Women’s Accessories in the 1700s

Women’s accessories were the fashion item that completed their look, and in the eighteenth century, there were plenty of accessories for a woman to use or wear. These accessories included the following: chemise or shift, decency skirt, fan, fichu or kerchief, handkerchief, jewelry, millinery, pannier, parasol, petticoat, pockets or pocket hoops, shoes and shoe buckles, spectacles, stays, stockings and garter, stomacher, snuff-box, and walking stick.

Fashions of 1730s, Women's Accessories

Fashions of 1730s. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Chemise or Shift—The chemise or shift was the first layer a woman wore, and it was followed by stays, the name used for a corset in the 1700s. Chemise or shifts could also be worn as nightgowns.

Decency Skirt—A decency skirt was essentially a knee-length, under-petticoat, worn between the shift and stays. As drawers or bloomers did not exist at this time, a decency skirt served to preserve a woman’s decency if she fell or if a gusty breeze lifted her pannier exposing her private parts. 

Fan—Hand fans were women’s accessories that served several purposes in the eighteenth century. Besides being an ornate, and indispensable fashion item, they also regulated air temperature, concealed flirtatious blushes, and protected a woman from insects and nature’s harsh elements. By the 1760s onward they sported revolutionary or classical themes, and were so necessary, it was noted that a lady without her fan was as awkward as a gentleman without his sword and women’s such as Madame Récamier, Eliza de Feuillide, or the Princesse de Lamballe could be found carrying them. If you are interested in learning more about fans click here.

Fichu or Kerchief—This was a large, square kerchief, that originated in the United Kingdom in the 1700s and remained popular throughout the 1800s. It was usually created from linen, but could be created from the same fabric as a gown. It filled in a bodice’s low neckline and was pinned, tucked, or tied in place.

Handkerchief—One of the most popular of all women’s accessories was the handkerchief. They were used both for show and for hygiene purposes, and the handkerchief was carried regularly by eighteenth century women. Apparently, the size and shape of handkerchiefs varied throughout the 1700s. This problem of odd shaped handkerchiefs became resolved when Marie Antoinette became involved. She was so irritated by all the shapes and sizes she went to her husband, and, on 1 June 1785, Louis XVI issued an edict making them 16 inches squares. He stated, “the length of handkerchiefs shall equal their width, throughout my entire kingdom.”[1] If you are interested in learning more about handkerchiefs, click here.

Jewelry—Although finger rings were popular from the Renaissance on, they were not particularly popular in the 1700s, and paste was relied heavily on during the revolution due to financial reasons. Pearl necklaces and other traditional and conservative jewelry styles were popular at the first of the century, but from about 1760 to 1830 jewelry took on a neoclassical look as fashions leaned towards Roman and Greek themes. During this time, jewelry was kept at a minimum or not worn at all, and pieces — armlets, cameos, necklaces, and diadems — often incorporated revolutionary themes, such as heroes or the guillotine. Additionally, châtelaine (called equipage until the 1830s) was a decorative belt hook or clasp that was suspended from a woman’s waist to carry sewing implements, smelling salts, and keys.

Millinery—Women’s accessories at this time also included millinery with the cap being one of the most popular as all women wore it, except on formal occasions. There were also hundreds of varieties of caps, although there are three main styles: caps with a band, caps without a band but with a ruffle, and caps pinned to the head. Hats were worn much less frequently and when worn, often times they were worn over a cap. One of the most popular hats was the pancake style “Shepherdess” hat, also known as Bergère hat. It became popular about mid-century and remained popular through the rest of the 1700s. Additionally, during a ten-year period — 1770 to 1780 — the collapsible bonnet known as a “calash,” became popular and protected towering hairstyles from harsh weather. The “portrait” or “picture hat,” a hat Georgina Cavendish, better known as the Duchess of Devonshire, created and wore when Thomas Gainsborough painted her in 1785, was also popular. If you are interested in learning more about hat fashions click here.

Woman Wearing a Bergère Hat, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Woman wearing a Bergère hat. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Pannier—The pannier was used to extend the width of a skirt as much as several feet on either side. It first appeared in the 1600s, was cone-shaped, and morphed into a huge dome. By the 1700s it had reduced in size and left the back and front of a woman’s gown fairly flat. Around the mid-1700s the pannier changed again becoming more like two baskets over each hip and eventually holding pads on top under each elbow.

Parasol—Parasols were used to protect a woman from the harsh sun. The word parasol first appeared in France around 1611 and then the parasol itself appeared by the mid-1600s. John Evelyn, an English writer, gardener, and diarist, mentioned it in his diary entry of 22 June 1664. He described a collection of rarities and mentioned parasols, stating, they are “fans like those our ladies use, but much larger, and with long handles, strangely carved and filled with Chinese characters.”[2] If you are interested in learning more about parasol fashions and the do’s and don’ts of this accessory, click here.

Pockets—Pockets could be worn before the final layer was put on or over a woman’s stays or shift. They were flat bags that tied around the waist and had a hole in one side. The pockets could be accessed through the side of the petticoat or gown, as they also had slits for access. Pockets became popular because they allowed wearers to carry items hands free.

Pocket Hoops—Pocket hoops, similar to the pannier, extended the shape of a woman’s gown and could be attached to a waistband and worn under the pannier if required. These women’s accessories were also practical and convenient, and there were three other advantages to them: First, they did not require help putting them on when dressing because they fastened in the front; second, they collapsed when walking in narrow passageways; and, third, they allowed a woman to carry numerous items easily, making handbags or other pockets unnecessary.

Petticoat—This was worn over the pannier, pocket, or pocket hoops to prevent them from being visible under the skirt. Usually several petticoats were worn, and the topmost petticoat was created from more luxurious and decorative fabric as it was usually visible.

Shoes—Women’s accessories also included the shoes and the shoe of the early 1700s had a curved heel, squarish toe, and tied over the instep. By the 1720s it was replaced with a shoe that had a pointed toe and a high-curved heel. After the French Revolution high-heeled footwear was abandoned, as well as the long upper, which meant footwear that replaced the high-heel usually only covered the toes.

A Woman's Shoes with Buckles 1740-1750, Courtesy of Wikipedia

A woman’s shoes with buckles 1740-1750. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Shoe Buckles—Buckles were popular women’s accessories and in fact they were so popular men also worn them. Buckles were worn on shoes from the mid-seventeenth century through the eighteenth century and were usually a separate piece from the shoe. Buckles were made from various materials including brass, pewter, silver, silver gilt, and steel, and, when buckles were worn for formal wear, they were created from paste stones, quartz, or diamonds.

Buckles replaced ties by mid-century with most buckles worn being oblong in shape. That soon changed and the buckle became gigantic. The historian William Hutton commented that when it came to ladies it was “difficult to discover their beautiful little feet, covered with an enormous … buckle.”[3] Hutton also noted of the shoe buckle:

“[T]his offspring of fancy … like the clouds, is ever changing; the fashion of to-day is thrown into the casting-pot to-morrow. The buckle seems to have undergone every figure, size, and shape of geometrical invention … [and is] the ton of 1781.”[4]

Yet, as popular as the buckle was, by the latter part of the 1700s, buckles were suddenly replaced by shoestrings. This so upset the manufacturers, who at the height of buckle production were producing annually some 2,496,000 pairs, they “sent a deputation to the Prince of Wales … with a petition stating the distressed situation of thousands of persons who had been engaged in various departments of the buckle manufacture.”[5] The Prince sympathized and resolved to wear nothing but buckles, even ordering his household to do the same. “But neither his example nor his influence were sufficient to stem the tide of fashion, and in a few years the use of shoe buckles was discontinued, except among the aged.”[6]

Spectacles—Spectacles were made by hand and could be held in place by hand or by exerted pressure on the nose. These women’s accessories came in two versions — old sight and young sight — and the modern style glasses, with temples passing over the ears, did not appear until 1727 and were not immediately adopted. By the latter part of the eighteenth century, scissor-glasses (used to correct distance-vision and mounted on scissoring stems) or lorgnettes (handled spectacles) were popular. Also popular was blue colored lenses. If you are interested in learning more about eighteenth century spectacles, click here.

Stays—Stays were another important element counted among women’s accessories. They were a fully boned, laced bodice or the term referred to the boning inside a garment, with each bone known as a stay. Stays created a stiff, inverted cone-shaped torso and supported the bust. They were worn under clothes to create a solid foundation from which the garment fell.

Stockings and Garter—Stockings were long, generally over the knee, and knitted or made from linen or wool. To hold the stocking in place a garter was used. Garters could also be knitted or made from ribbon or leather strips. To secure the stocking, the garter was tied or buckled above or below the knee.

Stomacher—Stomachers were in and out of fashion throughout the eighteenth century, but in the early 1700s, gowns or jackets had gaps in front and the stays showed. Stomachers were triangular, decorative panels, sometimes embroidered or covered in pearls or jewels. They were stitched, pinned, or held in place by lacings to cover the stays and fill in the gap — which ranged from the neckline to the waist or below.

Snuff-box—During George II’s reign (1726-1760) all classes and sexes took snuff, and by mid-century it was a ubiquitous practice particularly favored by the elite and considered an aristocratic luxury. Snuff was stored and carried in small snuff-boxes, and there was a wide variety of boxes created by craftsmen that came in different shapes and sizes, with oval and round the most popular shapes. Snuff-boxes were also created from a wide variety of materials, such as wood, horn, ivory, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, papier-mâché, and silver, cooper, or gold, and even some diamond encrusted ones. Snuff-boxes were carried in pockets and the lids were often decorated with inlays, portraits, or classical vignettes. If you are interested in learning more click here.

Walking Stick—A walking stick, sometimes called a cane, appeared around the 17th or 18th century. Walking sticks were originally a replacement for a gentleman’s sword, but they were also utilitarian and practical as they assisted people with their balance when walking. Eighteenth century women soon adopted them as a fashion statement. Walking sticks ranged in length from 43 inches to 60 inches. The standard walking stick was rattan with a rounded metal grip, but they also began to be made from a variety of materials including ivory, tortoiseshell, or wood. Sometimes they were highly decorative and sported nobs of beaten gold or silver metalwork or the handles were encrusted with jewels or carved into elaborately flowers, vegetables, and human figures or animal heads, such as dogs, rabbits, or foxes. Walking sticks came in all sizes from substantially thick to slender, and in all colors, often matching the color of a women’s toilette. Moreover, sometimes walking sticks had wrist cords attached and some had hollowed out tubes that held treasures inside. If you are interested in learning more click here.

Women with Canes and Fans During the Time of Louis XVI, Author's Collection

Women with canes and fans during the time of Louis XVI. Author’s collection.


  • [1] Bulletin of Pharmacy, Volume 37, 1923, p. 49.
  • [2] Godey’s Magazine, Volume 52-53, 1856, p. 12.
  • [3] Hone, William, The Every-day Book and Table Book, 1831, p. 598.
  • [4] The Pictorial History of England During the Reign of George the Third Being a History of the People, as Well as a History of the Kingdom, Vol. 3, 1843, p. 686.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.

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