One of the questions that has come up in 18th & early 19th century costuming is what to call the ubiquitous scarves/neck-fillers. Are they handkerchiefs? Fichus? Neckerchiefs? And when did each term arise?
A handkerchief was a large square of fabric folded into a triangle, or cut and sewn as a triangle, worn around the neck throughout the 18th century.
If you were upper class, your handkerchief would probably be white. Poorer woman were more likely to wear darker handkerchiefs that would show less dirt. George Eliot describes Adam Bedes mother at the end of the 18th century with “her broad chest covered with a buff handkerchief.” Handkerchiefs were not limited to women – men wore then as bohemian alternatives to cravats and stocks.
They could be of linen or silk, or later cotton. For men and women, silk versions were the dressiest. They were frequently embroidered, and could be bought pre-made, but even the very wealthy frequently made their own, as the decorative finishes were considered appropriate needlework for a gentlewoman.
Neckerchiefs were larger, fuller handkerchiefs – both garments were neck wear unless the term ‘pocket-handkerchief’ was specifically used.
A buffon (or buffont) is a large, sheer neckerchief worn to cover the bust and fill in the neck in the 1780s and 90s. They were often starched to further exaggerate their fullness, and to assist in creating the desired pigeon breast effect, and very occasionally wired into position. A German lady visiting London in 1786 described “Ladies with neckerchiefs puffed up so high their noses were scarcely visible.” In France the buffon was called a fichu menteur.
Fichu was, broadly speaking, the French term for a neckerchief or scarf. The term appears in French from at least as early as the mid-18th century, and was adopted for English use as a more elegant alternative to neckerchief in the early 19th century.
It’s clear in French fashion plates that fichu had a broader definition than the English neckerchief, and was used for any type of scarf or wrap, such as this fur trimmed number:
18th century French fashion plates show a whole range of fichu, from shawl-like fichu, to fichu worn as turbans.
Different styles of fichu were given different names some prosaic, some fanciful. There was the extremely ruffled multi-layer fichu anglaise:
And the front tying fichu cravat:
To the uplifting fichu ceinture (literally ‘belted fichu’)
Because the French use of fichu encompassed a broader spectrum of scarves than the narrower English terms of handkerchiefs and neckerchiefs its more common to see them in colours. When Charlotte Corday stood trial for murdering Marat in July 1793 she wore a rose pink fichu with her spotted muslin dress and black hat with green ribbons. Fashion plates in the late 18th and early 19th century show a whole range of colours, from fichu that matched hats, to wildly patterned fichu scarves.
Fichus could also be worn about the head as turbans as well as around the neck. 1797 saw a fad in France for fichus a la marat, after the turban worn by the revolutionary in David’s famous painting of his death.
This 1788 fashion plate shows a fichu tied over a bonnet (though I haven’t figured out if it was meant to be the colour of a marmot, or somehow the style evoked a ground squirrel).
Once adopted into English, fichu became the go-to word for most female neckwear throughout the 19th century. It lost the broader sense of scarf and wrap that had characterised its usage in late 18th and early 19th century French fashions, but expanded in shape and aesthetic from the basic squares and triangles of 18th century neckerchiefs.
Different styles of 19th century fichus were often called by 17th and 18th century inspired names. The 1850s saw a revival of a common 18th century style, with a fichu draped round the neck, crossed over the bodice, and tied around the waist in front or back (as in the portrait of Madame Mole near the top of this post), which they called the Marie Antoinette fichu. A decade later a similar style but with the addition of a ribbon was called the Charlotte Corday fichu. A ruffled 1890s version was called the Martha Washington fichu.
After falling out of fashion in the 1870s, the fichu saw a revival at the end of the 19th century, when the extremely feminine, frilled fashions made lavish use of lace wraps.
Fichus lost ground in the 1920s when fashions changed to simpler, sleeker styles that revealed more of the female body, though they still appeared as pared-back wrap necklines.
The last examples of fichu in common usage in fashion is to describe collars in the style of fichu.
These frocks often specifically referenced the 18th century in decoration, and sometimes name. Our old friend Charlotte Corday returned to give her name to this dress with a wide wrapped and tied collar that evoked historical styles.
So, to sum it up:
If it’s 18th century, and the outfit is English, you can call it a handkerchief or neckerchief, unless it is the the extreme 1780s/90s style, in which case it is a buffon. If the outfit is French, pretty much any scarf, shawl, wrap or neckerchief can be a fichu. After 1800 fichu is the most commonly used term, though handkerchief and neckerchief are still used by the lower classes/less fashionable. There were also different kinds of fichu, from the fichu-pereline, to the fichu cape wrap, to fichu-robings.
Buck, Anne. Dress in 18th Century England. B. T. Batsford Ltd: London. 1979 (pgs, 96, 138, 150-1, 155, 182, 200)
Cummings, Valerie. The Visual History of Costume Accessories. B. T. Batsford Ltd: London. 1998 (pg 64)
Cunnington, Phillis. Costume in Pictures. Herbert Press Limited: London. 1981 (pg. 81, 92)
Ribeiro, Aileen. Fashion in the French Revolution. B. T. Batsford Ltd: London. 1988 (pg 58, 134)