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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Historic Fashion I Love to Look At But Would Hate to Wear: Women's Fashion in 18th Century France

I think fashion is a fascinating topic. I mean...yes, I enjoy a good wrap dress as much as the next girl, and I think finding a cheap vintage Coach purse on eBay is one of life's greatest small pleasures, but my interests in fashion lie in the realm of fashion/costume history.

Historic Costumes was one of my favorite classes in college because it fed both my inner history and fashion nerd. The more I learned about earlier fashion eras, however, the more I realized I'd never, ever want to wear most looks for more than a short period of time (like 15 minutes, tops). I mean, I consider pants too much of a hassle half the time, I'm clearly not cut out for layers upon layers of undergarments and gowns.

So because I love nothing more than to share semi-useless trivia about various subjects, I thought I might begin a little series where I look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of some of my favorite fashion periods. And where better to start than with the most extravagant of all: 18th Century France.

Before we get into the uncomfortable realities of being a fashionable lady of the French court, let's first talk about why 18th century fashion--specifically, court fashion from about the 1750s to the 1780s--was awesome:

1. The gowns. Okay, ramble time: there were a few popular gown styles in the 18th century. Prior to the French Revolution, extravagant silhouettes were in. The sack gown (the robe à la françaíse) and the robe à l'anglaise were popular, and later in the century the robe a la polonaise came into fashion. The robe à la françaíse was the main silhouette worn in the French court, and over time the skirts widened. Madame de Pompadour? All about the robe à la françaíse. Eventually, they became too ridiculous to wear for everyday events and were used mostly for court dress. The robe à l'anglaise was a bit more modest in terms of skirt circumference (for 18th century standards, anyway) but it still looked super fly. However, it was more popular in England at the time.

Madame de Pompadour in a robe à la françaíse by François Boucher. 1756.

By the 1770s, the robe à la polonaise became fashionable. The polonaise was an important new undergarment that pretty much replaced the earlier pannier, which we'll get to later. Basically, it allowed for more flexibility (and mobility) in a rounder skirt than was seen in some earlier silhouettes. This new gown featured close-cut bodice similar to the and a short, draped overskirt that cut away from the front of the gown (revealing the petticoat), and added little extra volume to the back of the skirt.

The robe à la polonaise, front and back. 1777.

So really, what's not to love? If you were a lady of the French court prior to the Revolution, you looked amazing. You were basically a walking Fragonard painting all the time with your decolletage and your ruffles and frills. Also, the wigs (ugh, divine). Katy Perry wishes she could sport a wig as fly as some of these ladies did.

The Swing, Jean-Honore Fragonard. 1766. I see those ankles, girl.
At the height of 18th century fashion, ladies' wigs reached epic heights. Not only that, it was fashionable to decorate your wig with objects, such as miniature ships (!!) and live birds in cages! There were several popular wig stylings, and each one had its own name.

Here's an example of how to wear your wig a la Belle Poule, which was the "ship in the hair" style:
I just want to wear this once in my life. That's all I need.

Also, wide hips were in. Like, super wide. A special undergarment structure called the pannier (French for "basket") was worn beneath the skirt of the robe à la françaíse to give it extended side width. The front and back of the skirt was relatively flat in comparison. Here's an extant gown from 1760 from the Fashion Museum in Bath, England for a visual example:

On the one hand, no way would I want to wear that all day...I'd be knocking over things left and right. On the other hand...just imagine a ballroom full of these babies and tell me you don't want to beg the BBC to produce a new period miniseries of Les Liaisons Dangereuses as soon as possible and demand they throw in lots of double-wide paniers.

The Downside:

1. It took hours to get dressed. In the French court, dressing was a lengthy, ceremonial affair known at the morning toilette; it was a ritual that was an integral part of the French court in the 17th and 18th centuries. Dressing took on an almost religious importance, and each layer of clothing was given its own significance. If you were invited to watch someone higher up in society getting dressed it also revealed your level of importance of society. Being invited to the king or queen's toilette, for instance, was a pretty big deal. Even if you were a lesser member of the court, there was no way getting dressed was an easy or quick affair.

Marie Antoinette's toilette, Jacques-Fabien Gautier d'Agoty. 1775.
Blah, talk about awful. I can't even wait three minutes for my nails to dry before I'm getting antsy. I'm all about wearing simple, classic, comfortable outfits that can be put on in less than two minutes. Sundress and sandals: done. Even better: pajamas all day. Sometimes I wear an outfit two days in a row if no one saw me in it the day before (don't judge, you know you've done it  too). I'm clearly not cut out for the spectacle that was 18th century French fashion.

Also, good luck going to the bathroom unassisted. Or at all. Drawers also weren't a part of women's undergarments at the time...so things could get drafty (haha just kidding, you're probably not getting a lot of ventilation in all those layers of fabric).

2. You could literally get your wig snatched. One risk of wearing an expensive, finely crafted wig was that it could fetch a fair profit on certain markets. There were reportedly incidents of wigs being stolen right off the heads of men and women in the street by various ne'er-do-wells (often times young children were used to do said snatching).

3. Not to mention, it was not uncommon to only own one (or possibly two) wigs at a time, and those things could get nasty. Powder build up, dirt, vermin (no, seriously) and insects. Nope. No thank you, I will not be sharing my head space with any crafty rodents. 

Also, my poor neck would be crying in pain after wearing certain wig styles.

Satirical rendering The French Lady in London, J. H. Grimm. 1771.
4. Those panniers. They're one of my all time favorite historic undergarments (yes, I have a list), but man, they would be the worst to wear regularly. Did I mention architecture of the time included extra wide exterior and interior entryways, made specifically to accommodate women's dress? God help you if you were walking down a hallway and ran into another finely dressed lady. I imagine it would go down a bit like this:

(If you love Absolutely Fabulous or French and Saunders, you definitely need to watch the rest of Let Them Eat Cake. It's a must see for British comedy fans/history nerds.)

True, the polonaise did come into style eventually and it certainly was not as cumbersome as panniers could be, but they're still not my idea of fun. I'm more of a jeans and a cardigan girl, myself.

I could spend hours upon hours looking at these beautiful garments in a museum or online, but there's no way in hell I'd want to spend my days confined in one. Well, maybe for just one day...

So! If anyone made it this far (...Mom?), thanks for sticking with me. If I continue with this series,  I might tackle my favorite fashion period next: Regency/Directoire clothing! Don't worry, that one will be significantly shorter. They wore less.

I'll be back to regularly scheduled recipe posts soon, too!

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.


  1. aire bra
    Life becomes religious whenever we make it so: when some new light is seen,
    when some deeper appreciation is felt, To attract positive things in your life,
    start by giving off positive energy

  2. meta slim
    I think that the only reason people hold onto memories so tight is because memories are the only things that dont change; when everybody else does.

  3. power prash
    AAhha that is the outstading blogs of my life for fashion.Fashion is made personality.
    The beauty of a woman is seen in her eyes, because that
    is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.


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