Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Modesty Piece

Women's fashion during the eighteenth century largely dictated a lower neckline, either scalloped or square in finish. Most period films would have you believe that all eighteenth century women walked around with ample decolletage permanently on show - tightly corseted, powdered and dotted with beauty patches, but this was by no means the universal experience of women when it came to what they showed off - and what they covered up. Respectable ladies sought to preserve their modesty, yet still maintain a pleasing and attractive appearance by using fichus, neckerchiefs or Modesty Pieces (as they became known).
Early eighteenth century fichus, Flemish origin, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Made of lace, muslin, cotton, and sometimes silk, fichus came in a variety of shapes from rectangular to square, triangular to curved. All shapes and designs served essentially the same purpose - they were folded and arranged around the neck and tucked artfully into the neckline of a lady's bodice, thus saving her blushes and letting everybody know she was a woman of impeccable virtue.
Joshua Reynolds, Mrs. William Molesworth, 1755.
During the early to mid-1700s, Modesty Pieces like the Flemish examples in the first image, and in the portrait above were delicate affairs with fine embroidery. They were of varying widths, from thin scraps to wider kinds that were worn almost like shawls.
Joshua Reynolds, Miss. Elizabeth Ingram, 1757.
While modesty was a prized feminine virtue, it's interesting to note that the early to mid century examples were translucent, so much so that they sometimes didn't serve to cover much of anything at all. This is a fact born out by French philosopher Denis Diderot in his Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1756) in which he writes,

"Fichu, part of a woman’s underclothing. It is a square or rectangular piece of muslin, or of another white or coloured cloth, or even silk... but with white skin, curves, firm flesh and a bosom, even the most innocent peasant woman knows how to let just enough show by arranging the folds of her fichu."

Modesty Pieces like those worn by Miss. Ingram (above), were more like a cursory nod to the idea, rather than a wholehearted adoption of it. As with any fashion, personal taste allowed for adaptation.
Muslin and whitework kerchief, 1780s, V&A Museum
By the 1780s, Modesty Pieces had changed significantly from embroidered gauze to become larger, plainer pieces of fabric, which were placed around the shoulders, crossed over at the front and tied at the lower back. 
Cotton fichu, c.1792-3, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
As the Enlightenment gained momentum and revolution swept through France in the 1780s and 90s, clothing became heavily influenced by neoclassical ideals. Shapes and patterns were simpler, eventually giving way to what we now know of as Regency style. 
Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Sarah Siddons, 1785.
For the twenty or so years prior to this however, the Modesty Piece truly came into it's own, adorning sophisticated silks and simple cottons alike. It both preserved respectability and, when needed, helped to create the illusion of it.

All portraits courtesy of Olga's Gallery.


  1. Oh dear, I'm so not "a woman of impeccable virtue" reading through this ;-)

    I've missed your posts! They're always so interesting and this one is no exeption. I'm not sure though whether I prefer your writing or the paintings this time... ;-)

    I hope you're well and working on your big plans? Love from London xo

  2. Ooops, I don't think I would be either for that matter! Thanks for your lovely comments. I always love choosing the images for these posts, so I'm glad you like them!

    Big plans are coming along! :) Hope you're having a great week! x

  3. What a fascinating post about fichus. I adore wearing scarfs and lace collars and big necklaces - for me they are a contemporary way of achieving modesty without looking old fashioned and out of date!

  4. Thanks Ingrid. I share your love of scarves and big necklaces. If I leave the house without one or the other, I feel lost for the whole day! :)

  5. Loved this, as I just got a beautiful whitework kerchief to wear with my 18thc. gowns...Thank you!

  6. Hello Mary - From one eighteenth century fanatic to another - thank you for visiting! I love the delicacy of whitework modesty pieces, and I'm sure yours is beautiful.