Fashion in the XVIIIth century

Elegance and court life

Lady in a court dress (1785) by Charles-Germain de Saint-AubinMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Under Louis XIV, in the second half of the XVIIth century, a true artistic policy was put in place which benefited fine arts such as applied arts. French classicism is a model that is emulated throughout Europe. The golden age of French decorative arts became even more evident in the XVIIIth century with the new Regence, Rococo and neoclassic styles. All the elegant Europeans dressed « à la française ». The Revolution, which broke out in 1789, does not put an end to this influence. If French products still symbolise the quintessence of luxury, they owe it to the XVIIIth century. Very specialised trades, governed by the strict system of corporations, allowed a high degree of technicality to be reached in each area of expertise thus making French fashion shine. We witness an acceleration of fashion cycles. In court, over the century, the volume of menswear becomes lighter while that of women's clothing is increased by binding accessories. In the 1770s, more practical and less ceremonial outfits appear in everyday life, thus diversifying traditional « à la française » clothes and dresses.

short sailor pants SideMusée des Arts Décoratifs

« 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.

short sailor pants BackMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Depending on the stylistic evolution of the applied arts, the increasing volume of the jerkins of the skirts, increased by pleats on the back, follows the development of rounded Regence and Rococo contemporary furniture.

Robe volante BackMusée des Arts Décoratifs

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.

Robe à la française [Sack-back Gown] FrontMusée des Arts Décoratifs

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.

Robe à la française [Sack-back Gown] BackMusée des Arts Décoratifs

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.

Stomacher (1730-1740)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

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.

Stay (1740/1760)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Feminine artifices

The whale boning, from which descends the corset, marked almost four centuries of feminine fashion. From the XVIth century, it was necessary to suffer to be beautiful !

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.

Baskets, 1775/1790, From the collection of: Musée des Arts Décoratifs
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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.

Robe à la française [Sack-back Gown] FrontMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Embellishment and textile patterns of « robe à la française »

Cut in fashioned silks, the majority of the embellishment on « robe à la française » is made of textile tapes, ribbons or trimmings.

Robe à la française [Sack-back Gown] SideMusée des Arts Décoratifs

« Robe à la française », coat dress and skirt (1760)

Pleated, puckered or ruched, in « ruffles » or flounces, the fabrics used to make the dress or the light gauzes exacerbate in winding paths or draw straight bands highlighting the borders of the "coat dress" and the base of the skirt.

Ribbons or trimmings can enhance these embellishments. On the other hand, embroidery, rarely present, is generally limited to the stomach piece, unlike the abundantly embroidered male garments.

Robe à la française [Sack-back Gown] FrontMusée des Arts Décoratifs

« Robe à la française », coat dress, skirt and stomach piece (1775)

The fat and curved textile motifs giving the illusion of asymmetry at the Rococo era are, around 1760, eased, thinned and airy. Ten years later they play on the vertical effect, working in light flower garlands often accompanied by stripes, thus ensuring the passage towards neoclassicism.

Polonaise [dress] SideMusée des Arts Décoratifs

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.

Polonaise [dress] BackMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Its coat, adjusted both back and front, is lighter than that of the ample « robe à la française ».

It is raised and divided into three sections, two wings, and a tail of variable length, recalling the 3-way partition of Poland between Russia, Prussia, and Austria.

Polonaise [dress] FrontMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Less embellished, less cumbersome and shorter, its sleeves are also simpler.
After a decade of existence, the English dress or skirt and camisole ensembles are preferred.

Robe à l’anglaise [Close-bodied gown] BackMusée des Arts Décoratifs

English dress (late XVIIIth century)

The English dress, in vogue before and after the Revolution, is endowed with a tapered whale-boned bodice so the corset stay is no longer necessarily required.

However, if on the whole women are seeking freedom, they have not wholly abandoned the artifices that ensure the maintenance of the classes which privileged classes are so anxious to uphold.

Robe à l’anglaise [Close-bodied gown] FrontMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Its name expresses the search for less stiff clothing at the end of the « Former Regime », England symbolising simple dressing in the eyes of French aristocrats and liberals.

Robe à l’anglaise [Close-bodied gown] SideMusée des Arts Décoratifs

The English dress, having a reasonable volume, supported and tilted to the rear by a bustle, is more practical. The lightening of the silhouette continues through the fabrics which break with the heavy silks fashioned with carved patterns in favour of a vertical effect of plain or printed fabrics.

Waistcoat, 1740 circa, From the collection of: Musée des Arts Décoratifs
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Waistcoat (1760-1770)

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.

Waistcoat, 1765 circa, From the collection of: Musée des Arts Décoratifs
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Waistcoat (1765)

These two jackets show the stylistic evolution of the decors. The rich intricacies still marked by the Rococo style are followed by smaller patterns of seedlings and more graceful and rectilinear borders on mostly white backgrounds.

French-style outfit SideMusée des Arts Décoratifs

« A la française » clothing under Louis XVI

The volume of men's clothing decreases amid the stylistic evolution of applied arts. The reign of Louis XVI sees the elongation of the male aesthetic canon, a development parallel to the rigour of Louis XVI neo-classical lines.

« A la française » clothing, coat, waistcoat and trousers (1780)

An officer collar appeared...

and sleeve flaps lost their height.

The white jackets contrast with the colour of the bloomers and the coat.

Being an aristocrat is having a certain look... The sleeves and the front of the garment, projected backward, implicate poise by emphasising the bulging of the bust and the camber. High heeled shoes complete this proud look.

French-style outfit FrontMusée des Arts Décoratifs

The verticality of the silhouette is not disturbed by imposing textile patterns ; we now prefer plain, striped or even small drawings.

At the court, these are underlined by delicate vegetal embroideries treated naturalistically, ennoblement remaining a masculine appanage.

Lady in a court dress (1787) by Charles-Germain de Saint-AubinMusée des Arts Décoratifs

Fashion smugglers

Fashion figures of a set of drawings. Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, draftsman (1788)

Under Louis XVI, hairdressers, with the help of hair-wigs, hair-cushions or poufs, place capillary scaffolds always higher and dotted with jewels, lace, ribbons, flowers or feathers.

The « shop keepers » reign over feminine elegance. They decorate, enrich and personalise dresses sewn by seamstresses while creating ever more extravagant hairstyles. Some, claiming the status of designers, announce the future of Haute Couture.

Lady in a court dress (1788) by Charles-Germain de Saint-AubinMusée des Arts Décoratifs

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.

Bag (1775-1790)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Women's Accessories

Workbag? Bag of tender words? This charming purse can keep many items or secrets. It evokes female domestic productions for, if idleness is a reality in aristocracy, it is never absolute. It is fashionable to occupy one's hands with a work of embroidery, tapestry or knotting with the help of an ivory tool or lacquer.

Folded fan (1740-1760)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

Folded fan (1740-1760)

Both an object of fashion and an object of art, the fan is not only an Instrument which serves to excite the wind, and to refresh the air by agitating, as defined in The Methodical Encyclopedia in 1783.

The painted paper of this fan recalls the mythologies or bucolic gallantry of Boucher or Fragonard. An idealised nature scene becomes the idyllic frame of amorous expectation, a counterpoint to the seduction games that the fan allows.

Dress (1795-1800)Musée des Arts Décoratifs

A revolutionary ephemeral outline

The XVIIIth century, began with magnificence and luxury, and ends in revolutionary turmoil. Fashioned silks, embroideries, lace and heels recalling the ostentation and displayed superiority of the Former Regime's privileged members, all disappear.

« The Marvellous Ones » dress, France 1795-1800)

This muslin dress with chain-stitch embroidered seedling bouquets and garlands of flowers on the borders, announces a timid renewed interest in embroidery.

Dress BackMusée des Arts Décoratifs

« 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.

Credits: Story

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

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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