Chemise a la Reine?

Marie Antoinette, 1778, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

French court fashion in the last half of the 18th century was excessive. Marie Antoinette set the trend, paving the way for fast fashion as we know it today. She would spend up to £20,000 a day, reportedly commissioning 300 dresses a year, and hardly wearing anything twice.  At a time when fashions changed slowly, fashion plates were being printed every 10 days to keep up with her!

Such silk gowns were worn over the top of structured underthings: after putting on a shift or chemise, stays, panniers, and petticoats would be used to help the wearer achieve the ideal fashionable figure. Silk was the most popular fabric for gowns and coats: the aristocracy at court kept the French silk industry afloat, and their clothes were a display of their patriotism in doing so.

Marie Antoinette en gaule, 1783, by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

Taking French Court fashions into mind, it is little wonder that this portrait caused such a scandal when it was exhibited publicly in 1783!

Marie Antoinette has shed the visible indicators of the fact that she is queen, and there’s no evidence of her husband (the King) anywhere! She’s not even wearing any jewellery, and there’s certainly no subtly placed crown in the corner.

The dress is loose fitting, with no panniers beneath the skirts to hold them out.  You can barely tell that she is wearing stays! On top of that, its made of cotton muslin, not French silk.

Finally, (and arguably most scandalously) the dress looks a lot like a chemise or shift: the under most linen or cotton garment worn by women, which was easily washable and served as protection both for the body from stays rubbing, (think wearing a tight shoe without any socks), and preventing sweat from soaking into the unwashable stays and outer gown.

Marie Antoinette in a posthumous portrait, 1800, by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun.

However, fashions rarely materialise out of the blue. They all have their origins somewhere, and this dress was not thought up by the Queen for her pastoral fantasy at Le Petit Trianon.

Vêtement dit a la Créole, Galerie des Modes et Costumes Francais, 1779

Vêtement dit a la Créole, composé de celui que portent nos Dames Françaises en Amérique: c’est un grande robe de mousseline, à manches justes qui se serrent au poignet; la robe est un peu ajustée  à la taille et dégagée autour de la gorge dans le gout d’une chemise: elle est cependent sortaisée et ouverte par devant; on l’áttache en haut avec une épingle lorsqu’on veut qu’elle joigne, et a la ceinture avec un ruban comme la Lévite; par dessus un caraco à coqueluchon sans manches; celles de la robe forment l’amadis. Cette figure est coëffée d’un chapeau dit à la Grenade.

A dress a la Creole, made up of that worn by our French Ladies in America: it is a large muslin dress, with fair sleeves that tighten at the wrist; the dress is a little tightened at the waist and clears around the throat in the way of a chemise: it is however taken off and opened at the front; you fasten it at the top with a pin when you want it to join, and at the waist with a ribbon like a Levite [a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi]; over this a short sleeved caraco jacket; those of the dress form the lower sleeves. On her head is a hat a la Grenade.

[Apologies for the slightly dodgy translation: my French is rather rusty…]

Agostino Brunias, West Indian Creole woman, with her Black Servant ca. 1780

The Chemise a la Reine was rarely called such in the C18th, and was instead known by a variety of other names, primarily (and most notably) the Robe a la Creole. Such a garment began to appear in fashion plates from 1779 in the Galerie des Modes et Costumes Français, as the “Vêtement dit à la creole,” described in the caption  as being “made up of that which our French ladies wear in America.” What the title tells us (that the caption does not) is that the French ladies in America were copying the dress worn by black freewomen and enslaved people, which approximated European fashionable dress using the materials these women had available to them. Since such clothes were less restrictive and better adapted to the warmer climates, it didn’t take too long for white colonial women to begin wearing them too.

Detail from Linen Market in Dominica, Agostino Brunias, 1780s, “Robe en chemise de mousseline,” Cabinet des Modes, 1786

Marie Antoinette succeeded in popularising the simple cotton dress amongst her friends, but it took the French Revolution for cotton to become so vital to fashion. Luxurious silks and excessive dresses, as a symbol of the fallen aristocracy, were anathema to the revolutionary ideas. The dramatic simplification of dress in the late C18th – early C19th fuelled the rise of the slave trade, and made it possible to later declare that “Cotton is King.”

Agostino Brunias, Linen Market in Dominica ca. 1780

For more, see:

Sonia Ashmore’s book “Muslin,”

Creole Comforts and French Connections

The Little White Dress

“Frizzled” Hair Styles

Europeans in the 18th Century saw hair as an indicator of character: hence so many of the cartoons mocking women with overlarge, overly elaborate hairstyles. Smooth hair was “civilized,” while African hair, particularly the most tightly coiled, kinky hair was seen as mere wool: an indicator to their white contemporaries that they were “wild and disorderly”. The Europeans did not see African hairstyles as remotely important, when in reality they date back over 3000 years, and could contain complex communications, indicating occasion, religion, family, status, age, marital status, and occupation.

Agostino Brunias, West Indian Women of Colour with a Child and Black Servant, c. 1780

However, forced labour in America meant less time to spend on hairstyles, so they became simplified, and mingled different cultures together. In many cases enslaved women working in households were forced to cover their hair with headwraps by the Tignon laws and thanks to the jealousy of their mistresses – tightly coiled African hair with its height and volume is (ironically) far more suited to the elaborate high hairstyles of the white upper classes.

Agostino Brunias, Servants [Enslaved People?] Washing a Deer, c.1775

While some Black people in colonial America used hair powders, it is of note that even they kept their natural hair texture, as a form of passive resistance against white beauty standards and control over their bodies.

Antoine Vestier, Portrait of a Lady with a Book, c.1780

In the later 1770s through to the beginning of the 1790s, many European women adopted a “frizzed” hairstyle, very similar to an afro. They weren’t shy about where they had acquired the style, either:

French women are “covered with a vast load of false hair, which is Frizzled on the forehead so as to exactly resemble the wooly heads of the Guinea negros.”

Tobias Smollet, 1760s
Galerie des Modes, 39th issue, 3rd Illustration

1780s fashion plates displayed the “Coiffure a la Jamaique” alongside such styles as the “Robe a la Creole”.

While “wooly” hair was seen by Europeans as morally degenerate when it was on the heads of Black people, on the heads of white European women it was evidence of their status: they had the time and money to be able to twist and set their hair into the volume required by fashion. Such appropriations of Black hairstyles continue to this day: such styles that are looked down on as “unprofessional,” “ghetto,” or “ugly” on the heads of Black people are seen as “chic,” “stylish,” and “groundbreaking” when worn by white models and celebrities.

Even the legislation against Black hair has continued, with girls being sent home from school for their afros being “too big,” or for wearing their natural hair, or women being denied jobs if they don’t cut off their dreadlocks. There is a complete lack of understanding within modern day white society about the sheer quantity of cultural significance that Black hairstyles contain, and I will confess to being guilty of only knowing about them in the context of the 18th Century in America.

Agostino Brunias, Market Day, Rosaeu, Dominica

For more information on this subject, it is very much worth looking at Cheyney McKnight’s essay in the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Beauty, and also at her YouTube channel, Not Your Momma’s History.