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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:
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…
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.
Got more examples of hideous, inauthentic back-lacing in historical costume movies/TV shows? Share them!
Did that gold Amadeus dress have BUST DARTS?
Yes. Yes it does.
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.
And even if they were back laced they would be spiral laced not criss crossed!!!
Thank you! <3
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)
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.)
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.
Thank you! Why couldn’t she have gotten her lacing string knotted, and then Ross could pull out the knot with his teeth…
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!
*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
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.
Or. he could have helped her unknot them with his hands…….shagging ensues. you.?
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 ;)
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.
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!
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.
How about the fact that the skirt portion is already open in front, so adding back lacing means even more unnecessary work? ;)
I feel another Kermit-flail-of-frustration may be coming on….
I totally agree.
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.
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. ;)
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!
And Constanza’s scene with Salieri where she’s falling outbox her bodice and Salieri brings in ‘Nipples of Venus’ candy. So amusing.
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 ;)
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.
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
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 :).
As someone who is about to start a late 18th century gown sewing project, this is by far the most helpful thing i’ve come across online XD
Movies think it is sexier, somehow?