SNARK WEEK: Back-Lacing Bonanza!

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In the course of writing for this here blog and podcast, I have discovered that one of my callings — my life’s work, you might say — is to bemoan the existence of back-lacing dresses in 18th-century (and beyond) costumed movies and TV productions. I’ve whined about this a lot and touched on it in some posts, but I thought it was time for me to get meta about it all. This may not be the last word on Why Back Lacing Is Offensive, but I hope it’ll get us a good part of the way.

To wit:

IT’S ILLOGICAL* TO HAVE A MAIN-BODY GARMENT OPEN IN BOTH THE FRONT AND BACK

*There are exceptions. I’ll get into those.

I’m not saying that people historically didn’t go for conspicuous consumption with unnecessary bells and whistles in their clothes, just as we do today:

The zippers on these Ivanka Trump (ugh, why aren’t they orange?) boots are clearly not functional.

But by and large, historically, if people BOTHERED to put some kind of closure (i.e., buttons and holes/loops/whatever, eyelets, what have you) it was for a functional reason:

 

The tied-on sleeves and lacing on the forearms are not REQUIRED for this medieval guy to get dressed. However, they are functional in that they let him remove his sleeves and to tighten them at the forearm. And sure, they look good. Via Pinterest

The White Princess (2017)

They didn’t, however, do shit like this just to be decorative. I’m looking at you, The White Princess (2017).

Why is this? Well, because before the era of zippers (and hell, even now DURING the era of zippers), it’s a crapton of work to add a closure to a garment. You have to finish each edge rather than just sew two edges together, then you have sew on each button, create each loop or buttonhole or eyelet, or whatever. Hook-and-eye tape didn’t exist, so each hook and each eye or bar had to be sewn on individually.

Don’t believe me? Here, watch a THREE MINUTE AND FIFTY-FOUR SECOND tutorial on how to sew a hand-bound eyelet. Okay, so some of that time is introduction and explanation, but it looks to me like she spends a good 2:30 on marking, poking the hole, and sewing the actual eyelet. Now do the math: multiply however many eyelet holes you’ve got by about 2:30, and you’re spending a WHOLE lot of time sewing those suckers.

Why is this relevant? Well, because there are a couple of truisms about historical costume (and history in general):

 

#1: Historical People Weren’t Stupid

We sometimes talk about people in the past as though they were drooling idiots. As Sarah rightly pointed out in her post about historical sanitation, there isn’t THAT much of an evolutionary gap between people of the 2000s and, say, people of the 1600s. For example, yes, people in the past died of diseases that we now think are relatively easy to avoid in our modern, Western world — say, cholera. But they didn’t do so because they were mouthbreathers whose brains didn’t function as well as our own. They did so because 1. science wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and 2. poverty/overcrowding/etc. Notice that people in underdeveloped countries still die of cholera. It’s not because their brains aren’t as intelligent as those of us in the West, it’s because they literally can’t afford to implement the health standards that we take for granted.

Not actually any more relevant to people in the past than us today.

How is this related to back-lacing dresses? Well, because of another truism in history, specifically historical costume:

 

#2: Materials Are Expensive, Labor Less So

Okay, so say you live in Bratislava in 1500, and you want a new dress. It’s going to cost you X whatever-currency-they-used to buy your fabric, needle, pins, etc. Let’s say it costs you 10 bratislavs (I made that up). You CAN pay a dressmaker to actually sew the dress, or make one of your servants do it for you (which you are essentially then paying them for, because that’s time they could be spent churning your butter or whatever), which will then cost you another (say) 5 bratislavs. But you can also do it yourself, which means it’s your own time not spent butter churning, sure, but you’re getting a pretty dress. So 99.9% of humanity HAS to buy their materials, but they CAN do the labor themselves if they want to/can spare the time, therefore saving money.

People in the past knew the value of money.

So when you look at historical clothing, you’ll see lots of bells and whistles added to clothing, like the medieval tie-on sleeves seen above, because it “costs” time rather than materials. Or, in the mid-18th century, they LURVED them some ruffles-as-trim, each of which had to be cut, gathered/pleated, and attached:

All that fiddly trim had to be hand cut, gathered, and sewn on!
Dress (sack-back gown), ca. 1760, British, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Or hand-knotted/fringed cords (called “fly fringe” modernly):

Hand-knotted trim on a Robe à la Française, 1740s, British, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Given our truism #1 (historical people weren’t stupid), and truism #2 (materials are expensive, labor less so), they were able to understand that materials were a fixed cost, but they COULD save money via labor — either doing it themselves, or downgrading how complex the garment would be.

That being said…

 

You Only Bothered to Spend Extra Time on Something That Made a Visual Impact or Had a Function

Miles of trim? Oooo pretty! Front- AND back-laced stays? Yay, I can get in and out of my corset in front all by myself AND adjust the fit of the stays in back*! The ability to open and remove a garment in BOTH front AND back? Why the fuck would I want to do that, unless I think it’s visually fabulous and going to make all the girls cry when I go to court/the town well to do laundry?

* Note: This is the main exception that I can think of (there are probably a few others) to my rule about either front OR back closures. Front AND back opening stays exist pre-1840s, but they’re far less usual than corsets that only open in front OR back. Having your corset lace in back allows you to adjust the fit plus it leaves a gap, which makes the stays more comfortable as there’s movement allowed. But having the stays lace in front means you can put them on and off yourself. So, occasionally, people combined the two. Once metal busks were invented in the mid-19th century, it became very common to have your corset lace in back (adjustable fit! movement gap!) and close with a busk in front.

Why would I spend hours of labor on something that has no function and adds no fabulosity?

So, here’s my rule:

 

IF THE GARMENT OPENS IN FRONT, IT IS 99.9% LIKELY* THAT IT DOES NOT ALSO OPEN IN BACK

* Exceptions for corsets as mentioned above, and probably some very specific styles I’m not thinking of.

Let’s look more specifically at various eras, focusing on women’s dresses because this seems to be where all the fucking-up happens, with a huge caveat that of course I am oversimplifying things!

 

Ancient – Medieval Era

I know very little* about classical or medieval fashion. Moving on!

* Okay, I know more than the average bear, but I’m no expert.

 

16th Century

Occasionally you see decorative stomachers (a “V” shaped piece of fabric attached to the front of the torso) on TOP of a closed-front, back-opening gown. But most of the time, if the dress appears to open in front, that’s it, and if it appears to open in back, that’s it.

This Swiss woman’s dress opens in front ONLY where the vertical line is at the center front. Basel Woman Turned to the Left, costume study, c. 1523, Kunstmuseum Basel.

The stomacher on this gown appears to be placed on top of the bodice, so that means the bodice COULD open in front OR in back. Portrait of Elizabeth Buxton, nee Kemp, c. 1588-90, Norfolk Museums.

This one (silver) looks more like its laid underneath the gown (black), which then opens in front (with a gap to show the stomacher).
Elizabeth Howard, Lady Southwell (c.1564 – 1646), c. 1600, Weiss Gallery (London).

 

17th Century

In general, you see closed-front, back-opening gowns until about the 1670s when the mantua is introduced. The mantua is essentially a kimono-type robe, and it opened down the front ONLY.

A good example of a mid-17th century gown. Focus on the fact that it opens in back ONLY. Silver Tissue Dress, 1660, Fashion Museum (Bath).

The mantua is essentially a front-opening robe that’s cinched at the waist with a sash. Mantua, c. 1708, British, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

18th Century

Oh dear, here we go. Let’s look at the main dress styles of this era:

1700s-20s: More mantuas, like in the late 17th century (see above). Front closure only.

1720s-30s: Robe volante (aka robe battante). Front closure only.

Robe volante, c. 1730, French, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

1740s-70s: Robe à la française (aka sacque or sack-back gown). Front closure only.

This is a good example of the française/sack, because it’s displayed without its underlayers (the stomacher and petticoat). Here you can clearly the the GIANT GAP IN FRONT WHERE IT OPENS. Robe à la Française, 1765-70, French, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

OR

Mantua with a new definition! (aka nightgown). Front closure only.

I don’t care if this mid-century style of mantua/nightgown has a fitted back, it still OPENS AND CLOSES IN FRONT. ONLY. Robe à l’Anglaise, 1770-75 (but very typical of the mid-century as well), British, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

OR

French court styles, which were modeled on mid-17th-century dress and so had closed fronts and center back openings.

This court gown was worn in Sweden, but it was cut in the French style. Sofia Magdalena’s coronation gown, 1772 | Livrustkammaren.

1770s-90s: A gazillion different styles, but the main ones were the robes à l’anglaise, which opened in front; the polonaise, which opened in front; and various jacket styles, which opened in front.*

Front closure on a Robe à l’Anglaise, 1776, British, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Front closure on a Robe à la Polonaise, c. 1787, probably Italian, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Front closure on a Jacket, 1770s, British, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

19th Century

The 19th century gets more complicated. By and large, you can say:

1800s-20s: Either a drop-front opening, or a center front opening, or a center back opening. NOT TWO (or more) AT THE SAME TIME.

1830s-90s: Either a center front opening, or a center back opening. NOT BOTH.

But I’m running out of steam and I refuse to go find examples. Google it.

 

And Now, All Many* of the Times It’s Been Fucked Up On Screen

*Of course, I’m sure there are MANY fuck-ups I’m not remembering!

So pre-18th century you can make the case for back-lacing:

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

Queen Isabella’s gown in 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992). As far as we know, no gowns laced up the center back like that prior to the late-16th century. They all seemed to lace on the sides, side back, or center front.

Bill (2015)

However, you can make the case for back lacing in Bill (2015), which is set in the later-16th c. Ish.

And while Madame le Notre should be wearing a front-opening mantua given that it’s the 1680s in A Little Chaos (2015), and I question whether anyone would use a CONTRAST color lacing ribbon, okay, if the idea is that she’s wearing the going-out-of-fashion mid-17th-century style then back closure makes sense.

Angelique (2013)

17th century-set Angelique (2013) got excited about the same concept.

But once you hit the 18th century, NOPE.

Is it fair to judge a film for its extras’ costumes? Probably not:

Amadeus (1984)

But if it is, Amadeus (1984) takes the cake.

Amadeus (1984)

More Amadeus greatness…

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Yep, and Marie Antoinette (2006).

Amazon's Casanova (2015)

Even the recent Casanova (2015) from Amazon did it.

But when it’s on the principle’s costumes? In an 18th-century film? Okay, so back-closure (possibly, even — shudder — zippers!) used to be par for the course:

Shadow of the Guillotine (1956)

Shadow of the Guillotine (1956) kept it to a low roar — just this one dress as far as Marie Antoinette went!

1776 (1972)

There’s no way you’re telling me this monstrosity from 1776 (1972) has some super secret front closure.

The Kent Chronicles (1978-9)

And yes, The Kent Chronicles (1978-9) has bigger issues than back-lacing…

And sure, we all love to pick on Amadeus (1984):

Amadeus (1984)

Is it a zipper? Is it back-lacing? The mystery remains!

Amadeus (1984)

Yeah. Back-lacing is probably the least of this film’s problems.

And Valmont (1989) is generally mocked for its craptastic costumes:

Valmont (1989)

You can’t see it, but you know it’s there.

Valmont (1989)
Valmont (1989)

OR IS IT A ZIPPER??!!

Valmont (1989)

I KNOW something scary is lurking in that weird slit in the sack-back…

Valmont (1989) Valmont (1989)
Valmont (1989)

Just cause I can’t see it…

Valmont (1989) Valmont (1989)

But even Dangerous Liaisons (1988) didn’t avoid it:

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Cecile’s strawberry dress has back-lacing.

Young Catherine (1991) went balls-out for it, but it’s a cheaply costumed production so that seems par for the course:

Young Catherine (1991)

Ridicule (1996) is RIFE with back-lacing dresses:

Ridicule (1996)

On this dress…

Ridicule (1996)

And most of the rest of them!

The Patriot (1999) got on board:

The Patriot (1999)

Sleepy Hollow (1999) couldn’t resist…

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I suspect at least one dress in The Affair of the Necklace (2001)

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) kept it to the last dress and didn’t zoom in:

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)

I don’t know what’s going on in this dress from Fanfan la Tulipe (2003) but I know that I don’t want to know:

Fanfan la Tulipe (2003)

I already called out Marie Antoinette (2006):

Marie Antoinette (2006) Marie Antoinette (2006)

Farewell, My Queen (2012) went about 25% back-lacing:

Farewell, My Queen (2012)

Outlander (2015-) went Team Back-Lacing in the first season, calmed down some in the second, and banned back lacing for all future dresses (THANK YOU BABY JESUS):

While Poldark (2015- ) is about 50/50 and showing no signs of letting up…

What scares me the most is they seem to reserve it for the fanciest dresses.

So, if you have any influence on the production of 18th century-set historical costume movies or TV shows, I implore you to think of my nerves and stick with FRONT-OPENING GOWNS. And no matter what era you do, please, PICK ONE OPENING AND STICK WITH IT.

Mad Men

Betty’s not stupid, and neither were people in the more distant past. I promise.

Got more examples of hideous, inauthentic back-lacing in historical costume movies/TV shows? Share them!
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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

30 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    Loved the article.

    For movies with back lacing:
    1) Scarlet Pimpernel w/Jane Seymour:
    2) Catherine the Great (Russian miniseries) has both or so it looks like.
    3)Desiree with Brando, Oberon + Simmons, I believe has 1950s version of Napoleonic fashion.

    Reply
  2. Susan Pola

    So true about the spiral lacing.
    Was it a zipper I espied in the back view of In the Shadow of the Guillotine?
    If so. Bad costumer. (Said to costumer as if he were a puppy who pooped on the carpet)

    Reply
  3. Liutgard

    I’m interested to know what Sarah thinks about possible back-lacing earlier. I’ve seen GFD/Cotehardies made that laced in the back, but I’ve yet to see either textual or archaeological evidence for it. Same with the back-laced bliaut. And it sort of doesn’t make sense, unless you’re very high-born and have someone dressing you.

    On a kid, though- sometimes a CF back opening is the only way to keep their clothes on them! (My twin granddaughters were especially adept at this.)

    Reply
  4. E

    But then if Poldarks aqua dress didn’t lace up the back we’d have no sexy time. Which means no marriage, so the case could be made for that one….. ? But it probably would have been more fun from the front.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      Thank you! Why couldn’t she have gotten her lacing string knotted, and then Ross could pull out the knot with his teeth…

      Reply
      • themodernmantuamaker

        EXACTLY! I was just thinking that as I read through this. Back lacing/closures are not required to create sexy-times. You can make it just as sexy from the front as from the back!

        Reply
        • Liutgard

          *KOFF* Of course, you don’t _have to_ undo the bodice for sexy times… as I found once when the lacing to a GFD got sweaty and would not come unknotted. Oh wait- TMI? :-D

          Reply
          • Sarah F

            If she can get the dress laced up by herself, then she can get it undone by herself, and frankly, that was a pretty sad way to get a marriage proposal. Plus, undoing the garment from the front is arguably sexier! Season 1 was alright, but once I heard about the upcoming ‘rape but it’s ok because she starts to like it’ horror that would await me, I was DONE with Poldark.

            Reply
  5. Susan Pola

    Or. he could have helped her unknot them with his hands…….shagging ensues. you.?

    Reply
  6. Diana Dunlap

    One thing I will add to the Poldark commentary: in the book, it’s a gown of Ross’s mother’s that Demelza remodels herself, and Winston Graham (probably no costume expert) specifies it’s back-lacing. The costume is very true to the book and naught else ;)

    Reply
    • themodernmantuamaker

      I heard that too (I’m not familiar with the books) and it’s the same argument for the red dress in Outlander (about which fans would probably have been even more militant). Those instances are tough for costume designers/technicians. Back-lacing outside of court wear simply had not been a thing for almost 100 years at that point – not even Ross’s grandmother would have worn anything back-lacing.

      Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      BUT IT’S STILL DUMB!!!

      We had this discussion over on FB as well — yes, it’s in the books, but Graham (the author) clearly didn’t know anything about 18th-c. costume, & why the hell didn’t any British TV writer (bec. it’s the same in the 1970s version) do a write-around? I can think of plenty of different ways for that scene to go that don’t use a dumb costume bit. It’s not that crucial to the story!

      Reply
  7. themodernmantuamaker

    I am mentally Kermit-flailing in frustration over this issue, specifically with regards to the 18th century. There are two main reasons why:

    1. I know that many costumers/designers defend back-lacing to supposedly make the fit more versatile, especially for extras. BUT – fit adjustability is EXACTLY what front-closing 18th century dresses do best! Even to the point that there is *almost* no such thing as maternity clothing for the 18th century because their everyday wear could be (relatively) easily adjusted to accommodate it!

    2. As someone who actually sews this stuff, too (albeit just for fun) I KNOW that it would require literally no additional effort/time to make 18th century dresses front closing as opposed to back lacing

    Ok, I actually have 3 reasons – although this extends to the general fuckery that so often happens with 18th century costuming

    3. 18th century dress is FABULOUSNESS personified JUST AS IT IS (I’m biased, I admit it but I don’t apologize for it!). It requires no alterations to styles or construction to make it either sexy – even WITH chemises under stays and handkerchiefs/fichus around the neck – or more fabulous/swoon-worthy or more practical from a wardrobe point of view.

    Whew! Ok, I feel a little better now.

    Reply
  8. Christine D. Gunning

    I’ve none off the top of my head that are particularly bad. I do know that History of the World Part 1 got at least the main female character’s gown correct. Since she tears it open at the front (her stays are even spiral laced!) So if a comedy with minimal historic base can get it right… I’d say there’s not much excuse.

    Reply
  9. Charity

    You’ve ruined me for life. I shall never be able to look at back lacing again.

    “PICK ONE OPENING AND STICK WITH IT” … could be really dirty, taken out of context.

    You started it. You opened the article with a Poldark sexytimes pic. ;)

    Reply
  10. picasso Manu

    I think you’re too hard on Amadeus: Yes, the costumes are shitty, but it was the first period costume drama in YEARS!
    They almost had to reinvent doing stuff from scratch, and the budget was not that great, almost nobody wanted to finance that film. It’s success sparked period dramas as we know them now.
    Amadeus is like dear old grandpa: Looking older than he is, a little cheap, with some weird ideas… But he started the family business!
    That said, I can’t watch that film again even if you pay me. The main actor laugh has my hair standing up on ends every time!

    Reply
    • Susan Pola

      And Constanza’s scene with Salieri where she’s falling outbox her bodice and Salieri brings in ‘Nipples of Venus’ candy. So amusing.

      Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Oh we’ve gone back & forth about Amadeus, pro/con for years (I’m with you — it was the best of it’s time; search the site & you’ll find my more positive review). But it’s Snark Week! So all bets are off ;)

      Reply
      • picasso Manu

        Oh, I agree. Milos Forman and his costumer get a pass for Amadeus, but not for Valmont!
        Now there’s a tragedy, and I’m not only talking about costumes.

        Reply
  11. d

    There’s a 16th c woman’s doublet in a museum in Madrid that buttons up the front and has lacing 3/4 of the way up the back … from the waist to the shoulder blades. I think the purpose of the lacing is so that the woman can continue to wear the doublet in the earlier stages of pregnancy. … just pointing out the some front and back opening can be done

    Reply
  12. Sara

    OK so I’m very late commenting on this post, but since it’s a post about costume pedantery (is that a word?) and I’m here to be pedantic, I’m going to give myself a pass.

    I know a little bit about Elizabethan costume; the portraits here of Elizabeth Buxton and Elizabeth Howard do show front-opening gowns with stomachers. The stomachers are either attached to the gowns with a bazillion tiny pins, or, more likely, attached to the kirtle/undergown with a bazillion tiny pins and then the gown also pinned to the kirtle. 16th century ladies loved them some pins; Mary I’s wardrobe regularly ordered them by the thousands. Other possibilities exist, like hooks and eyes or lacing the gown and then pinning the stomacher over the laced front opening, but the last I delved into that area of research the prevailing theory was pins.

    In the case of Elizabeth Buxton, where she has a stomacher and then two strips of matching fabric on either side, those are called ‘revers’ and are essentially the same thing as lapels on a jacket. The inside edges of the gown bodice have been embroidered with the se pattern as the stomacher and are folded back to show. They may be sewn down, pressed, or pinned in place, I’m not sure if there’s a solid consensus on how revers were affixed.

    Of course you may already be aware of all this but I so rarely get to whip out my knowledge of 16th century dress construction :).

    Reply

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