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

A Brief History of the Fashion Magazine Part 3

In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the most popular printed materials were newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides. Unfortunately, in the early 18th Century, the English government realised that an awful lot of political propaganda was spread through these cheap, easily made publications, and so decided to stick a tax on them. In order to cover everything, the tax was on “single and half sheet publications.” Publishers responded to this tax by printing lengthier material less frequently, and so the magazine was born in England.

16th Century Broadside

However, other magazines had begun to appear in the late 17th century, in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. It was easier for publishers to have a regular schedule, but it would be difficult to say that the magazines they produced were particularly easy reading: they tended to be intellectual and fairly heavy going, until the publication of the Mercure Galant in 1672, combining news, pleasurable reading, and images.

The rise of female literacy rates meant a new market for publishers, too, and the Lady’s Mercury appeared in 1693, intended specifically for women: the Athenian Mercury ran an advice column that was so popular with women, a separate magazine was briefly created. It was not truly a magazine as we would recognise it today, however, being printed on two sides of a single sheet of paper. The Review, the Tatler, and the Spectator all emerged in the early 18th Century, and likewise grew offshoots aimed specifically at a female audience.

The first Fashion Magazine after the Mercure Galant, however, did not appear until 1770. The Lady’s Magazine (an offshoot of the Gentleman’s Magazine (1731-1907)) lasted until 1847, and contained detailed illustrations of clothes alongside fiction, biographies, music, medicine, and news. Middle and upper class women found it of equal appeal: the court dresses shown helped those of higher rank keep up with the fashions, while the middle ranks could attempt to emulate it on a smaller scale.

The main difference between magazines aimed at women and men in this period was the manner in which politics was treated. While men were being prepared to take military roles in upcoming wars with neighbouring countries, women were reassured that all was safe, and there was nothing to fear, so that no upset was caused in the domestic sphere.

Cabinet des Modes, 1785

While the Lady’s Magazine was varied in its material, and contained relatively few fashion plates, other magazines, such as The Gallery of Fashion (1794-1803), Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français (1778-1787), and the Magasin des Modes Nouvelles Françaises et Anglaises (1786-1789) consisted almost entirely of fashion plates. These were (unfortunately) more expensive to produce, hence their short lifetimes, but the fashion magazine as we know it today was born!

These magazines gave very detailed descriptions, elaborating on colours, materials, styles, and how such items might be procured. Adverts for various manufactures were included, too.

Such plates could be hand tinted before distribution, coloured by hand once bought, or, more unusually, turned into “dressed prints” with colour being added through the use of fabric and glue.

While these magazines were ostensibly aimed at women (though that is not to say that they didn’t also include male fashion plates too!), they also contained a voyeuristic element for men, from the high fashion of the 1780s involving women’s breasts showing over their necklines, to the form revealing fashions of the 1790s and 1800s.

The effect of these fashion magazines was a homogenisation of European fashion. Marie Antoinette’s constant spending and ever changing styles led to them being printed every 10 days to keep up with her, and while some small regional variation remained, fashion at the end of the 18th Century was very similar all across Europe, with the same silhouettes, styles, trims, and headwear rendering it virtually impossible to tell where someone was from by their clothes. When countries were at war, efforts were made to avoid imitating the styles of the country you were fighting against, but that tended towards small details.

One notable feature of dress that remained radically different depending on location was court dress. Strict rules were in place, dictating what could be worn in front of a country’s monarch, from silhouette to train length, and such things as sleeve length and headwear varied depending on occasion and time of day. As can be seen above, the English retained the paniers of the mid 18th Century, raising them with the waistline, while the French adopted the new fashion of slim skirts.

Such magazines continue to this day in much the same manner as the first 1770 Lady’s Magazine, containing everything from fashion and news to fiction, biographies, and recipies.

For more on fashion magazines, and the history thereof, see (in no particular order:

Vogue

John L. Nevison’s “Early History of the Fashion Plate

British Library’s Article on Fashion Magazines

Articles in the Lady’s Magazine

Fashion Plates in the National Portrait Gallery

Julia Jones’s “The Fleeting Art: Fashion and Culture in Eighteenth Century France”

Matthaeus Schwarz’s Fashion Book

The Gentleman’s Magazine

The Lady’s Magazine