The term "nightgown"/"night gown", as used in the 18th century, is somewhat confusing. J. P. Ryan defines an English nightgown as synonymous to robe à l'anglaise, a fitted gown. The Dictionary of Fashion History defines it as "an unboned, loose dress worn for comfort and usually informally." These definitions are polar opposites!
The latter appears to be drawn from period dictionaries, which refer to a man's garment and/or an older usage, based on the examples they use. In reference to women's daily dress rather than nightclothes, the term appears as early as the 17th century:
|From the Trial of Ford Lord Grey of Werk, et al. 1682, published 1712.|
|"Woman of quality, in summer dress", Nicolas Arnoult, 1687; LACMA M.2002.57.67|
|The History of Tom Jones, Henry Fielding, 1745|
For example, Barbara Johnson's album of fabrics contains notes on what the fabric was used for, and she refers to long and short sacks, gowns, night gowns, and negligees. Fabric widths varied then as now, but it seems in the 1750s and 1760s that a nightgown took the least amount of fabric (without petticoat: 7 yards of ell-wide silk, 8 or 9 yards of three-quarter width silk, or 12-14.5 yards of half-ell silk), while both short* and long sacks took more (14 yards, unknown width - the notes for sacks do not usually include length or width), as did negligees (with petticoat: 16 yards of ell-wide silk, 18 yards of three-quarter width silk, or 22-25 yards of half-ell silk; based on extant garments, about 6 yards of a half-ell wide fabric would do for a petticoat, meaning that the negligee itself took about 17 yards).
* Pets en l'air
A list of accounts from 1765 listed a dressmaker as making "a blue satin negligee and [petti]coat" for 7 shillings/sixpence, a "black stuff gown and stomacher" for 2/-, "a blue and white striped nightgown and stomacher" for 3/-, and "a bombazeen full trimmed sack and coat" for 16/-. A later list from a milliner shows the making of a white lustring sack with "pinkt" trim and of a pink sack trimmed with silver, each costing 15/-, while she charged 3/- for the making of a green lustring nightgown. Another lists a nightgown at 2/6 and a sack and petticoat at 14/-; another a negligee and flounced petticoat at 8/-, and a stuff gown and stomacher, cotton sack, and linen sack all at 3/-, and a checked sack at 2/-. So in these accounts, a nightgown runs from two to three shillings, sacks from two or three shillings to fourteen or sixteen shillings, and negligees with petticoats seven to eight shillings.
This all brings up a couple of different questions to me.
What is a negligee, then?
There are some references in which a negligee is worn after rising, where it's clearly something to throw on. Then others where it's considered "undress".* But then there are others where women are traveling in a negligee, getting married in a negligee, looking at a half-negligee, describing a trained negligee, walking outside in a negligee, sitting out a ball in a negligee. They were usually made of very fine fabrics.
|From the Trial of Frederick Calvert, Esq. for the rape of Sarah Woodcock, 1768|
* From a modern perspective, "undress" is a fairly extreme word, but in the 18th century it means simply "not in formal dress". And formality at this point depended on several different factors:
|Account of a Russian Christening, Wedding, and Funeral, Gentleman's Intelligencer, 1775|
Why are sacks so expensive? (And why are they sometimes not?)
At this time, the customer would purchase her own fabric from a draper or mercer and take the cloth to the mantua maker or milliner to be made up into clothing. The material's cost should not be relevant to the price of the labor.
|"The Benevolent Society", London Magazine, 1771|
nb - it was common to refer to the amount of fabric needed for
a garment as "a [garment]" prior to its making-up
The second possibility is a vicious cycle. If rich women buy sacks, they can afford to be charged more. If sacks cost more, then they are a status symbol even beyond the obvious (that they take more fabric, and that they're impractical for housework). They would be an advertisement that the wearer had the money to buy a high-status gown, bearing in mind that at this point the nightgown was not high fashion, even if it were made in lustring or muslin. This is similar to what I found while researching the polonaise some time ago - "poloneses" could cost 12/-, close to the price of a sack, despite requiring less fitting and fewer seams than a gown. The price reflects social value rather than a strict hourly rate.
This has an implication for the negligee. If the negligee is a robe à la française, and the sack is also a robe à la française, why does the sack nearly always cost more than the negligee? My interpretation is that "sack" is a basic description of the form of the garment (pleated back), but the negligee specifically is relatively informal. And most of the time a sack was understood as the formal version, so that writers could refer to "sacks and negligees".
|"Mary, Lady Cunliffe", Francis Cotes, 1768; National Museums Liverpool WAG 1514|
You forgot about the cheap sacks, didn't you?
I didn't! I just had to ignore them for a bit.
The cheap sacks were only in one account: they were a flowered cotton sack, a flowered linen sack, and a checked sack, for 3/-, 3/-, and 2/-, the same amounts that it cost to make a nightgown.
|Henrietta, by Charlotte Lennox, 1761|
Any other conclusions?
I was hoping to support the idea that a negligees specifically had an adjustable lining, but from a statistical analysis of available française patterns - Arnold, Waugh, Baumgarten, and my own - there is not a strong correlation between unfitted (laced or tied) linings and informality in fabric or trim. However, this could also be a reflection of the small number of sacks which have been patterned compared to the number of extant ones, or choices made by the patterners, and I would note that there is a correlation between more formally trimmed sacks and fitted linings. (But there are more sacks with fitted linings in this small sample, period.)
In Barbara Johnson's album, there are a number of samples from negligees and sacks: six sacks (plus four short sacks) and fourteen negligees. The long and short sacks range from flowered linen and chintz to plain wool or silk to damasks and brocades; there are three brocaded negligees, one dotted lustring, one taffeta with a fly fringe, and nine are plain-woven and unfringed. Again, there is no clear conclusion, but if Barbara Johnson is a representative woman of her time it seems likely that negligees were usually made from plain-woven silk, whether solid-colored or striped.
Taken all together, this adds some more nuance to the picture of fashion (English fashion, at least) during the eighteenth century. It introduces a new level in the scale of dress formality, a high-end casual fashion highly linked to domestic settings but also appropriate for public situations. And it makes a few more references in novels and newspapers clear!