Fashionable Blues of the 18th century

No-one seems quite sure how the colour blue became associated with the feeling of sadness, some say its origins lay back in Greek mythology whilst others say it has links to the devil. Whatever the true origin, how could anyone possibly feel blue wearing these sumptuous gowns that we’re going to take a look at?

A Lady in Blue 1757 Arthur Devis 1711-1787 Bequeathed by Alan Evans 1974
A Lady in Blue 1757 by Arthur Devis. Tate
A Lady in Blue 1757 Arthur Devis 1711-1787 Bequeathed by Alan Evans 1974

So many shades of blue exist, from the palest baby blue to darkest navy blue and everything in-between and the colour was clearly very popular during the Georgian era. Given the amazing array of paintings sadly we only have space to share  few with you, but we do hope you enjoy them.
Portrait of La Comtesse de Beaufort, c, 1760 by Louis Michel van Loo. Gift of the Honorable Marilyn Logsdon Menello and Michael A. Menello, in honor of Rollins College President Rita Bornstein, Cornell Fine Arts Museum.


An interesting point worth noting about these paintings is that to be create the impression of fabric required a very specific skill and it seems, not a skill that some of the most famous artists had, so they employed  ‘drapery painters’ to paint the more intricate and detailed aspects of fabrics, to ensure that they looked as natural as possible. One of these, who was regarded as being amongst the best was Joseph Van Aken. Another was Peter Toms who was one of founding members of the Royal Academy.

Sir Godfrey Kneller. Portrait of Mrs. Bagnal, Circa 1690 - 1720  courtesy of 1tsdibs
Sir Godfrey Kneller. Portrait of Mrs. Bagnal, Circa 1690 – 1720

Mr James Peters was Kneller’s drapery painter so it seems highly likely that he painted this stunning blue dress.


We came across this description in The London Tradesman, of exactly what a drapery painter’s role was so thought you might find it interesting.

The drapery painter is but the lowest degree of a liberal painter; he is employed in dressing the figures, after the painter has finished the face, given the figure its proper attitude and drawn the outlines of the dress or drapery.

A portrait painter who is well employed, has not time to cloath his figures, and therefore employs a drapery painter to finish that part of the work.

This workman must have a tolerable notion of painting in general; but his chief skill consists in his knowledge of colours and the mixing of them, to produce proper shades; for the painter generally draws the outline and leave him to fill up the empty space with proper colours.

The drapery painters are generally employed in signpost drawing, and other sorts of painting that do not require a masterly hand: they have commonly but a dull genius and a mere mechanical head: however, those who are eminent in their way and in the employ of a noted master make very handsome bread; they may sometimes earn a guinea a day, and must be mere bunglers if they cannot make half a guinea.

Their education may be as low as you please; but as in all other branches that handle the pencil, they ought to be early acquainted with the use of it: the sooner they are bound apprentices the greater proficiency they may be expected to make. A sober disposition and a sound constitution are absolutely requisite.

unknown artist; Daughter of a 7th Dragoon Guards Officer; The Military Museum of the Royal Dragoon Guards;
unknown artist; Daughter of a 7th Dragoon Guards Officer; The Military Museum of the Royal Dragoon Guards

And our final selection:

Miss Elizabeth Greenway by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Romney, George; Miss Sophia Musters; Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery;
Miss Sophia Musters by George Romney; Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery
Romney, George; Margaret Messenger (b.1737), Mrs Walter Strickland; National Trust, Sizergh Castle;
Margaret Messenger (b.1737), Mrs Walter Strickland by George Romney; National Trust, Sizergh Castle

Romney, George; Ann Verelst (1751-1823); Rotherham Heritage Services;
Romney, George; Ann Verelst (1751-1823) by George Romney; Rotherham Heritage Services


Following a great deal of discussion amongst our readers we thought we would add some of the earliest references to a few shades of blue that we have come across in the newspapers.

Navy Blue 

Morning Post and Daily Advertiser , Saturday, October 7, 1780

A slight variation on the term appeared in The London Chronicle of 1781.

London Chronicle, August 16, 1781 – August 18, 1781


The Parisian fashion report for  June 1779 confirms for us the existence of the colour turquoise in clothing.

Evening Mail, June 26, 1799 – June 28, 1799

Saxon Blue

General Evening Post, August 13, 1748 – August 16, 1748

Royal Blue

It is said to have been created by millers in Rode, Somerset, a consortium of which won a competition to make a dress for Queen Charlotte, consort of King George III. The article does not however, give a specific date for this, but we did manage to find this article below confirming the existence of such a colour by 1782.

Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser , Tuesday, April 23, 1782


Featured Image

Miss Taylor by Joseph Highmore (1692-1780) Courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery


49 thoughts on “Fashionable Blues of the 18th century

  1. I am not so sure about the negative connotations associated with blue. It was THE colour associated with the Virgin Mary, and in every collection of old masters in Britain, and in the numerous art collections that would be visited on the grand tour, there would be numerous paintings of Mary in blue. It was for this reason that blue was seen as a very female colour (incidentally pink was for boys – they swapped round in the early to mid twentieth century). To depict a woman in a sumptuous blue dress was to emphasise their femininity.


    • Blue does seems historically to have been a feminine colour, rather than pink as you say. The negative connotations associated with the colour seem to be about mood rather than the colour itself i.e. ‘feeling blue’.


    • Delighted that you enjoyed it Collette and totally agree about the colour – wish we had been able to include more paintings, but we’d get too carried away, there are so many stunning paintings to choose from, so maybe an excuse for us to do another one at some stage:)


  2. Wonderful pictures! I had been going to comment on pink being a boy’s colour but Gordon got there first. Remembering that ‘pink’ at the time was nearer carmine, not Barbie pink or baby pink, which were Rose Pompadour and pale pink respectively. I chased down a lot of colours, and if I’m allowed to link, here it is, if not, I won’t be offended if you cut my post.


    • Thank you so much Sarah for your comments and we’re more than happy to leave the link to your blog, it’s fab. Thank you for sharing it with our readers 🙂


  3. Thanks for the post… some lovely images of Georgian gowns. Since I’m writing a novel set in the Georgian era, I’ve been doing a lot of research on the colors the women wear for my scenes… not just the colors they wore but what they called the colors. They did not use “baby blue,” “turquoise blue” or “navy blue” as far as I can tell, but they did have Indigo, Ultramarine Ashes, Azurite, and Egyptian Blue, Cobalt Blue, “pale blue”, “darkest blue”, etc. Sometimes I can use the colors of stones (sapphire comes to mind, and turquoise, but only if it’s compared to a stone in jewelry). Or, I can speak of “robin’s egg blue”. In those days, “teal” was a bird.


  4. A tale to connect Navy Blue with ladies dresses. In 1748 the Admiralty determined that there would be an official uniform for the Royal Navy, up until then the officers had worn more or less what they wanted, and tended to wear red like army officers. A selection of possible uniforms were made up, the admirals preferred a red and white version, but the King chose blue and white because, it was said, ‘He had seen the Duchess of Bedford riding in the park in a habit of blue face with white. The dress took the fancy of His Majesty who appointed it the uniform of the Royal Navy.’

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gordon and Sarah: As far as my research shows, they did not use the term “Navy blue” in England before the 19th century. They referred to their admirals as “admirals of the blue” which tells me they just called the color of the uniform “blue”. The OED dates “Navy blue” from 1813, and a Google book search for the date range 1750-1800 did not show any use of the term. They did have the term “Marine blue” which the OED dates from 1803 and defines as “A dark blue colour; spec. the colour associated with the uniform of the Royal Marines.” I always thought the Marines wore red but perhaps there was a blue element somewhere in there. Just because the Royal Navy wore a blue we now call navy blue does not mean they used the term.


  5. It’s ironic that the drapery painters were looked down on when it is one of the first things that people comment on (oh wow look how real the fabric looks!) and can make all the difference in a portrait! I had no idea that portrait painters would ‘hire-in’ people to paint clothes, fascinating.


      • Damned if I can recall which history of fashion book I got it out of. I was working from about six… I suspect it might have been ‘Dressing Renaissance Florence’. But Celestine meaning sky blue is attested in OED [on historical principles] 1798


      • I see “celestine” in the OED as a noun, a mineral, the word dated from 1804 (though they might be late on that). I don’t see it as a color but perhaps people referred to the mineral when meaning the color like “sapphire”.


      • I have the 1971 OED On Historical Principles which has more detail than the later etymological editions. Worth getting. The next edition includes later slang words which is no good to me at all. I lived through the 1970s and 80s and have no desire to revisit them.


  6. Sarah (All Things Georgian), do you have a link for this: Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, Saturday, October 7, 1780 ‘Mr Sainsbury’s liveries were a deep navy blue with silver lace and epaulets.‘–?


  7. I have just checked the various regulations for naval officers uniforms in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Regan is correct in her suggestion, they are just described as ‘blue’ with no qualifier, the regulations are more concerned with the details that differentiate rank and seniority, and the need for a uniform appearance..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for checking Gordon. We have also added a couple of references to the end of the blog from the early 1780s which refer to the use of the colour navy/naval blue.


      • Thanks for the references Sarah. I can see the late Georgian/early Regency was a time of evolving notions of colors, or more particularly, what to call them. I’ll forward the new references you found to the OED and ask them to update their references. Turquoise, as a stone–and colors referred to by the stone–was out there but I had never seen a reference to it as only a color. Good to have that one. Same with “naval blue” evolving to “navy blue” since it was identified with the Royal Navy’s uniforms. Prussian Blue was also identified from military uniforms.


      • Sarah, have you come across teal as a color? Or, was it still just a bird in the Georgian era? The OED dates it (as a color) from 1923, but we’ve already seen the OED is often failing to capture early references.


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