What do we mean when we speak of the connection between fashion and gardens? Nowadays, they are linked by a concern with the seasons. Like gardeners working in their gardens, the modern fashion world follows a seasonal cycle, always looking ahead to the next one, trying to anticipate the changes of light, temperature, mood, and scale that await at each turn of the year. We deck out our gardens, as we do our bodies, to magnify our impressions of the passing year. They bring a sense of occasion to the seasons. Midsummer seems more authentic among muslin and roses; russet velvet and gold-licked chrysanthemums concentrate our sense that autumn has arrived. Both gardens and dress are types of wishfulness.1

In the past, people had fewer clothes. Charles Worth invented the “seasonal” collection in the nineteenth century as a way of selling more dresses. But gardens and costume, arts governed by time and natural forms, have a long tradition of shared concerns. We are so used to them borrowing one another’s clothes, so to speak, that we seldom stop to think what it means, or why it is that it happens at some moments and not at others, or what is borrowed and what discarded. Sometimes we see mirroring: a pyramidal “pincushion” flower bed of 1880 and a fashionable woman of similar date seem both to have been piped from an icing nozzle. In the eighteenth century, though, when gardens were designed to emulate “nature,” a woman’s body was anything but natural: puffed out and squeezed in, scaffolded with arrangements of hoop petticoats, patent bosoms, “Sestini bums,” whalebone stomachers, wire breastworks, and “false hams”—to say nothing of what was on her head. But to say something of what was on her head—a little garden, cut into the upper slope of a two-foot wig—is to suggest the correspondences were there, but not quite straightforward.

Floral decoration goes in and out of style. James I died and the rest of the Stuarts didn’t care for it, preferring to submerge themselves in bows and lace. No one was keen in the interregnum. But in the eighteenth century, the flowers returned when the greatest tribe of exquisites England has ever seen, the Georgian bon ton, acceded to the world and put their money into their gardens and their gardens onto their clothes.

From the point of view of clothing, one catalyst for this effect was the arrested condition of court fashion between 1720 and the early 1760s. For forty years, the shape of court dress remained exactly the same, as if struck by enchantment. For forty years, women wore a tight flat bodice and the vast hoop petticoat, five feet across, that spun them sideways through doors and banished the arms from Georgian seat furniture. But fashion hates permanence. Its job is to take up and discard. So, for the duration of this long paralysis women showed their ton not in the style of their dress but in the pattern of the silk.

For forty years, the shape of court dress remained exactly the same, as if struck by enchantment.

The beneficiaries of this were the silk weavers and designers whose industry was settled around Spitalfields, then an elegant eastern suburb of London. Working on the forty-inch drawloom, silk designers labored to supply new designs each year, often full-scale patterns with no repeat. Floral and plant motifs were constant features. Unlike their counterparts in France, English designers paid great attention to botanical realism, and the most successful of them, such as Anna Maria Garthwaite and James Leman, joined elite botanical societies to get sight of new species and cultivars. They copied from botanical illustrations and from nature and showed great enterprise: the newly arrived Magnolia virginiana, for instance, grew in only two recorded places in England, but one of them was the Peckham garden of Peter Collinson, a silk merchant, friend of Hans Sloane—the naturalist and lord of the manor of Chelsea whose collection eventually served as the foundation of the British Museum—and collector of exotic seeds. From 1741, M. virginiana featured in Garthwaite’s designs. By no coincidence, one of London’s largest nurseries, “Gurle’s Ground,” grew to occupy twelve acres between Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

The two professions acknowledged their debt to one another. With flowers officially banished from many parts of the eighteenth-century garden, nurserymen welcomed the dressmaker’s attention. A rare anemone was then as likely to be sold for the loom or needle as for horticultural display. Robert Furber, a Kensington nurseryman, produced an illustrated month-by-month guide to his stock, advertising it as dual-purpose: “very useful,” as he said, both for the garden-maker and “for the ladies as patterns for working.” In a specialized silk trade gazette, meanwhile, an anonymous silk designer extolled the study of plants in due season. “[They] afford greater varieties than we are able to imitate, though we lived to the years of Methuselem [sic].” Even in winter, the author continues, a designer in search of a theme has only “to visit the [nursery] green-houses, stowed and crowded with varieties of exotic plants of surprising oddness and beauty.”

The high cost of textile put a limit on the purchase of new clothes. A new court dress was an event for everyone; even the King’s birthday might not flush out more than “very little finery and many old clothes,” as reported in 1729. As a consequence, the pace of change across forty years was a more stately and elliptical progress than anything we, chasing the cheapest clothes in history, have come to expect from “fashion” in our lifetimes. All the same, we can clearly see the waxing and waning of different designs over the years. The fashion for natural realism achieved a zenith in the early 1740s, when trellises of garden flowers and even common plants like dandelion and maidenhair fern, seed pods, and plants with spidery roots were blown onto the vast aprons of the ladies’ skirts. Even the popular gold-and silver-thread patterns kept the silhouette of nature, if not its shades. The silk designers behaved as makers of fashion do now, but slower: they indulged this taste to the hilt of their invention and then they created a new object of desire. Gradually, the trellis-patterned, naturalistic silks began to look quaint.

The fashion for natural realism achieved a zenith in the early 1740s.

There was comedy to be had from this. In a 1763 staging of John Vanbrugh’s comic play The Provok’d Wife, David Garrick, playing Sir John Brute, disguised himself in his wife’s court dress. This was already funny, but Garrick’s sophisticated London audience would have gotten an additional laugh from the revelation of the dress itself. To them, the silk design was instantly recognizable as risibly out of date. The fashionable patterns of 1763 looked very different: dense and busy in emulation of French designs, they had abandoned natural realism for strong-colored and fantastical motifs marching up the silk in glittering bands. The equivalent for us of Lady Brute’s dress might be a Chanel suit of 1986, with pastel tweed miniskirt, gold-coin buttons and quarterback shoulder pads.

The most gorgeous court dresses were not of woven silks at all, but of silk embroidered—generally with flowers “shaded after nature,” but also with plants and shrubs and even flowerpots, weeds, beds, and gardens. In 1740, the Duchess of Queensberry, an amazing beauty, entranced the court in a white satin dress on which a “natural” park of the new, fashionable type was laid out:

The bottom of the petticoat brown hills covered with all sorts of weeds, and every breadth [of silk] had an old stump of a tree that ran up almost to the top of the petticoat, broken and ragged and worked with brown chenille, round which twined nastertians, ivy, honeysuckles, periwinkels, convolvulouses and all sorts of twining flowers which spread and covered the petticoat, vines with the leaves variegated as you have seen them by the sun, which made them look very light. The robings and facings were little green banks with all sorts of weeds and the sleeves and the rest of the gown loose twining branches of the same sort as those on the petticoat: many of the leaves were finished with gold, and part of the stumps of the trees looked like the gilding of the sun. I never saw a piece so prettily fancied.

The writer of this letter, Mary Pendarves (later Delany), was the most accomplished woman at court. Her own petticoat, after her own design and arguably her own handiwork, showed hollyhocks, auriculas, sweet peas, and other garden flowers embroidered as if suspended in a vast darkness of black silk, in a witty and graceful allusion to another kind of garden: the London “florists’ gardens,” or nurseries, where floral novelties—often named for court luminaries—were set in individual splendor against a black background.

What she most admires here is nature (in a garden version, where six different decorative flowering plants can be set upon one tree stump) perfectly observed and rendered. She was the master of this herself: as a worker of silks, as a painter, and most famously as the creator of the hortus siccus, now in the British Museum, her compendium of plants and flowers translated into paper—a miracle of skill, and of close observation.

When we think of this, we must remember that gardening was to the eighteenth century what contemporary art has been to the international plutocracy these last thirty years. It was a time of garden mania: the English landowners poured their wealth into garden-making, unrolling ornamental parklands over what had been cart-tracked fields, villages, and heaths, and setting their grassy flanks with plantations, bridges, porticoes, temples, pagodas, seats, lakes, obelisks, follies, streams, grottoes pearled with a million shells, and towers of water leaping furlongs high to amaze you as you gained the ridge.

Botanizing was the thing, and it wasn’t enough to spend money; Georgians wanted knowledge. In high society’s green-papered morning rooms, botanists and drawing masters, engaged by the season, taught duchesses to classify and dissect, and how to copy a root system with a fine brush. Brushes, books, half-full jars, and piles of botanical prints lay strewn on walnut surfaces amid the morning’s haul of native weeds. So, these dresses of the Duchess and Mrs. Pendarves were more to them than ornament: they were the outward expression of these women’s patronage, expertise, learning, and engagement with all aspects of horticulture. Nor did the gardening craze subside. If anything, it intensified over the century. Hannah More, writing in the 1770s, jokingly described an afternoon in elegant female company: “I protest I hardly do them justice when I pronounce that they had, amongst them, on their heads, an acre and a half of shrubbery, besides slopes, grass plots, tulip beds, clumps of peonies, kitchen gardens, and greenhouses.”

Indeed, in the eighteenth century, the garden changed and brought about one of the most enduring and influential fashions ever to have been devised: the “English Style.”

We now know that the movement for naturalistic landscape began before the fateful Spectator essay of June 25, 1712, in which Joseph Addison attacked the constraining formalities of the French-style garden. But he was the one to put the matter with trenchancy: how horrible it was to find straight lines everywhere and “the marks of the scissar upon every plant and bush.” Come to think of it, why need a garden be restricted at all? “Why may not the whole estate be thrown into a kind of garden by frequent plantations, that may turn as much to the profit, as the pleasure of the owner? Man might make a pretty landskip.”

The fashionable were now up and out in the mornings to gather plants, survey the landscape, and marvel at interesting natural features, if any such were available.

From now on, “nature” was the cry of garden-makers, and the next hundred years gave a good deal of thought and money to the question of what, exactly, a “natural” landscape would be if it were not, in fact, natural, but instead made by man, with the help of professional consultants. Perhaps the horticulturalist Batty Langley laid out the terms for this new order in 1728, when he urged his readers to garden “after a more grand and rural manner, than has been done before.” In Langley’s mind, the rural could be grand; grandeur could be rural. This had never happened before. As Langley—a champion of the irregular—had hoped, the garden grew sinuous, asymmetrical, rugged, wayward, and “natural” in its shape. As for extent, it “leaped the fence,” as Horace Walpole said of William Kent’s designs, and rolled out over the whole estate. Paths and drives spooled out for miles, to lakes for picnicking by and pavilions to paint in, past specially devised vantage points from which the estate itself—treasury of England’s wealth, source of food and fuel, begetter of field sports, generator of rents and livings—might be admired in all its productive beauty. With the coming of the landscape park, the estate became a viewing gallery for its own splendors.

Up until now, ladies and gentlemen had walked their long axial terraces in their silks. In the largest gardens, closed carriages with servants fore and aft would convey the ladies to a distant spot. But now, the fashionable were up and out in the mornings to gather plants, survey the landscape, and marvel at interesting natural features, if any such were available. These activities required a different kind of clothing, suitable for hill and dale, for getting wet and muddy under English skies, perhaps for hours. For men, there evolved a version of servant’s dress: a hardy three-piece costume of broadcloth in a subdued color—buff, dark blue, or brown—usually worn with top boots. Ladies adopted the redingote or caraco, modeled on men’s dress, made of sturdy fabrics like “fustian” or “rug.” This was a double-breasted, long-sleeved habit, tight at the waist, full in the skirts, with a waistcoat for extra warmth and a lace jabot between the lapels, where a man’s neck-cloth would be.

The caraco was in effect a kind of riding costume, but its use was much more general than that—it was noted as early as 1731 as both liberating and elegant, de rigueur for all outdoor pursuits and as a traveling costume. The first landscape parks were not in fact laid out for riders but for people on foot, with long meandering “walks” winding from one feature to another and many pavilions and viewing-seats to stop at. It took a commercial genius like Lancelot “Capability” Brown to perceive their potential for equestrian amenity—an assessment of his customers’ priorities which may account for the prodigious success of his practice. Most rich Georgians had an eye for horseflesh, and many bred for the turf. Brown drove rides and jolly gallops over the smooth flanks of his improvements. From now on, the landscape park was designed for the spectator on the back of a horse. At Welbeck Abbey, the seat of the Dukes of Portland in Nottinghamshire, Humphry Repton devised a complex carriage route, thrilling to drive on, with forty-four viewing points.

The outlook from a traditional coach or carriage was not ideal. A carriage’s roof, heavy sides, and small windows were there to protect the occupants—an aim wholly at odds with the claims of panorama. So, as the garden grew into the park, a new kind of carriage came into being: the open phaeton, designed for belting round the grounds. The phaeton had no roof or sides. It exposed its passengers to danger and weather and, in models like the notorious “high flyer,” perched them at the height of a fifteen-hand horse. Critically, the phaeton was an agent of social liberties: it dispensed with the coachman and brought a new and delightful informality to grand country life in England. Driving himself, the owner of the estate could treat his guests to a triple display of his advantages: his land, his taste, and the cut of his driving skills.

All the elements of this story are present in George Stubbs’s Gentleman Driving a Lady in a Phaeton (1787). Here, the titular couple, slung high on a phaeton of racier type, pause on a carriage drive some miles from the house, just visible at the far point of the “improvements.” He is dressed like his own servant, she like a feminized version of a man—a style which persists to this day among English women of the upper sorts. Any occasion involving the Country Life–reading classes will draw out a procession of “principal boy” frock coats, broad-brimmed hats, and embroidered slippers, remnants of the first “grand, rural” look.

When the garden leaped the fence, it brought about a form of dress that has since enjoyed a long posterity. In its own time, it caught on at once. By the end of the eighteenth century, broadcloth (for men) had replaced silk, even at court, and Henrietta Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough, was sporting a caraco at an evening entertainment in the Vauxhall Gardens. We know that fashion is tidal and will list to where power is on the wax. As with the phaeton, the appeal of these clothes lay in what they connoted: wealth, discernment, landed extent, dashing physical courage, aristocratic manners, and smart équipage. But there was more than this to admire. The “natural” English landscape park and its clothes came to stand for other English liberties, like personal freedoms, (relatively) permeable social structures, and such desirable liberal institutions as parliamentary democracy or constitutional monarchy. Measured on that scale, as a metaphor for social confinement, the French “broderie” garden now seemed an emblem of political dirigisme.

While the English landscape park (as distinct from the jardin anglo-chinois, a kind of early rococo form) never caught on in Continental Europe, the clothes certainly did. Marie-Antoinette wore the caraco or “robe à l’Anglais” at Le Petit Trianon as a display of household informality. In recurrent bouts of anglomanie, young Parisians took to the Bois de Boulogne in phaetons and broadcloth surtouts. The English gentleman’s broadcloth, moreover, with its implications of long hours outdoors, came ultimately to invoke a sensitivity to nature. In Goethe’s seminal work of romanticism, The Sorrows of Young Werther, his eponymous hero appears in the ensemble of the English park owner: the pale buff waistcoat, navy blue broadcloth coat, and top boots worn by the gentlemen in another great Stubbs, The Milbanke and Melbourne Families (ca. 1769). Werther’s success turned the outfit into a signal of a “romantic sensibility”; it was taken up all over Northern Europe, where it can still be seen in its distant but surely direct descendant: the pale yellow cashmere sweater, brogues, and sport coat of the stil’ Inglese.

1 Editors’ note: This article is adapted from a booklet produced to accompany an exhibition, “Fashion and Gardens,” which was on view at the Garden Museum, Lambeth, London, from February 7 through April 27, 2014.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 10, on page 16
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