Discover the Mode in Prussia around 1800 and be inspired by the Style of a Queen

Sanssouci Palace and Park in Potsdam bring together the art movements of the 18th Century in the cities and courts of Europe and epitomise Prussia’s pomp and glory like no other residence of the Hohenzollern dynasty.

Fashion in Prussia in around 1800 brought together Neo-Classical and Empire influences. Prussia’s fashion icon was the country’s most popular woman, Luise von Preussen. She rose from her beginnings as an inconsequential provincial princess to become the adored Queen and a fashion leader.
Luise
Let’s go back to Prussia in the late 18th Century. While royal heads were rolling in France’s Revolution, the royal palace in Berlin was looking forward to a new star in the aristocratic firmamant.

Luise, Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, was born in 1776 and grew up with her grandmother at the court of Darmstadt. Her mother died young. Frederick William II discovered Luise and her sister Friederike at a ball and brought the pretty girls to Berlin as potential brides for his sons. In a spectacular double wedding in 1794 Luise married the Prussian Crown Prince Frederick William and her sister Friederike married his brother Ludwig. Luise became Queen of Prussia in 1797.

Even as a young girl Luise was fascinated by fashion. She would draw dresses, hair-dos and hats in her notebook and describe fabrics, colours and cuts with an unerring eye for detail in her letters. Later, as Crown Princess, she noted with interest on a journey to Pomerania how the country people ”made both their clothing materials and clothes with their own hands”. She found that ordinary people were not troubled by the “grandeur of the cities and the caprices of fashion, the greatest tyrants of our age”.

When Luise arrived at the Prussian Court, the strict dress code of the Ancien Régime still held sway with its four levels named in French: Robe de Cour was the Court dress for a State Gala; Grand Parure was worn for semi-official receptions and parties; Parure was the term for daytime and evening dress; and Negligé was dress for indoors and travelling.

Silver Lamé "robe à la française"
England, 1760-1765

The robe à la française is a two-piece dress consisting of an open-front outer garment, a manteaux, and a skirt, or jupe, worn beneath it. Its trademark is the loose back pleat that falls from the neck to the seam in one uninterrupted line.

Hoop Petticoat
England, um 1750

The typical silhouette of the robe à la française, with its broad skirt swinging far out to the sides, was achieved by a hoop skirt worn underneath.

Gala Dress “robe à la française”
Silk: France, gown: England, ca. 1775

During the second half of the century striped silks, so-called “pekins,” which ranged from small floral bouquets and scattered flowers in bright, pastel colours to pure striped patterns, became the essence of modernity.

The fabric of this robe à la française is particularly splendid. Flower bouquets held by bows and woven silver butterflies appear between the woven gold longitudinal strips.

A colourfully coordinated, rich trimming of frills, valances, gauze, lace and tassels became part of a fashionable dress.

Luise preferred the plainer form of late Rococo and modelled her dress on the English style. She brought no corsets or hooped skirts or padding with her to the Court in Berlin. The young Queen found out about the latest trends from fashion magazines and kept in touch with the fashionable Court world in the whole of Europe. Despite the French Revolution, all eyes still turned first to Paris.

Caraco-Fourreau
1793

From the Journal of Luxury and Fashions"Young German lady in a sheath caraco in black gauze with coloured appliqué work ".

Chemise
1796

The Journal of Luxury and Fashions shows a "Young German lady in the latest fashionable dress".

Woven from air
At the end of the 18th Century a breath of fabric reached the Prussian Court. Soft body-flattering garments excited the attention and brought delight in equal measure. In June 1794 the ‘Journal of Luxury and Fashions‘ reported a breathtaking shift in French fashion: “The most remarkable thing, however, is the new style of dress they (Parisian women) have adopted, which is already being generally worn and should remain as national dress in future. Like the men they wear namely pantalons in flesh-coloured light wool, over which they wear skirts of the finest muslin … The waists are quite short and gathered with tri-coloured belts."

The “nudity fashion” was modelled in part on the simple manner of the ‘mode à l’Anglaise’, which emphasised the form of the body, and in part on the Classical forms of the gowns of Antiquity.

The chemise dress

Two Chemise Gowns
Left: France, ca. 1800
Right: England, ca. 1805

The chemise dress was a one-piece garment with a high waist and wide neckline. Worn beneath it were undergarments or skin-coloured stockinettes. For the first time, and then only briefly, women could abstain from bodices, hoop skirts or hip cushions.

Chemise with Train
England, um 1795–1800

Modest chemise dresses of fine white cotton replaced the stiff silk robes in women’s fashion and enveloped the body in a flowing arrangement of folds.

Open Chemise
1797

As early as April 1797 one reporter was complaining in the Journal of Luxury and Fashions about the ubiquitous “nudity fashions” being worn by many ladies. Here is a "Young Lady in an open chemise, or so-called “powder coat”, with a parasol à feuillage".

The chemise dress became Luise’s favourite garment. It not only emphasised her natural femininity, but also concealed it at the same time. In 17 years she was able to cover ten pregnancies discreetly beneath it.

While the permissive fashion for ladies’ dress and liberation from restrictive clothing was enthusiastically welcomed at first in Prussia, the formal nakedness of the female body very soon began to be frowned upon as being shameless. The fashion magazines satirised it and pointed out the danger to morals and decency from the wearing of transparent chemises. The Journal for the Elegant World even wrote in 1811, “It would be sad if this fashion were to succeed in making the noble love of the man, who only likes to approach the demure and modest woman and girl, ever more mistrustful of female virtue, and if the bonds of matrimony were to become ever less as a result.”

Delightful double
From the very beginning the sisters Luise and Friederike charmed the Prussian Court. Contemporary discourse described their beauty as “unself-conscious charm and attractiveness”. The two Princesses were ascribed different ideals of femininity. Luise was the embodiment of Dignity, Friederike of Gracefulness.

The charm of the fashion-conscious sisters was immortalised by Johann Gottfried Schadow in his famous double statue of the Princesses. The sculptor wrote in his notes,

"In silent excitement the artist worked on his model, taking the dimensions from Nature; the exalted ladies gave what he picked out from their wardrobe, and thus the fashion of the time had its influence on dress."

Schadow illustrated the different attributes of the two sisters in line with the currently popular fashion for Antiquity. Luise’s gown drops more simply and emphasises her dignity. Friederike’s gown seems more full of life with its more animated folds and emphasises her physical charms.

Nevertheless, critical voices raised at the Prussian Court complained that Luise’s appearance in her dress was too immodest: “The female persons wore only a chemise and the thinnest of dresses, in which all their forms were visible.”

After the first plaster version had been received with great admiration at the Berlin Academy exhibition in 1795, small biscuit porcelain versions were quickly made and distributed.

The two young Princesses helped the new figure-accentuating fashion to make its breakthrough.

Hair dressed and bound
After the artificial, high-piled hairstyles of the Late Rococo, hairstyle fashion around 1800 was more enlightened and closer to what ordinary people wore, in line with the English fashion avant-garde. Unpowdered pinned-up hairstyles were becoming more wavy and playful. In this, too, the two Prussian Princesses favoured naturalness. With Friederike we can see this becoming a demonstratively unstyled appearance. This underlined her rebellious nature and met with fashionable approval.
Luise, on the other hand, is not seen with her hair so loosely styled à la greque until her later years.

A conspicuous feature is the recurring neck band. During her life as well as in the iconography that grew up after her death, the chin strap became unmistakeably associated with Luise, a fashion trend which the Queen herself is supposed to have shaped.

A fashion trend on which the Journal of Luxury and Fashions reported on many times: “Morning suit. The hair decoration comprises a white satin band which is drawn through the hair. The hair winds carelessly in small ringlets. … Around the neck is a riot of muslin, specked with dressed tatting.”

Headdress
1796

In the Journal of Luxury and Fashions a lady is shown wearing a fine linen scarf “criss-crossed twice through her lightly curled, unpowdered hair and tied beneath her chin”.

Headdress
1795

This highly popular hair style is decorated with feathers and strings of pearls.

Headdress
1801

Headwear became plainer at around the turn of the century.

The short jacket cut to the waist, known as the ‘spencer’ came into fashion. This item of clothing came to just under the breast, thus especially emphasising the lower half of the body.

Beauty, elegance, playfulness, staged enactment – the Luise myth has persisted to the present day. Fashion expert Barbara Vinken analyses the style of the Queen as one which, to a certain extent, made the French Revolution unnecessary in Germany. She describes Luise as a reformed queen at the heart of Prussian society, “who had become a woman like any other in her new bourgeois leading role as mother, wife, and housewife. Her household and her marriage became the model for the State.”
Kunstgewerbemuseum, National Museums in Berlin
Credits: Story

Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Astrid Alexander / Christine Waidenschlager

Concept / Editing / Realisation: Astrid Alexander

Translation: Catherine Hales and Stephan Schmidt

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz www.smb.museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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