicated the degree of formality (probably still actively used in the military because much of their particular culture is historically based). To say someone was in "undress wear" didn't mean that they were naked or even in their underclothes, but that they weren't dressed for a formal occasion. Court function? Dress wear. Hanging at home with the ladies knocking back a cup of tea? Undress wear.

So...it's a silly pet peeve but a (I hope) potentially interesting historical aside that the term gown applied to everybody. Like here:


In one of Francis Wheatley's late eighteenth century "Cries of London" prints, the working-class woman selling and the middling-sort buying are both wearing gowns--the seller's likely of linen, the buyer's of a finer silk (check the pretty sheen of the fabric). (OK, the seller might be wearing a caraco. I can't quite tell if it's a super-rucked-up gown or a shorter garment. Point stands. Plus--I love the Cries of London.)

As an aside, petticoat as a noun in historical fiction also tends to crop up as a nuissance word. This is because we eighteenth-century folks mean "skirt" when we say petticoat, and later folks mean "undergarment skirt" when they say it. In eighteenth-century parlance, a skirt is "the edge of a garment" according to contemporary dictionaries (or, in one volume, the edge of countries--weird!)--usually referrering to the loose flappy bit on the bottom of many eighteenth-century items. Such as, of course, gowns. The skirts are the part that hang loose from the fitted waist.

So, there's your fashion language lesson for the day. Hope you at least enjoyed the pretty picture (I did).

15 comments:

dolleygurl said...

Thanks for spreading the knowledge! I didn't know any of that!

Jenny said...

That's awesome. I like to remember there's a "dressing gown" but not a "gowning dress." =)

anachronist said...

I also wasn't aware of the disctiction - thanks for a nice post!

Kat Zhang said...

Great post, Rowenna! I love things like this...the nuances of history and language.

Sonia M said...

Great post! I think I tend to use gown when I'm writing created world fantasy set in a more medieval-like time period. I've also used the word skirts for...the skirt part of the gown (wasn't sure quite how to phrase that LOL) and shift to refer to a nightgown or undergarment. I'm never sure what to call underwear though...if they were even worn. So, I ignore them. Oh, and there's tunics and breeches too. :)

Rowenna said...

Dolley--thanks for putting up with reading my weird pet peeves :)

Jenny--awesome way to remember! Now I want to know what a gowning dress would look like...hmmmm...

Anachronist--thank you!

Kat--I'm glad someone besides me found this interesting LOL :)

Sonia--great points! Shift is spot-on eighteenth-century usage for the garments you mention :) I've actually considered a post in the near future called "What about underpants" to talk about the fact that they...well...didn't really wear underpants lol.

MrsC said...

And let's not even get started on the word "frock"! hehehe

Connie said...

Thanks for the lesson. I love learning historical tidbits, especially one I might eventually use.

haleywhitehall said...

Rowenna, you are so right!

As a historical fiction writer I really did know this I swear but it is just habit to write dress because of the modern connotation in my mind. Thanks for reminding me of the difference back then between dress and gown!

mesmered said...

Try the twelfth century... is a chemise an underskirt/petticoat over the top of which was worn not a gown or a dress, but a kirtle! Or was it really what we know as a slip for women? Or is a chemise a shirt for men? Clothing for the hist.fict writer is a nightmare!

Sonia M said...

I wonder how much play a writer can have when writing medieval inspired created world fiction. I get a little hung up on terms. I like my terms to sound reasonable in the context even if it's not really "historical" writing.

Rowenna said...

MrsC--well, frock that! LOL!

Connie--glad it was useful!

Haley--like I said, I think it's mostly my neurotic twitch--using words for the benefit of the audience is fine :)

Mesmered--Oh man, chemise is like a whole ball of etymological fun...from what I've found, it was just the French word for shift or shirt until the end of the 18th century, when it became the correct English word for ladies' undergarments. And it still means shirt in French lol!

Sonia--great point. I think clarity and flow are more important than using 100% accurate terms--you don't want to have to explain things every two sentences! Do what feels right as a writer/reader, for sure!

Haley said...

Rowenna I just wanted to let you know that I've given you an award. Go here for details: http://haleywhitehall.wordpress.com/2011/03/23/my-first-blogging-award/

Isis said...

That annoys me too, but my greatest pet peeve is when the author use not wearinga corset as a prop for showing how indepenent the heroine is. Hate it! Popular in movies too. look at Elizabeth in Pirates of teh Caribeean.

Rowenna said...

Isis--YES!!! OMG, I think I remember geeking out about this with you a few months ago, too--and I still completely, totally agree! I got downright indignant during that part of Pirates (and probably annoyed those viewing the film with me)