10 Scandalous Fashions that Rocked History

From Marie Antoinette's gaulle to Vivienne Westwood's bondage

Fashions that appear harmless today caused waves when they were first introduced; indeed, some of the clothes shown here were even banned. Whether the style pushed social boundaries, challenged gender perceptions, or overthrew conventions, these 10 scandalous fashions have left a lasting impression.

1. Marie Antoinette’s sexy gaulle

Marie-Antoinette’s clothes were a constant source of tension within the Monarchy. For this painting, commissioned from her favorite painter in 1783, the Queen wears a light muslin dress called a “gaulle”. Light and simple, the gaulle was everything that lavish court dress was not. Scandalously, it also looked a lot like underwear.

Donning this private style for a public painting was considered rebellious by 18th century standards. The painting caused such an uproar when it was exhibited that it was taken off display and the painter was forced to redo the Queen’s dress. The new painting showed Marie-Antoinette in the same pose, but wearing a much more formal, silk, corseted court dress.

Marie-Antoinette with the Rose, Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1783 (Collection: Palace of Versailles)

2. Bearing all in the First French Empire

Dresses during the First French Empire (1804-1815) were shockingly revealing. Worn exclusively by aristocratic women who could afford to wear pristine white muslin, these neoclassical dresses were transparent, low cut, and short sleeved, showing off the wearer’s arms, chest, and legs. Because they were worn without corsets (scandalous!), proto-brassieres were invented to support the chest.

Male commentators argued that the style was too flimsy and that it was unseemly for women to be gallivanting around town nearly naked.

Thomas Lawrence, Miss Harriet Clements, about 1805 (Collection: Indianapolis Museum of Art)

3. Fashion in a tight squeeze

The corset came back into style once the First Empire was over. From the 1820s until 1900 these tightly-laced, boned undergarments sparked widespread debate over their health and safety. The “Corset Controversy” enflamed the press and the pros and cons of wearing corsets were hotly debated in Europe and America. Doctors stated that corsets displaced inner organs and hindered reproduction, but many women refused to give the undergarment up, citing fashion and habit.

Women’s Corset, circa 1900 (Collection: Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

4. A shocking shoulder

Like Vigée le Brun’s portrait of Marie-Antoinette’s “en gaulle”, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Madame X was so scandalous that he had to repaint it. What was so shocking? In the original version of the painting, the beautiful society woman’s dress strap was painted as if it had just fallen off of her shoulder. On display at the 1884 Paris salon, the painting horrified viewers, who thought that she looked decomposed and indecent. Sargent repainted the strap in its proper position once the salon was over. Despite this correction, Madame X’s reputation never recovered…

John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1883-84 (Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

5. Blooming hell!

Bloomers and bifurcated skirts were first worn by women cyclists in the mid-19th century. The outcry was immediate: women were attacked for wanting to look (and act) like men. Bloomers were seen as unfeminine and unbecoming. Women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer championed the look as a healthy and rational alternative to the large bustled skirts fashionable at the time - and the fashion took its name from her. Bloomers and then women’s pants continued to shock societal convention until well into the 20th century.

Bic Scen. 1890-1899 Women Bloomers (collection: LIFE Photo Collection)

6. The LBD causes a storm

In the interwar period, the “flapper” or “garçonne” silhouette was decried for reducing women’s feminine attributes and making them appear “manly.” Wearing this little black Chanel dress from 1927 necessitated slim hips and a small chest, the opposite of the traditionally feminine body shape. Smoking, dancing, drinking, and socializing were all part of the daring flapper image. This Chanel LBD was all the more controversial for being extremely simple, almost minimalistic. A rival designer dubbed it “poverty deluxe”. Today, the Little Black Dress is a wardrobe staple.

Gabrielle Chanel, Evening Dress, Around 1927 (Collection: Iwami Art Museum)

7. Dior does decadence

Christian Dior’s “New Look” silhouette, of which this model is a perfect example (nipped waist, padded hips) scandalized the fashion world when it was first shown in 1947. Coming on the heels of the Second World War, the style, which used yards of rich, expensive fabric was deemed wasteful and inconsiderate of people’s postwar struggles. Although this suit seems normal by today’s standards, in the 1950s it was lambasted as being decadent and even unpatriotic.

Christian Dior, Suit: Skirt, Jacket and Belt, 1950 (Collection: Cincinnati Art Museum)

8. The bikini blows up

In the 19th century, bathing suits were heavy, full body garments made from wool or flannel. After WWI, as sport and suntanning became fashionable, swimsuits became shorter and tighter. In 1945, the two-piece suit was dubbed the “bikini”, named after the atomic bomb test site, Bikini Atoll: like the atomic bomb, this swimsuit was small and devastating. The bikini was so controversial that it was banned from European and American public beaches from the 1930s until the 1960s. Magazines claimed that no decent girl would ever wear two-piece suits and even the pope condemned the fashion.

Bikini clad actress Jayne Mansfield posing w. shapely hot water bottle likenesses floating around her in her pool, by Allan Grant, 1957 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

9. Reaching new heights

The miniskirt rose to popularity during Britain’s Youthquake in the 1960s, but not without debate: even designers like Coco Chanel and Christian Dior were originally against the trend, deeming it “awful” and too provocative. Miniskirts were initially banned in some countries (in Uganda, an anti-miniskirt law is still in effect).

This example by Mary Quant is iconic: Quant was the first to define the style (the skirt could be no longer than 4 inches below the buttocks) and give the new fashion a name – the Mini, named after her favorite car.

Mary Quant, Day Dress, 1964-1965 (Collection: Kobe Fashion Museum)

10. Oh Bondage!

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren pushed the boundaries of British style with the clothes they designed for their boutique at 430 King’s Road, which opened in 1971. Coinciding with the arrival of punk, Westwood and McLaren dressed rock stars and their fans in bondage gear, latex, tartans, and provocative T-shirts like this one. Their fashions defined the anarchic, countercultural look of the era, courting controversy and laughing in the face of detractors.

Vivienne Westwood, Bondange Suit and “God Save the Queen” T-Shirt, 1976 (Collection: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Fashion has been considered controversial ever since people began wearing clothes. Too tight, too loose, too short, too long, too transparent, too heavy, too casual, too minimal… the debates are endless. But history teaches us that scandalous style eventually becomes the new normal. That is, until the next shocking fashion comes along.

By Maude Bass-Krueger
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