"Immodest" clothing for historical purposes

So, I am very interested in historical fashion. I have been watching some films such as Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House - 1800’s situated movies. I am seeing a trend, in that it looks perfectly normal to expose cleavage. In one scene, every single lady at a party is wearing a dress exposing cleavage, a party of a rather high social class at that.

Considering the societies these stories took place in, where it was scandelous for a woman to flash ankle, it kind of feels like they just didn’t consider cleavage immodest. These dresses would not have been worn at a church, of course, but at a party or a gathering it was no biggie to expose the chest.

However, obviously cleavage is considered immodest today. So, if I were to wear a dress modeled after one from Pride and Prejudice, that is low-cut, would that be considered wrong? If I were to sew a dress, and for historical accuracy made the neckline low-cut, would that be wrong?

As a seamstress, I have no problem picking and choosing the dresses I sew to assure modesty in our culture as well as theirs. That’s what I am doing now; I make sure the necklines are high on all my designs. But for the purpose of conversation, and for the sake of history, what do you think on the matter?

Be careful in thinking that the dresses in movies like Pride and Prejudice were common. Look at dresses from the Regency Period and you will see a good number of them (including evening gowns) did not have the barely contained heaving bossom style shown in the movies. While the dress style did exist there are accounts from the period that say it was not universally accepted.

"A woman, proud of her beauty, may possibly be nothing but a coquet: one who makes a public display of her bosom, is something worse.”

Regency Etiquette; The Mirror of Graces
Published 1811

A coquet is a nice way of saying a flirt or possibly a tease. If making “a public display of her bosom” makes her worse than a flirt I wouldn’t say that the general opinion was that exposing cleveage was no big deal. So at least according to this account from a historically accurate stand point that dress style might be considered wanton even in that time period.

Before the turn of the 19th century what we consider low cut was the norm, indeed at one point fully exposed breasts were all the rage amongst the aristocracy…

Remember that most such movies, even when set in “ye olde days”, are made by film-makers with modern sensibilities, who are trying to appeal to contemporary audiences. This being the case, accuracy is often sacrificed. :wink:

I think it was also common to wear a “fichu” or lace insert across the center of the dress in those times, to avoid any cleavage. Look at paintings of Elizabeth the first. Breasts were bound tight, so they looked like a flat chest, dresses were above the breasts, AND had lace above that too! Extremely modest. The more “scandalous” styles seem to have started in France and moved to England, where they were not widely accepted, even among the “upper classes” and certainly not among those close to the Monarchy. And definitely not for wives or daughters of the King or for the Queen either, who were expected to be models for the “upper class” of modesty and good taste.

I was very active in 18th century living history reenactment. Do not use films as reference for historical clothing. Trust me, they barely simulate clothing of the period. Women most definitely covered up particularly because it was COLD most of the time.

an evening gown or party dress would be a little more revealing but only among the very upper classes. Look at actual garments from the period and art depicting every day life. Portraits are not examples of every day life. They are little more contrived.

here’s a good website on regency fashion:


Whereas in Victorian days, clothing was for more modest than it is today, one should not extrapolate from this that modesty has only decreased over the ages. In fact the pendulum has swung to and fro and you can find surprising things if you look at history as a whole. On the other hand, as others have pointed out, one should not confuse what may have existed under special circumstances at some point in history with what was the norm during that period.

First, you must examine whether these dresses are in fact historically accurate; second, a “low cut” is not inherently immodest. There are other factors to consider, including the overall effect.

As a CW reenactor, I have often shaken my head at some of the outlandish “get-ups” that some people wear. While there might be ‘proof’ that a certain garment existed, it doesn’t mean that it was the norm ie zoot suits of the '30’s and 40’s.

Also, the modern media really hasn’t a clue. A good example would be "Gone with the Wind’ as to how wrong the media can be.

I’m very glad to hear that xD I was asking mostly in theory, but it’s nice to think I’ll won’t have to worry much about it :slight_smile:

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