Elegance and court life
« A la française » clothing (early XVIIIth century)
Appearing around 1680, an « à la française » outfit has three parts. The bloomers, stopping at the knees, are barely visible under the long jacket. The latter will become a waistcoat by losing its sleeves and shortening. Finally, a coat with a round neck, ancestor of the outfit, is worn over it.
This coat, cut in sumptuous silk velvet embellished with silver thread, is equipped with false buttonholes reminiscent of frog fasteners. They adorn the fronts and the wide, decorated « winged » sleeves ; trims that balance the volume of the basques that are also loose. These reveal the narrower sleeves of the under jacket.
Frilled dress (1735)
Appearing at the beginning of the century, this dress presents a relaxed and informal side recalling the undressed, casual, interior clothing, which attracts criticism. However, the search for a less rigid label after the death of Louis XIV in 1715 and the relaxation of manners allows this dress, of deceptively comfortable appearance, to be adopted. Indeed, although the bodice is not structured, the rigid whale boning is carried underneath as well as a round basket, flat pleats fall from a square collar, fading in the magnitude of the train. The three-quarter sleeves have a wide pleated band, amplifying the movement of the arms and visually balancing the diameter of the basket.
The volume of this dress highlights the generous textile patterns called « high ratio », like the richly coloured, shaded woven flowers inspired by the exotic. This ample development, like that of the contemporary masculine outfit, is reflected in the structure of Regence furniture. The frilled dress disappeared in the 1730s in favour of the « robe à la française », adjusted around the bust.
Dress « à la française » (1740)
Deriving from the "frilled dress", the "robe à la française", emblematic of court life in the XVIIIth century, is worn by all elegant Europeans. Although it cannot be described as a dress of the century, its use as a ceremonial feminine outfit covers nevertheless sixty years, a good part of Louis XV's reign (1715-1730) and that of Louis XVI (1774-1792).
It consists of a coat dress finishing with a train, the size of which, increased in the back by flat pleats, is supported by an oval basket. This coat, open onto a skirt, is adjusted on the bust by a stomach piece or a ladder of ribbons.
The pleats in the back are retained to flare from the waist only. Three-quarter sleeves, finishing by one or several ruffles, go beyond the « bindings » of fine linen or lace. Appearing in the 1730s, it came into competition some forty years later with more practical outfits for everyday life. However, this dress persists in court until the Revolution, which thereafter, it will not survive.
Stomach piece (1730-1740)
At the top of the bodice, the stomach piece is the most ornate part of the « robe à la française ». Removable, it closes the coat at the bust. It is fixed by means of staples, laces or even by stitches made directly to the dress that is already worn.
While embroidery spreads profusely in male court outfits, ornamentation of feminine outfits is more limited. Only the stomach piece can be covered with embroidery.
The airy and essentially abstract character of the embroidered embellishments here recalls Rococo style bronzes. Gold dominates; simply or spirally woven threads on a textile core or applied strips play on various textures and shades, on solids and hollows. Some natural flowers skilfully attenuate the glitz of the work.
Corset whale boning (1740-1760)
The whale boning makes it possible to refine the waist and lift the breasts; major feminine assets. Tightly adjusted by lacing and stiffened by several layers of fabric, it is worn under the dress. Featuring holes between which whale bones are inserted, sometimes supplemented by a central busk, the whale boning ensures maintenance but above all affirms, by the haughty stiffness of the bust that it confers, the conviction of social superiority.
Articulated elbow basket (1770)
In the XVIIIth century, a new accessory worn under the skirt, the basket, round then oval, single or double, gives its character to the « frilled dress » and then the « robe à la française ». Of variable size according to the time of the day and social rank, it flattens on the front and the back to later take a lateral extension. It can be articulated by hinges in order to be folded, in particular to get into a sedan chair or to take up less space in a coach.
Polish dress (1780-1785)
In the 1770s, the simplicity advocated by the Enlightenment philosophers relegated the « robe à la française » for pompous occasions and allowed the Polish dress, worn over a smaller and lighter basket, to be appreciated. It is also called a « queen's dress » because its name pays tribute to Queen Marie Leszczynska, wife of Louis XV and a Polish native, a country that had lost its independence.
By losing its sleeves and its bulk and by shortening, the « jacket » worn under the coat becomes the waistcoat. While at the end of the « Former Régime » men's clothing became less opulent, less ornate, competing with simpler outfits in everyday life, the waistcoat remains the piece allowing for the most embellishments.
In his book Tableau de Paris in 1781, the columnist and essayist Louis-Sébastien Mercier highlights the role of Parisian shopkeepers who provide laws to the universe. Indeed, clothing of the Versailles court is exported through the intermediary of « poupées de mode » (fashion dolls) in two or three dimensions to the provinces but especially to foreign courts. Dressed in the latest French fashions, they are the ambassadors. The figures of the designers are engraved and, they too, travel beyond the borders.
« The Marvellous Ones » dress, France 1790-1799)
The transformation of the feminine outline, initiated in the 1770s, accelerates from the Revolution and ends in 1795 with high-waist dresses. Of antique inspiration, cut in mostly light white fabrics, they fall straight.
For the first time since the XVIth century, women shed everything that artificially moulded their outlines. The quest for political freedom finds an echo in the liberation of the female outline ! The most daring, the Marvellous Ones, even dare transparency for a time. At the beginning of the XIXth century the Empire imposed a return to decency and luxury.
Text and choice of images: Corinne Dumas-Toulouse, Art historian and speaker at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs
Editorial coordination of the virtual exhibition: Maude Bass-Krueger, assisted by Alexandra Harwood and César Imbert