Fashion is everything. It gives the wearer confidence; it reflects cultural and political issues; and it makes a visible statement. In the 18th century this was exactly what fashion stood for, especially for the elite. Both genders, male and female, wore elaborate fashion, but a woman’s attire always seemed to attract most of the attention. At this time there were two main styles known as the English style and the French style. Within these two styles were four main silhouettes, the narrow bustle of the late 17th-century, the flowing sacque of the first part of the eighteenth century, the English-inspired shapes of the later part of the century and the tubular gown of the end of the century (Ettesvold, 9). The bustle shape of the late seventeenth century reappears with the English styled gowns; these gowns were also referred to as robe à l’anglaise. These specific looks had the extended bustle down the back of the shorten skirt exposing the feet and ankles and a lower neckline also exposing the breast. The sacque dress had several pleats from the back of the neck that flowed to the feet in a graceful train. The skirt was roundly shaped by metal hoops covered with cloth. The sacque silhouette became so popular that it was also called the French dress or robe à la francaise. Court dress exaggerated the silhouette of the sacque; the form created a defined waist, fitted sleeves ending at the elbow extended with tiers of ruffles, scattering bows and an extreme egg-shaped hooped skirt as seen in the print from the Monument du Costume, La Dame du Palais
de la Reine, (Fig. 1) featuring a noble lady-in-waiting. (Ettesvold, 9). An informal silhouette, called robe à la polonaise, had also imitated the sacque. The robe à la polonaise differed from the sacque with it overcoat and uniquely styled skirt pulled up with pulleys that brought up the hem on two sides, exposing the feet and ankles as shown in another print from the Monument du Costume, Le départ pour Marly (Fig. 2) ; such newly styled skirts reflected the political status at the time. New fashions were being worn more often. An English inspired fashion, frequently worn by Queen Marie Antoinette of France, was the sporty look of the redingote front, inspired by the equestrian fashion of the “riding coat.” Marie Antoinette was known for wearing many of the new ground breaking fashions. One her more favored silhouettes were the “Gaulle” dress or chemise; a more free flowing silhouette. Each one of these dresses were made of expensive fabrics such as silk, velvet, and very rarely cotton. It took hard work and dedication to create such gowns and masterpieces.
During the 18th century, tailors created dresses for every aspect of a woman’s day; there was a different gown for sleeping, eating, dancing, walking, riding and lounging. Every dress incorporated what was known as the basics: cuffs, necklines and hoops. How did a woman dress in the eighteenth century? First she would pull on a linen chemise, then would come the corset and finally the dress in one piece. Later in the century the overdress and petticoat came into style. Each dress had some kind of accessory ; the most common designs used materials such as ribbon, lace, trimming, silk, metallic gauze, feathers, sequins and embroidery . All accessories, such as bows, trimmings, and lace ruffles, were separate pieces from the dress and were mixed and matched to one’s liking. In the portrait (Fig. 3), Queen Marie Antoinette is posing wearing a robe à la francaise of very expensive and high quality fabrics. Marie Antoinette’s court dress is detailed with gold fringes, gold tassels, both fabric and ribbon bows, and lace ruffles down her sleeves and mid corset. Embroidery or printing was usually applied after the creation of the fabric; they were woven, embroidered, or painted onto the the fabric. The print Les Adieux from Monument du Costume (Fig. 4) exemplifies the textiles found on a noble woman’s gown in the 18th century. Along the bottom and inner sides of the woman’s gown is a floral pattering which was popular. Choosing a comfortable style of gown was difficult at this time but choosing the right fabric and decorations to attract every eye in a room was the easy part. 18th century fashion was more than just clothes to wear, it was the beginning of a fashion as we know it today.
Ettesvold, Paul M. The Eighteenth-century Woman: An Exhibition at the Costume Institute, December 12, 1981-September 5, 1982. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1981. Print.
Le Jeune, Jean-Michel Moreau. 1789. Prints. Monument Du Costume.
Sadako, Takeda Sharon. Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700 – 1915. Prestel USA, 2010. Print.
Vigee-LeBrun, Elisabeth Louise. Portrait of Marie Antoinette. 1778-1779. Painting.