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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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
Or hand-knotted/fringed cords (called “fly fringe” modernly):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1740s-70s: Robe à la française (aka sacque or sack-back gown). Front closure only.
Mantua with a new definition! (aka nightgown). Front closure only.
French court styles, which were modeled on mid-17th-century dress and so had closed fronts and center back openings.
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.*
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.
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:
But once you hit the 18th century, NOPE.
Is it fair to judge a film for its extras’ costumes? Probably not:
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:
And sure, we all love to pick on Amadeus (1984):
And Valmont (1989) is generally mocked for its craptastic costumes:
But even Dangerous Liaisons (1988) didn’t avoid it:
Young Catherine (1991) went balls-out for it, but it’s a cheaply costumed production so that seems par for the course:
Ridicule (1996) is RIFE with back-lacing dresses:
The Patriot (1999) got on board:
Sleepy Hollow (1999) couldn’t resist…
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:
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:
I already called out Marie Antoinette (2006):
Farewell, My Queen (2012) went about 25% back-lacing:
While Poldark (2015- ) is about 50/50 and showing no signs of letting up…
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.