18th Century

Earthquake fashions of the 18th century

Responding to Emily’s suggestion, today’s post is about Earthquake fashion.  Like everything else, fashion and textiles are affected by natural disasters.   Trade routes are interrupted, industries are destroyed, or moved.  Fashions change and developed in response to earthquakes.

This post is also meant to celebrate the resilience and  fortitude of countless unnamed people across the centuries who have picked up, sought to “bury the dead and heal the living”, and rebuilt their lives and their cities, through an exploration of how the things closest to them, their clothes and textiles, changed in response to the changes in their life.

For an interesting look at earthquake fashion let’s look at the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake.  In terms of human life, this was the most devastating earthquake ever recorded, and it probably had the most profound effect on society.  The massive chaos of the earthquake, and the resulting tsunami and fires, sparked the transition from the baroque to the rococo styles in Spain and Portugal, and prompted the philosophical writings that led to the Enlightenment.  Hundreds of thousands lost their lives, but because of them the science of  seismology was developed, and the first attempts were made to build earthquake proof buildings.  Their descendants also benefitted from the new, more democratic Portugal and Spain that emerged in the wake of the chaos, and the path was opened for South America’s independence.

Sebastião Jose de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal, The Expulsion of the Jesuits by Louis-Michel van Loo and Claude-Joseph Vernet,1766.

This state portrait depicts the Marquis of Pombal, who rose to power as Portugal’s ‘Minister of the Kingdom’ (e.g. Prime Minister) due to his handling of the earthquake.  His dark, simple clothes anticipate Neoclassical fashion, and he is surrounded by the trappings of his learning and accomplishment in the manner of the Enlightenment rather than than the trappings of a ruler by divine right or birth.

Pombal was the first major proponent of the Enlightenment (or at least aspects of it) in Portugal.  His more famous Enlightenment colleague, Voltaire, was fascinated by the earthquake, and used it as an example to support some of his arguments against the Church and religion in Candide (the earthquake happened on a major religious holiday, and every church in Lisbon was destroyed, which didn’t help the Catholic churches image much in Portugal).

Portrait of François-Marie Arouet, dit Voltaire (1694—1778) by Nicolas de Largillière, 1718

The colouring of Voltaire’s outfit in his most famous portrait almost certainly influenced the colours of Pombal’s outfit in his state portrait, as the red with dark came to symbolise the Enlightened man.

Sensing which way the wind was blowing, even royalty opted for a simpler style.  This portrait of Felipe I, Duke of Parma, shows the monarch in a mix of baroque gold, rococo swirls, and neoclassical simplicity.

Felipe I, Duke of Parma by Laurent Pecheux (1729-1821), circa 1760

Felipe doesn’t seem quite willing to get rid of all the gold of monarchy, but he has given up the ermine and grand gestures that usually characterise royal portraits.

In Portugal, Joseph I’s daughters reacted to the earthquake and to the ensuing political upheaval in diametrically opposite fashions, literally and figuratively.  Joseph’s direct heir, Maria, who became Queen in 1760, became increasingly religious, suspicious of the new Enlightenment movement, and desperate to maintain a strong, overwhelming monarch.  Her portraits depict her in the old manner, as a monarch by divine right, ultimate in power.

Queen Maria I and King Consort Pedro III of Portugal, circa 1765

Her sister Benedita, on the other hand, moderated her views and was portrayed as a sympathetic, openminded woman wearing relatively simple, unaffected garments (well, simple and unaffected by the standards of Spanish and Portuguese royalty!)

Infanta Benedita, Princess of Brazil, circa 1765

The difference in their portraits, which were painted within a decade of each other, clearly shows the difference in style sparked by the 1755 earthquake.


  1. MD Smith says

    I live in Washington DC – a long way away from Christchurch. I’ve been trying to think of a personal way to help the folks there, one that is not tied to a bureaucracy. I gave $$ to the New Zealand SPCA, because surely the doggies and kitties were hungry and scared.

    Then I read an article on how so many small, independent businesses were struggling to get open, and how their customers really wanted them open, but that they were out of work and cash was in short supply.

    How would it work if folks from around the world could go to a Christchurch business site (a restaurant, or pizza joint or dress shop or whatever) and allow that business to charge their VISA card for $20 or whatever and that $$ would go towards a meal or a dress or a set of drinking glasses or coffee cups for a customer. Or maybe it could just be used to replace inventory wrecked in the quake, or pay the handyman to fix the door.

    No standing in line, cap in hand, begging for largesse from the government or the church charity. Just caring folks walking down the street, handing out $20 bills.

    Could it work?

    • It is could – it’s a lovely idea. I’ll look into what options are out there and see if any are close to that.

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