Fashion in Reynolds and Gainsborough: Part 6

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Other paintings by Gainsborough forgo any reference historic dress at all, instead focusing on the most in the moment fashions. His famous portrait of Lady Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, painted in 1783, caused a millinery sensation. The Duchess wears a white robe a l’anglaise tied with a turquoise sash, and a highly structured black hat is perched atop her hedgehog hairstyle. The hat was one of the Duchess’s own creations, featuring a wide brim and medium crown, perhaps taking inspiration from the cavalier hats worn in the early seventeenth century. The hat is relatively simple, only decorated with a few black ostrich feathers (the Duchess had popularized wearing ostrich feathers in tall hairstyles a few years earlier) and a band of white fabric around the bottom of the crown to match the dress. After the painting was displayed at the Royal Academy, women of style everywhere clamored for a “picture hat”, just like that worn by the Duchess of Devonshire. As it was her own creation, the Duchess’s hat had no official name, being referenced to as the picture hat until the Victorian period when it would gain the moniker of the Gainsborough hat. The picture hat started a new trend, and anyone who was anyone wore one. Through the nature of the construction of the picture hat, it only works well when it is worn with the fashionable hedgehog style, reinforcing its role as a top fashionable item.

In wearing a hat of her own creation in her portrait, the Duchess asserts herself as a trendsetter at the top of society. Aware of her own fashion influence, she probably knew that her hat would be copied, thus her wearing of it strengthens her position as the most stylish lady in England, able to influence every other woman of style. The Duchess also shows her creativity, as the hat was of her own design. She shows herself to be something of an artist, able to create new styles, as opposed to just a woman who went with whatever the current trends dictated. The Duchess also gains power through her ability to create her own hats and influence the fashion of women all over England. While the Duchess’s portrait by Reynolds associated her with the timeless beauty and wisdom of classical societies, her portrait by Gainsborough reinforced her position of power in contemporary society.

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