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Archive for the ‘18th Century France’ Category

The lush fashion exhibition, Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion, closed in Milan in September. On the website, readers are still allowed to choose where they would like it to travel next!

The beautiful cameo necklace and earrings complete this evening ensemble.

The catalogue, written by Cristina Barreto and Martin Lancaster, is sumptuous and filled with color photographs. The clothes are compared to fashion illustrations of the day. One cannot get a better education of French fashion during this period than this book. This video and the link to the slide show below it show what we have missed by not traveling to Milan last spring and summer.

Napoleon’s desire to protect the garment industry in France after the French Revolution resulted in an explosion of designs that propelled the French fashion industry to the forefront, making it hugely influential. By encouraging women to purchase many gowns (so that they would not be seen in the same dress too often), France became synonymous with fashion. See the slide show of images from the exhibition by clicking on this link.

The many French fashions shown from the 1795-1810 years

Vote where you would like the exhibit to travel next. If the exhibit comes to New York, I hope to see the same mannequins. Aren’t they simply superb?

Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion in Milan

Order the catalog at Amazon: It ships within 1-3 months.

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French paintings of ladies dressing and at their toilettes provide us with an insight of  how dressing rooms were once constructed and used. While we think of dressing as a private affair, William Hogarth demonstrates in his painting, Marriage à-la-mode: The Countess’s Morning Levee, how a woman of means with a large elaborate dressing room would entertain visitors while she was completing her toilette.

Image @Wikipedia

In reality, the toilette became a ritual in 18th century France for the very rich, one that had both intimate and public elements. A maid would groom and sponge bathe her lady in private, but then her mistress would devote hours to having her hair dressed, eating her breakfast from a tray, writing letters, entertaining friends, and picking the clothes she would wear for the day. The wealthier the woman, the more elaborate her morning ritual. As Hogarth showed, the custom of entertaining guests in one’s dressing room was also popular in England. In the image below, a shameless young lady is entertaining her spiritual adviser in her boudoir. His expression is priceless.

The Four Times of Day: Morning, Nicholas Lancret, 1739. Image@National Gallery, London

Wikipedia provides a history of the word “toilet”. The word did not have the same meaning back then as it does today.:

It originally referred to the toile, French for “cloth”, draped over a lady or gentleman’s shoulders while their hair was being dressed, and then (in both French and English) by extension to the various elements, and also the whole complex of operations of hairdressing and body care that centered at a dressing table, also covered by a cloth, on which stood a mirror and various brushes and containers for powder and make-up: this ensemble was also a toilette, as also was the period spent at the table, during which close friends or tradesmen were often received. The English poet Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock (1717) described the intricacies of a lady’s preparation:

“And now, unveil’d, the toilet stands display’d
Each silver vase in mystic order laid.”

These various senses are first recorded by the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) in rapid sequence in the later 17th century: the set of “articles required or used in dressing” 1662, the “action or process of dressing” 1681, the cloth on the table 1682, the cloth round the shoulders 1684, the table itself 1695, and the “reception of visitors by a lady during the concluding stages of her toilet” 1703 (also known as a “toilet-call”), but in the sense of a special room the earliest use is 1819, and this does not seem to include a lavatory.

La Toilette, Boucher, 1742. Image@francoisboucher.org

Woman’s Fashions of the 18th Century fully describes the above painting by Boucher, in which the seated woman, probably a courtesan, is tying a garter over her stocking while wearing a short jacket to protect her outfit from particles of applied makeup and the powder on her wig. No visitors invade this intimate scene, which clearly shows a tray with refreshments and a decorative dressing screen behind the chair.

James Gillray portrays the progress of the toilet. Note the wash basin and water urn on the floor.

Women did use their dressing rooms at more intimate and private moments, when one presumed they would be alone. The washing of one’s face, feet and hands was a daily ritual, while bathing one’s entire body was not.  Such ablutions were done privately.  People would wash in basins. A portable hip bath would be placed in the dressing room if they decided to bathe completely.

Boilly, La Toilette Intime ou la Rose Effeuille. Image @Wikimedia Commons

While outhouses were common, the wealthy tended to use elaborate potty chairs (see image below). The French used bidets inside their dressing rooms, as shown in Boilly’s painting above. Invented by the French, their earliest recorded use was in 1710. If one wonders how women in elaborate costumes managed to go to the bathroom, this image by Boucher provides a glimpse. The handling of the bowl and upright posture was possible, for women during that era wore no underdrawers.

18th century Sheraton potty chair

Dressing rooms remained popular for a long time. In Can You Forgive Her?, Lady Glencora invites Alice Vavasor to have tea in her dressing-room, saying “You must be famished, I know. Then you can come down, or if you want to avoid two dressings you can sit over the fire up-stairs till dinner-time.” Alice follows Lady Glencora into the dressing-room, “and there found herself surrounded by an infinitude of feminine luxuries. The prettiest of tables were there;–the easiest of chairs;–the most costly of cabinets;–the quaintest of old china ornaments. It was bright with the gayest colours,–made pleasant to the eye with the binding of many books, having nymphs painted on the ceiling and little Cupids on the doors.” Lady Glencora goes on to explain, “I call it my dressing-room because in that way I can keep people out of it, but I have my brushes and soap in a little closet there, and my clothes,–my clothes are everywhere I suppose, only there are none of them here.”

Dressing room with chamber pot chair, 1765. Image@Morris Jumel House, Manhattan.

Anthony Trollope made an interesting point. During the 1860’s, when his novel was written, wealthy women changed their wardrobes more often for different functions during the day than Regency women. She invites Alice to linger in her dressing room, presumably to rest, read, and drink tea, rather than change into yet another set of clothes to join the company downstairs. Lady Glencora also indicates that the dressing room could also be a refuge away from visitors and prying eyes.

Jane Austen's bedroom. The closet with wash basin and potty sits to the left of the fireplace.

A wealthy couple might have two bedrooms (his and hers) with an adjoining sitting room. Each person would have their own dressing room. Simpler households did not have the luxury of such space. In Chawton Cottage, Jane Austen and her sister, Cassandra, shared one bedroom. Their potty and wash basin where stored in a closet.

Today’s walk in closets with adjoining bathroom most closely approximate the dressing room of yore, although people today do not tend to entertain their visitors in their closets.

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Early milliner shops were like our department stores, selling all manner of fashionable items. The image of a milliner shop in Paris shows the costumes we have come to associate with the era of Marie Antoinette. After the French Revolution, fashions changes drastically, for the French citizenry did not want to be reminded of the recent bloodshed or the ancient Regime. The rage in fashion was an imitation of the classical dress worn by the Greeks and Romans.

Dressmaker shop, 1775

The end of the 18th century witnessed a signal change in the style of women’s dress. The gown no longer consisted of two dresses, an under and an outer one. The formal styles which had prevailed throughout the century and brought into use stiff materials such as solid damasks, velvets, satins, and silks, were replaced by the fashion of the short-waisted clinging gown made of muslin and soft silk. This “Empire” mode characterized the dress of the first quarter of the 19th century. – The Encyclopedia Americana, Frederick Converse Beach, George Edwin Rines, 1902,  “costume”

Too Much and Too Little, or Summer Cloathing for 1556 & 1796

Parisians dressed in the new fashions were known as the “incroyables” (men) and the “merveilleuses,” (women.) These fashions were not at first admired and generally regarded as hideous. Caricaturists had a heyday making fun of these freaks of Fashion. British fashionistas shortly followed suit, as the cartoon by Gillray attests.

Monstrosities of 1799, Kensington Gardens, Gillray

Macaronis turned into dandies, and gently bred ladies wore clothes so thin and diaphanous, that the shape of their legs showed clearly through the skirts. The muslin disease (catching a serious cold or pneumonia) lasted for as long as fashionable young women wore thin muslin dresses with bare necks and arms in damp and drafty buildings.

Merveilleuse et Incroyable. The close up of the dress reveals how sheer the fabrics were.

In some instances, nothing was left to the imagination. In the satirical image below by Isaac Cruikshank, the ladies are shown wearing next to nothing. Satire took many forms in the late 18th century. The Lady’s Monthly Museum featured a dialogue between a lady visiting Paris and a man milliner. His answer is hilarious.

Caricature by Isaac Cruikshank

Dialogue Between a Lady and A Man Milliner at Paris

“Citizen, I am just come to town: –pray, have the goodness to inform me how I must appear, to be in the fashion.”
“Madame, ’tis done in a moment; in two minutes I shall equip you in the first style. –Have the goodness to take off that bonnet.”
“Well.”
“Off that petticoat.”
“There it is.”
“Away with these pockets.”
“There they go.”
“Throw off that handkerchief.”
“’Tis done.”
“Away with that corset and sleeves.”
“Will that do?”
“Yes, Madame, you are now in the fashion. ‘Tis an easy matter, you see.–To be dressed in the fashion, you have only to undress.” – The Lady’s Monthly Museum, February 01, 1801, pg. 126.

Definition of a man milliner: A man who makes or deals in millinery, that occupation having been at one time predominantly performed by women; hence, contemptuously, a man who is busied with trifling occupations or embellishments.

Louis-Léopold Boilly painted a gown so sheer that without a petticoat, her short chemise is easily visible under the delicate muslin.

The days of the Revolution (1789 – 1799) brought in simple fashions. Corsets were discarded, the waist became short and the skirt clinging, and cheap materials were used. During the Directoire, the women adapted the classic style, borrowing from both Greek and Roman fashions. These costumes were scanty, and frequently were split up the sides. The dresses were often transparent and worn without chemises. The gentlemen of this fantastic period were styled “Incroyables,” “Unimaginables”; the ladies, “Merveilleuses” and “Impossibles.”  The men wore an exaggerated copy of what had been previously called the English fashion.- Costume design and illustration,  Ethel Traphagen, 1918,  p 120.

Millinery shop in Paris, 1822

A milliner could carry possibly a thousand different goods, becoming the forerunner of the modern department store. At this point, the term “milliner” was tied to the Latin word “mille,” meaning thousand.

The 18th Century milliner might have offered a thousand goods but all shared the quality of being fashionable accessories. Wares could include shoes, jewelry, table service, clocks, hosiery, fabrics, shirts, aprons, cloaks, caps, hats, muffs and mitts. – The Millinery Shop, Colonial Williamsburg

Milliner doll catalog, 1820s. These dolls were dressed in the fashion of the day. Look at the above image for a sample size of a doll. Image @Christine LeFever: Dolls and Fancywork

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In 1751, Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert edited the 17-volume Encyclopedia: the Rational Dictionary of the Sciences, commonly known as the Encyclopédie. These heavily illustrated volumes were designed to teach people to think critically and objectively about all matters in the 18th century. Diderot said he wanted to “change the general way of thinking.” His ambition created quite a stir.

Diderot Couturiere

The Encyclopedie aroused opposition from the outset. Its first volume, published in 1751, dealt with topics such as atheism, the soul, and blind people (all words beginning with “a” in French. As a result, the government banned publication and the pope placed it on the Index of Forbidden books. He threatened to excommunicate all who bought or read it. The publisher of the work watered down later volumes without the consent of the writers in an attempt to stay out of trouble. The Encyclopedie exalted knowledge, questioned religion and immortality (Diderot was a proclaimed atheist), and criticized legal injustices and intolerance. Diderot championed the cause of women, writing that laws which limited the rights of women were counter to nature. The work was widely read and published in Switzerland, but was extremely popular in France. Copies reached America where it was read by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. It was completely banned in Spain as were other enlightenment works by order of church authorities.- The Enlightenment

Onsite Review discusses Diderot’s mid-18th century tailors, or tailleurs, and offers several corresponding images:

This survey of French crafts and trades just before the Revolution, includes such things as how a bodice is made, a riding jacket, gloves, hats – all the patterns laid out flat. Included are the workrooms for glovemakers, tailors, hatmakers – the spaces of craft and trade: where is the dress cut and stitched? where does the dressmaker or the tailor sit as they fell a seam? what is the space like in which the hat is sold?

In the Encyclopédie they are austere rooms flooded with light from tall many-paned sash windows. These rooms are never deep and usually have windows on two facing sides. Because these are crafts and trades, furniture is the work bench, a sturdy work table, open shelves and sometimes a cabinet. Accompanying the plates illustrating the garment, and the plates showing the spaces, are the plates of tools, the instruments of the craft: a catalogue of needles, of stretchers, of hat presses, of shears.

Gants, or glove patterns

The illustrated plates and their topics are discussed by John Morley, who wrote about the Encyclopédie in 1905:

Diderot, as has been justly said, himself the son of a cutler, might well bring handiwork into honour; assuredly he had inherited from his good father’s workshop sympathy and regard for skill and labour.The illustrative plates to which Diderot gave the most laborious attention for a period of almost thirty years, are not only remarkable for their copiousness, their clearness, their finish—and in all these respects they are truly admirable—but they strike us even more by the semi-poetic feeling that transforms the mere representation of a process into an animated scene of human life, stirring the sympathy and touching the imagination of the onlooker as by something dramatic. The bustle, the dexterity, the alert force of the iron foundry, the glass furnace, the gunpowder mill, the silk calendry are as skilfully reproduced as the more tranquil toil of the dairywoman, the embroiderer, the confectioner, the setter of types, the compounder of drugs, the chaser of metals. The drawings recall that eager and personal interest in his work, that nimble complacency, which is so charming a trait in the best French craftsman. The animation of these great folios of plates is prodigious. They affect one like looking down on the world of Paris from the heights of Montmartre. To turn over volume after volume is like watching a splendid panorama of all the busy life of the time. Minute care is as striking in them as their comprehensiveness. The smallest tool, the knot in a thread, the ply in a cord, the curve of wrist or finger, each has special and proper delineation. The reader smiles at a complete and elaborate set of tailor’s patterns.-DIDEROT AND THE ENCYCLOPÆDISTS, BY JOHN MORLEY, 1905

Illustration from Onsite Review

The above illustration from Onsite Review shows how the pattern for a riding outfit is laid out on the cloth. The width of the cloth varied. Wool cloth was wider than brocade, for instance. With Diderot’s publication of these plates, the knowledge of how to lay out these patterns became standardized. Onsite Review’s article, Diderot: Cutting Your Coat to Fit the Cloth, is fascinating to read.

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Versailles and More is a fabulous blog created by Catherine Delors and filled with rich images and fascinating information about 18th-century France. I would like to particularly point out In the Footsteps of Gabrielle: Fashions Before the Revolution. The title of the post says it all.

Image: Detail of a portrait of Louise-Marie de Bourbon-Penthièvre by Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

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