Seymour Fleming, Lady Worsley, and military-influenced fashion

Seymour, Lady Worsley, 1775/6, by Joshua Reynolds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Seymour, Lady Worsley, 1775/6, by Joshua Reynolds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Seymour Dorothy Fleming, later Lady Worsley, is currently very much in the news. The BBC film dramatizing her life, called The Scandalous Lady W, in which Lady Worsley is played by Natalie Dormer, was aired this summer. There is really a renaissance of public talk and speculation about Seymour going on, about the scandal and the persons included.

For she was much talked of before: Seymour Fleming was married at the age of 17 to Sir Richard Worsley, 7th Baron of Appuldurcombe House. But he mistreated and abused her to a degree that made her elope with her lover Captain George Bisset six years later. Elopement was a scandal but the public upset was nothing to when the details of the marriage were revealed in the following law suit that was brought on by Sir Richard but soon turned to his disfavour.


But I don't want to talk about the scandal of her marriage and separation here. Instead, I would like to focus on the fashion trend to wear military inspired robes.


In the most famous and striking painting of Lady Worsley by Joshua Reynolds (1775/6), still at Harewood House, Lady Worsley wears a red riding habit that is clearly inspired by men's uniforms. This ironically evokes connotations of her being notoriously a scarlet woman.

Riding habits were often styled after men's clothes. They were cut to look similar and were likewise buttoned left over right. Seymour had now adapted the style and the details from the uniforms of her husband's regiment. The habit consists of a scarlet cutaway coat-like robe over a scarlet skirt and a brownish-yellow waistcoat which is buttoned in the front with golden buttons. The skirt is gathered at both sides and the robe is hemmed with a black and white buttonhole border and decorated with silver/white epaulettes and tassles.

Lady Worsley also wears a ruffled kerchief around her neck that is inspired by men's cravats. Her large black hat is adorned with ostrich feathers and her scarlet whip matches the colour of her habit. The whole posture and attitude of Lady Worsley, with her left hand resting on her hip, shows self-confidence and strength.

Mrs. John Montresor, by John Singleton Copley, 1778,  [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Mrs. John Montresor, by John Singleton Copley, 1778, [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

In general, women were painted in house or garden settings, usually with their husbands or children so that these depictions of power and confidence were still rather exceptional.

But wearing military inspired clothing was a trend among women in the 18th century. There are other paintings depicting ladies in uniform-like dresses, e.g. Frances Tucker Montresor in the picture.

Maybe this trend was just a whim of fashion, but it could also be an early form of power dressing in breaking through the gender specific dress code, just like in the 1980s when women started to wear shoulder pads like the men.


In the film The Duchess (2008) about Georgiana Spencer-Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, played by Keira Knightley, Georgiana appears in one scene dressed very similar to Lady Worsley's habit in Reynolds' painting. She is dressed in a blue and white military style robe.


This trend of military inspired clothing would continue from the late Rococo era far into the Regency/Empire era where a military inspired style came up again in 1808. There, Spencer jackets, redingotes and riding habits were frequently in scarlet, black and gold and adorned with tassles and braid. The (higher ranked) members of the army in their glamorous uniforms were considered to be exceedingly chic and a well-off officer to be a good party for the daughter. Uniform-styled garments were made for women, such as Spencers, pelisses and jackets with frogging, tassles and braid like the Hussars. Luise, Queen of Prussia, wore a matching ensemble of hat, Spencer and dress in the style of men's uniforms when she visited a regiment given to her by her husband, the King.



© Nina Möller