Just How Fashionable Are Poldark’s Ladies? Part 2: The Older Generation


Let’s get back to our in-depth analysis of Poldark 2015’s costumes, shall we? I’ve previously blogged about the upper-class ladies (Elizabeth, Verity, and Ruth), as well as the hairstyles in general. Make sure you’ve read that post about the upper-class ladies before you read this one, as I’m going to refer to the information posted there a bit! Now, I’d like to briefly look at the older generation — Ross Poldark’s Aunt Agatha, Elizabeth’s mother Mrs. Chynoweth, and Ruth’s mother Mrs. Teague. Oh, and I’m also going to talk about that dress that was owned by Ross’s mother…

Spoiler warning: I’m NOT going to give away any plot points, but I WILL be showing outfits from episodes that might not have aired yet in America. So, if you prefer to be surprised by new outfits, then I’d suggest waiting to read this post until after the series finishes.

Did Older Ladies Dress Differently in the 18th Century?

The short answer: They certainly could! Some ladies clearly preferred to wear dress, hair, and/or accessory styles that were 10 to 20 years out of date. Others dressed more fashionably (although we should note that if you’re having your portrait painted, you’re probably more likely to dress fashionably than everyday).

In the upper-class ladies post, I went over the basics (and many of the variations) of fashionable attire in the 1780s. The fitted “nightgown” was the most au-courant style. Let’s look at some English paintings of the 1780s featuring older ladies to see if we can identify any differences.

Here are a few individual portraits of older ladies. Offhand, I’d say that Mrs. Peter de Lancey (center image) looks about 10 years out of date for her portrait, but the other two look relatively au-courant:

1780s older ladies

Old Lady With a Magnifying Glass by John Downman, LACMA
Mrs. Peter de Lancey by Engleheart, 1783
Ann Denny, Mrs. Thrower Buckle by Caton the elder, 1780s-90s

What is even more helpful is to look at family portraits, because then you can compare the ladies of different ages/generations. First, we have the Foudrinier Family, c. 1786. The red arrow points to the lady that I think is the mother, given the fact that she’s in the center of the picture next to a man of the same age (the only other possibility is the lady on the far right, but she’s not paired with any man and is more likely a daughter). Comparing the probably Mrs. Foudrinier with her daughter (far right, in brown), the two are dressed very similarly. Both are wearing closed-front, fitted-bodice gowns with lots of ruffly, gauzy accessories. Both of them have hair that is a similar shape, powdered, and with a similarly ruffled cap on top. Verdict: Older lady looks very current.

The Fourdrinier Family by John Downman, c. 1786, National Portrait Gallery

The Fourdrinier Family by John Downman, c. 1786, National Portrait Gallery

Next, we have the Earl of Mar and his family (yes, much higher in station than our families in Poldark). Here, I believe the earl’s wife to be in the greyish blue on the left (next to the earl, hand on a daughter), while the older lady is probably the earl’s mother (or mother-in-law). Comparing grandmother (red arrow) to earl’s wife, there is a definite difference in sleeve length (grandmother wears elbow-length sleeves with ruffles, a style still worn in the 1780s but fashionable from the 1760s-70s, while the earl’s wife wears the wrist-length sleeves fashionable in the 1780s), hair (grandmother’s hair is very small and worn close to the head, a style fashionable in the 1750s to mid-1760s; the earl’s wife’s hair has the slight height and back draperies typical of the 1780s), and caps (grandmother wears a fitted, frilled white cap and another [possibly a veil?] in black that ties under the chin, a style fashionable in the 1750s to ’60s, while the earl’s wife wears the frilly, poufy style fashionable in the 1780s). The image isn’t large enough to tell, but it’s also possible that the grandmother is wearing a sack gown (aka robe à la française), a style that was still worn in the 1780s but really past its prime. Meanwhile the earl’s wife definitely wears a closed-front, fitted bodice nightgown (aka robe à l’anglaise). Verdict: Older lady looks dated.

John Francis, 7th Earl of Mar, and Family by David Allan, (c) The National Trust for Scotland, Alloa Tower; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

John Francis, 7th Earl of Mar, and Family by David Allan, (c) The National Trust for Scotland, Alloa Tower; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

I’m going to try to be more succinct from here on out: in the Spreull Family (c. 1793), grandmother wears elbow-length sleeves that are definitely out of fashion, plus the double cap (white and black) tied under the chin (over small hair) fashionable in the 1750s to mid-1760s. Meanwhile, the mother (pink dress) is wearing fashionable long sleeves, plus interestingly cropped-on-top, long-in-back hair that’s very 1790s (look how much it resembles that worn by the eldest daughter, in the blue sash). Verdict: Older lady looks dated.

The Spreull Family by David Allan, c. 1793, (c) Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Spreull Family by David Allan, c. 1793, (c) Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Lady Jane Mathew (red arrow) looks quite similar to her three daughters in terms of dress, accessories, and hairstyle. Verdict: Older lady looks very current.

Lady Jane Mathew and Her Daughters, 1790, Yale Center for British Art

Lady Jane Mathew and Her Daughters, 1790, Yale Center for British Art

Two older ladies (red arrows) in the Sharp family (1779-81) look very similar to the other ladies in the painting (the only outlier is the very youngest girl, in white and pink on the left). Verdict: Older ladies look current.

The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany, 1779-81 , National Gallery

The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany, 1779-81 , National Gallery

The eldest lady (red arrow) has sleeves that are the same length as the other ladies, but with slightly dated elbow ruffles instead of gathered cuffs (see the center lady in blue). Her hair and cap are fashionable of the 1750s to early 1760s and very different from those worn by the other ladies. She’s quite possibly wearing a sack gown instead of a closed-front, fitted nightgown, but its hard to tell. Verdict: Older lady looks dated.

The Oliver and Ward Families by Francis Wheatley, c. 1778, Yale Center for British Art

The Oliver and Ward Families by Francis Wheatley, c. 1778, Yale Center for British Art


Poldark‘s Older Ladies: Dress

So now let’s get back to Poldark, shall we, and compare the older generation ladies with the younger ones seen in part 1 of this series to see if we spot any differences.

Mrs. Chynoweth (with the dark hair in the images below) is Elizabeth’s mother. She’s clearly well-off and from an established family. Mrs. Teague (with the lighter hair) is Ruth’s mother; she seems to have money but not be quite of the same echelon as Mrs. Chynoweth.

Looking at the dresses worn by both middle-aged ladies, they both wear the closed-front, fitted-bodice nightgowns worn by their daughters. Mrs. Chynoweth has one nightgown in a patterned silk that’s very similar (in terms of pattern) to Elizabeth’s. Her other gown has a lot of ruched trim on the bodice (more so than most of the other gowns worn in the series — a nod to her more established status?).

2015 Poldark closed-front-dresses

What’s interesting to me is that both Mrs. Chynoweth and Mrs. Teague also wear stomacher gowns (probably the slightly-earlier stomacher nightgowns of the 1740s to ’70s discussed here; none of their dresses seem to have the back fullness that would indicate a sack gown). So they’re not massively out of date, just wearing the 18th-century equivalent of mom jeans. Also note all three dresses are in patterned silks.

2015 Poldark stomacher-dresses

Finally, Mrs. Teague wears a redingote with an au-courant cutaway (zone) front opening and matching waistcoat. This is as à la mode as anything the younger ladies are wearing.

2015 Poldark redingotes

And now, let’s sidestep into talking about That Dress. The one that made you groan when you watched the Ross-and-Demelza-hookup episode. Why? Well, supposedly the dress belonged to Ross’s mother. I say “supposedly” because I think they got this from Colonial Williamsburg circa 1932. Okay, so the dress has a (inaccurately sewn-in) stomacher front…


It’s like someone wanted to make a sack gown (aka robe à la française), but didn’t have enough fabric, but they made the dress anyway, but then an intern popped by and said “Remember the dress has to lace in back so that Ross is forced to cop a feel!” and the costumer said “what the WHAT?” and looked at the clock and they only had 15 minutes so they grabbed some prefab eyelet tape they had set aside for grandma’s curtains and hot-glued it in there. Phew.

Here’s the Poldark WTF version:

2015 Poldark moms-dress

Here’s what this style SHOULD look like in back:

Robe à la Française, 1760-70, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Robe à la Française, 1760-70, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Note lack of shitty eyelet tape.

What I would really like to know is: If Demelza needed Ross to unlace her to get out of the dress, HOW THE HELL DID SHE GET INTO IT ALL ON HER OWN???



Back on track…

Aunt Agatha is of course about 20 years older than Mrs. Chynoweth and Mrs. Teague. She is very committed to her goth lifestyle black wardrobe. Sadly, the clearest image I have of any of her dresses is the still below, which tells us that she is wearing a stomacher-fronted (somewhat- to slightly dated) style gown, but you never really see the back. (I got lots of screencaps of her, some of which you’ll see below, but she’s always just a mass of black). My gut feeling is that she’s wearing a sack gown just based on the slightly loose fit, but either way, she found her look about 20 to 30 years ago. and she’s sticking with it.

2015 Poldark

So, in terms of dress, we’ve got Mrs. Chynoweth and Mrs. Teague in slightly dated fashions, and Aunt Agatha much more firmly 10 to 20 years out of date. This rings very true compared to the original 18th-century paintings examined above!


Poldark‘s Older Ladies: Headwear

Both Mrs. Chynoweth and Mrs. Teague get some decent hats. My theory is that this has less to do with their age, and more to do with their status as secondary characters. There are a good number of hats in the series, they’re just hardly ever worn by the principal characters!

2015 Poldark

Aunt Agatha also gets some headwear, but her’s definitely mark her as out-of-date. She’s always in black caps with white lace, which as we mentioned in our podcast, were a style of headwear that was very fashionable up through the 1750s. So, she’s found her look and is sticking with it.

She also wears a “calash,” which you see below on the right. This was a style of hat that basically looks like a covered wagon for your head — it stands up high around the face because it has rows of cane (or some other structure) in it. It’s meant to protect the wearer from the elements but not muss the hair (genius, really, even if it looks crazy as all hell). Aunt Agatha is the only one ever shown in this (really weird to modern eyes) style, which again marks her as old and out-of-date. And just plain kooky!

2015 Poldark

Poldark‘s Older Ladies: Accessories

One slight difference from the younger ladies is that our middle-aged ladies (Mrs. Chynoweth and Mrs. Teague) wear elbow ruffles, a viable style but not quite cutting-edge. It’s a look that’s more usually worn with the (still worn, but only for really formal occasions) sack gown.

2015 Poldark

Aunt Agatha continues her black-on-black look with the addition of mitts (long fingerless gloves), as well as black neckerchiefs. This helps to make her look different from all the other characters, and furthers her look of “elderly lady wearing 20 shawls” (without the literal 20 shawls).

2015 Poldark 2015 Poldark

What did you think of Poldark‘s older generation? Stay tuned for part 3, in which we look at the middling status ladies (Demelza, Margaret, and Keren).


About the author



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.

9 Responses

    • Kendra

      If you mean my definition for sorting characters into different posts, here I meant the generations before Elizabeth, Verity, Ruth, Demelza, Keren, and Margaret, who are all in a similar age range.

      • Liutgard

        I was thinking more in terms of what was considered older, to wear different clothing than most women. 40? 50? I’m 50 and I have grandkids, but I still look pretty good. I was wondering if if I would have been wearing the clothing that marked me as older…

        • Kendra

          That’s a great question! Based on the period images above, it seems like those in the young-mother stage would have still been dressing fashionably, while the grown-children/grandmothers are dressed out-of-date. There was a recent research article on fashion and aging in the 18th c., I’ll see if I can re-find it.

    • Kendra

      I thought that was obvious! Guess I should have more clearly stated that Agatha is portrayed differently from Mrs C and Mrs T.

  1. Kitty

    OMG I was just looking at the pictures and I recognised the Alloa tower! I live in Alloa! I feel so cool.

  2. Maddie S.

    I was also laughing to myself about that episode: how did Demelza get into the dress on her own if she needed Ross’s help to get out of it?? But in the book it explains that she used it as an excuse to go to Ross’s room and attract him because she was afraid he would send her back to her father. Up to that point he thought of her as just his young servant girl (he actually brought her home when she was 13), but that night he saw her differently. She wanted to give him a reason to keep her, and, of course, she loved him. But I can’t remember now whether it said the dress was fastened in the back or not . . .

    • Sara

      Yes :-) in the book, after their startling encounter when Ross first “notices” Demelza (which is her plan, wearing his mother’s gown to seduce him so he won’t make her go home to her father), he rebuffs her at first, sending her away to take off the gown, but she taps on his door later, needing help.

      “‘This frock.’
      ‘The bodice unfastens down the back.’
      ‘I can’t reach the hooks.’”

      Later, after they’ve been to bed, she admits to him tearfully that she’s been lying about the hooks (or that she could’ve undone them herself).

      It’s unfortunate, from the POV of anyone who cares about accuracy in film costuming, that something this plain wrong should be an important plot point. But it’s there, and fans of the booms or former series would miss it. I guess we just have to take it with a grain of salt, understanding that Winston Graham, writing about 1787 from a distance of 160 years or more, was writing what he thought to be accurate.