Women's Fashion in the 18th Century

Dress (robe à la française) (1770s)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Women of the Rococo era

A smart and refined court culture called Rococo flourished in France after Louis XV came to the throne in 1715. The proponents of Rococo culture, who reveled in their private life, elevated clothing to the level of art. With Rococo, France, the leader in women’s fashion since the eighteenth century, solidified its status as international trendsetter. The essential spirit of Rococo era women’s clothing is expressed in its elegance, refinement, and decoration.

Dress (c. 1720)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Robe volante

A robe volante, derived from negligee, which was worn during the latter years of the reign of Louis XIV (1638–1715), enjoyed popularity as formal wear in the early 18th century. The large flounce flowed from the shoulders to the ground and was shaped to spread softly over the skirt, characterized this style of gown.

Dress (Mantua) (1740-50s)The Kyoto Costume Institute


The mantua was fashionable from the 1670s through to the beginning of the 18th century, but continued to be worn in England at Court from the 1730s to the end of the 18th century. The feature of the dress is the long train extended at the back.

The textile, featuring large botanical patterns that emit a beautiful glow as a result of sterling silver thread, is Spitalfields silk. The contrast between the blue silk taffeta and the silver thread creates a harmonious beauty that is simply stunning.

Dress (robe à la française) (c. 1760 (fabric: c. 1750))The Kyoto Costume Institute

Robe à la française

This is a typical Rococo period women's dress, "robe à la française". The ensemble shown here consists of a gown, the petticoat much like what we would call a skirt today, and a stomacher made in a triangular panel shape. The gown opens in the front, and has large pleats folded up at the back. All this would be worn after formed with a corset and pannier, which acted as underclothes. Until clothing accepted drastic changes with the 1789 French Revolution, rich outfits, such as is shown here, were worn.

Stomacher (1760s)The Kyoto Costume Institute


The stomacher, a V-shaped triangular panel, wore on the front of a woman's open gown in the 18th century. To keep the bosom from standing out, the stomacher was extravagantly adorned with embroidery, laces, rows of ribbon bows called échelle (ladder) and sometimes with jewels.

Stomacher (1730-40s)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Since a stomacher needed to be pinned to the dress each time it was worn, this style was time-consuming.

Dress (robe à la française) (1775 (fabric: 1760s))The Kyoto Costume Institute

A gown made from a stunning textile featuring multi-colored bouquets and fur patterns elaborately interwoven into the ground textile cannelé. This textile with its complex weave pattern also features a variety of different threads including chenille, silk floss and twisted yarn for motifs. It shows of the outstanding skills made in Lyons, famed in the height of quality and design.

Dress (robe à la française) (c. 1760)The Kyoto Costume Institute

The woman's dress of the 18th century is characterized by the light pastel color and the decorations such as lace, ribbons, and artificial flowers.

Lace, created with the most delicate handwork techniques, was significant in enriching wardrobes luxury decoration. The quilles that trimmed at the front opening of the robe from the neck to the hem, the lappets on the headdress, and the engageantes on the cuffs, all of which are lace, give the gown an even more luxurious look.

Dress (robe à la française) (c. 1780)The Kyoto Costume Institute

The skirt, which widely expanded on each side, just barely achieves balance when combined with the enormous hairstyle. This pinnacle of artificial beauty emptily expressed the authority of the royalty and nobility before French revolution.

Corset, Pannier, Chemise (1760-1770 [Corset] c. 1775 [Pannier] c. 1780 [Chemise])The Kyoto Costume Institute

Corset and Pannier

Throughout the eighteenth century, the silhouette of a woman's dress was formed with a corset or a pannier. In order to push up the bust for a feminine outline, the corset was framed with pieces of whalebone. First appearing in the early 18th century, the pannier became a mandatory item for court dress up until the time of the French Revolution.

Corset [Left] Child's Corset [Center] Corset [Right] (c. 1760 [Left] Mid-18th century [Center] Early 18th century [Right])The Kyoto Costume Institute

Of kind of corsets worn underneath clothing for the body, there are simple ones for undergarments, and ornamented ones worn inside the home for relaxation. The latter type of corset also occasionally had sleeves attached.

Dress (robe à l'anglaise) (c. 1785 (fabric: 1760s))The Kyoto Costume Institute

Robe à l’anglaise

Accompanied by the simplification of clothing worn outside of the royal court, during the 1770s, women's clothing progressed in the direction of functionality. As one can see, the dress' pleats are sewn into the waist and stop there; this style is known as robe à l'anglaise.

Dress (robe à la polonaise) (c. 1780)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Robe à la polonaise

The robe à la polonaise came to popularity in the 1770s. The skirt was held up by cords and divided into three panels of full drapes over the underskirt.
In the 1780s, just before the French Revolution, clothes with vertical stripes were widely prevalent among both men and women.

Dress (robe retroussée dans les poches) (c. 1780)The Kyoto Costume Institute

In accordance with the English custom of walks in the countryside and relaxing in the open air, it became popular to dress up in clothes derived from the work clothes and townwear of ordinary people, who, by their nature, put great importance on freedom of movement. One of these so inspired style is the retroussée dans les poches, as seen here. The gown's hem is pulled out from slits in either side, and draped on the back.

Dress (round gown) (c. 1795)The Kyoto Costume Institute

Round gown

Around the 1789 French Revolution, the Rococo period's extravagant dresses of brilliant hues changed, becoming simple, white dresses. The round gown has a high waistline reaching just below the bust, with the bodice and the skirt connected to form a one-piece dress.

Dress (round gown) (c. 1795)The Kyoto Costume Institute

From elegant silk dress to simple cotton dress, the French Revolution in 1789 brought a clear shift in clothing styles. The popularity of white cotton muslin dresses became a craze at the beginning of the 19th century.

Dress (robe à l'anglaise) [Left] Dress (robe à l'anglaise)[Right] (c. 1785 (fabric: mid-18th century) [Left] c. 1785[Right])The Kyoto Costume Institute

Marchands de mode

Throughout 18th century, the composition of women's dress did not change basically, the most important point was the trimming. Especially after the 1770s, the trimming increased in importance, and marchands de mode were an active force. In the latter half of the 18th century, these merchants were responsible for producing and selling trimmings from head to toe, including headdresses. They gave full rein to their imaginations when decorating dresses, created headpieces, and in the end became powerful trend setters of the time.

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