Characteristic for the 'Rococo'is the refined, detailed and powdery style of this era. Ideals like elegance and
sophistication, but also the enjoyment of privacy and home lift and the enlightenment shaped this epoch.
The more austere and rigourous style of the Baroque was softened and adorned. Fabrics in use were linen (for underwear), silk, taffeta, atlas, damask, brocade, cotton and wool. Fur was used to line for instance cloaks of wealthy persons and to protect the hands from the winter cold in form of muffs. Colours were given such delightful names as "Caca Dauphin" (the heir to the throne's p**, unsurprisingly a brownish shade), Feu d'Opéra (a red colour named after the blaze at the Opera house in Paris in 1781) and, one more because the names are so hilariously absurd, "Cardinal sur la paille (Cardinal in the straw). It requires no inconsiderable share of domination of the fashionable world to set up such colours, and a zeitgeist that does not mind the explosive statement of a Queen naming a colour after a recent tragedy.
The Robe volante is a flowing one-piece that falls down in lose pleats from the shoulders on front and back (sack back construction, ). The sack back pleats are also named Watteau pleats after the Rococo painter Jean-Antoine Watteau who often depicted such dresses.
The skirt was at first cone shaped but broadened with the time to form the square silhouette of the Robe à la Francaise. It was certainly not comfortable and nothing for houses with narrow doors though which the ladies would have to pass sideways.
The tight sleeves reached approx. to the elbow. There, great flounces of fine lace or delicate embroidered fabric called Engageants, were added.
Once the Robe volante had become popular in the ladies court wardrobe, the gown underwent several changes. It got a second name, the Robe à la Francaise, “the dress in the manner of the French“ it would be translated. The waist was more and more emphasized (and laced in the back hidden under the pleats) and the cut changed (the sack back construction remained).
It consisted now of three pieces:
the Manteau or Mantua (the mantle), the Jube (the skirt) and a triangle-shaped stomacher, often richly decorated. The Manteau and the Jube were usually of the same fabric and lavishly decorated with quillings, lace, bows, silk and fabric flowers, scalloped and pleated stripes, etc.. The neckline, usually very low, was decorated with lace or embroidery. At first, bows were only used to decorate the neckline but with time passing it became fashionable to adorn the whole stomacher with bows. Madame de Pompadour was obviously very fond of this fashion as she wears it in several paintings from the 1750s.
Over the chemise (the under-dress), a relatively close-fitting and calf-long underskirt is tied around the waist. Its job is to protect the wearer's decency if a gust of wind lifts up the wide upper skirts. Over the chemise goes the pair of stays aka the corset. They are laced either in the front (for the less wealthy women as they have to lace it themselves) or in the back (for women who had a maidservant). The lacing is done in a spiral with just one cord which is tied with a knot at the upper and lower end of the corset, not the zig-zagging used nowadays. This is an easy way to be period accurate.
While tighly laced and ill-fitted stays do cause uncomfortable shortness of breath and internal damage, a good pair worn in a
good way does not. Stays usually were specifically made for that person and thus could provide a good fit. They were not worn only to create a very small waist, but also to improve posture and to
support the dress styles. Yet it is undeniable that they restrict and shape the body. That does not mean that corsets cannot be worn in a wholesome way when well-fitted and the lacing is only
gradually tightened, but achieving extreme waist circumfences is.
The corset is followed by the pocket hoops or paniers
which are indeed used as pockets. Those two little baskets are made of fabric reinforced with boning and are tied around the waist so that they sit on each side
of the hips.
Over the panier at the back the cul de Paris was placed, a padded pillow also tied around the waist. One or several underskirt(s) follow. They conceal and even out the contours of the pocket hoops and the cul de Paris so that the Jube falls nicely. Over that, the visible skirt, the floor-long Jube, finds its place. The skirts have about 20cm long slashes on both sides of the hip which allows one to put the hands into the pockets.
The Manteau is the actual "dress" - a floor-long or shorter kind of mantle which is open in the front to show the stomacher underneath is put on. It is pinned to the bodice down the front and the gap it leaves is then concealed with the stomacher.
Less correct but more practical is making a gown with a stomacher that is sewn to the Manteau and inserting boning the
interior layer of the bodice so you do not need an additional corset. This is what most commercial patterns do.
In England, the Robe à la Francaise was advanced: A new type of dress became stylish – a gown without hoop-skirt (Englishwomen wore paddings at the utmost) and stomacher. It was not a Manteau and a stomacher pinned together with needles but a tight bodice (without the tuckings in the back) fastened with hooks and eyes or lacing in the front. The end of the bodice was pointed at the front and the back. There was normally no stomacher anymore. This gown was also worn on the continent since 1770 and pushed aside the Robe à la Francaise as the most popular dress: the Robe à l'Anglaise.
Meanwhile, in France another fashionable development took place: The Robe à la Polonaise. This gown is a variant of the Robe à l´Anglaise. The name refers to the fact, that the clothes of Polish peasant women had served as inspiration, who tucked up their skirts to protect the hems while working on the fields. The Robe à la Polonaise was very similar to the Robe à l'Anglaise, with the difference that the skirt was artfully tucked up. This was done at one or more places with ribbons that were fastened inside the dress at the waist and at a position of the skirt (being shorter than this measurement when the skirt is falling loose) so the skirt at the fixed place is drawn up. With different length of ribbon, the gather could be varied. Sometimes, the gather was done on the outer side of the skirt, so that the ribbon was visible.
The Robe à l'Anglaise and the Robe à la Polonaise were usually made
*of monochromatic/uni fabric or
*the skirt and the gown had different colours (sometimes one was patterned and the other not) or
*the whole gown was made of the same flowered, dotted or striped fabric.
For daily live beyond the courtly occasions, a light kerchief called Fichu was worn around the neck (usually white) and inserted into the neckline. There were greater draperies that swelled and pretended a greater bust size than there actually was.
For travel and for horseback riding, a petticoat was worn with a (hooded) jacket. Petticoat and jacket were sometimes quilted. The jacket was stiffened with bones, pointed in the front and straight at the waist in the back. The coat tails are usually 20 to 30cm long (approximately 8 to 12 inches).
A popular kind of informal dress (worn inside the house, among the family) is a wrapping gown. The wrapping gown is worn with
corset and chemise underneath. Like modern wrapping dresses it is open in the front and wrapped around the waist. The fabric is softly coloured, light and flowing, the skirt is long and full.
Although for private environment, many women had themselves painted in a wrapping gown.
Exotic cultures, especially the Orient, were very popular in France. This fascination for the way of life of Sultans and Sultanas was heated-up by Madame de Pompadour who had herself painted à la turque. The colourful and flowing clothes (so different from the stiff French court fashion), ornated belts, wide sleeves, pearl jewellery, coffee, turbans, baggy silk trousers - everything was all the rage. Records of ambassadors and travellers in the Orient delighted and enchanted the people.
Another informal garment is a pet-en-l'air jacket. This jacket has a sack back construction and was worn over a petticoat or the Jube. It looks just like a Robe à la Francaise with shortened skirt. It could be fastened with hooks and eyes (the stomacher is divided lengthwise), tied with ribbon or pinned to a corset with decorative lacing. The materials are the same as for the gowns. There is a painting in Upton House, 1740s, unknown artist, which depicts an unknown (but undoubtedly rich) Lady is clad in a blue pet-en-l'air probably made of silk and trimmed (or perhaps fully lined) with ermine fur.The Caraco was another type of jacket, fashionable in the 1760s. It is similar to the pet-en-l'air (which can be seen in my painting on the right hand side) but has no sack back. The back is tight-fitting like the one of a Robe à l'Anglaise.
When the Gaulle or Chemise à la Reine (the Queen's chemise)was first introduced to the public by Marie
Antoinette in her portrait by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, it resulted in a scandal. People both condemned her for apparently wearing a shift and for introducing a style that might put France's silk
weavers out of work.
The Chemise à la Reine consisted of several layers of light muslin, belted with a colourful sash around the waist. Commonly, the colour was white or a pastel shade. Sleeves can reach just over the elbows or to the wrists and can have small flounces where they end. Likewise the round neckline is usually trimmed with one or two layers of flounces.
In the 17th century the folding fan came up. In the following time, fans reached a high degree of artistry. The parchment or silk was decorated with floral patterns, garden scenes or sceneries from the ancient Greek and Roman mythology.
In the Rococo era, wealthy women liked to own small dogs. These lapdogs were not (like in Renaissance) there to provide some warmth but to be a cute little companion who could be cuddled and spoilt. Madame de Pompadour had several dogs, her two favourites named Mimi and Inés, which also appear in her portraits. She quite doted on them and one year, she spent over 500 Louis-d'Or (an immense fortune for average people) on golden collars for her pets.
In the Rococo era, shoes with heels and (very) pointed toes were worn. There was yet no difference in the making of a right and left shoe, the heel and soles were carved of wood and overall the feet must have hurt like hell at the end of a long day...
For fashionable ladies (and gentlemen) it was significant that the fabric of the garment and of the shoes matched, so that they had usually an exclusive pair for each garment. The Louis-heel, a heel that is wider at the top and base that in the middle, was the height of chic in the rococo era and is famous ever since. The footwear had straps that needed to be crossed over the instep and fastened with a buckle.
Contrary to common belief, people bathed regularly when they could be sure the water was clean. In Versailles and in several other residences, bathing rooms can be found with large tubs. The body was also rubbed with perfumed towels and people did endeavour to keep their teeth clean and healthy. Unfortunately, toothpaste was for a short time made with sugar as the main ingredient which did not produce the wanted results. Linen underwear and bedsheets were changed very frequently and although common 18th century ideas of hygiene were not quite equal to ours today, they were not as rank and heavily perfumed as is the general stereotype.
A pale complexion with rosy cheeks and dark eyebrows was the ideal. There were face paints that included lead and other harmful chemicals but they were not the norm. Rouge was a normal feature of make-up, but for instance Georgiana Spencer-Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, and her daughter are said to have worn none. By making them appear natural and artless, this met good critics.
For sleeping, the frames, cushions and finery were removed, the hair pinned up and covered with a coif.
At the beginning of the Rococo epoch the hair was worn relatively close to the head in updo hairstyles, outside the house covered and not yet powdered or accreted by hair pieces as one was proud of the own (healthy and shiny) hair. In the late 1760s and 70s the coiffures became increasingly high. The hair was pomaded, powdered and draped over wire frames, with the augmentation of false hair. Adding to that came everything from false flowers to bows and miniature paintings to pearls and feathers among the court and upper class.
In 1774, Marie Antoinette stunned the French court with her "pouf" (='cushion/pillow') hairstyle which is somewhat of
an ancestor of the beehive hairstyle of the 20th century.
In the 1770s Georgiana Spencer-Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, astonished the fashion world with a 90cm (1yd) high hair tower adorned with jewels and e.g artificial fruit and birds. Consequently, riding in a carriage was only possible by sitting on the floor – very comfortable indeed. Another trend-set of hers was adding a huge ostrich-feather to her (high) coiffure that luffed at every motion of the head. One of her feathers was about 1,20m (1,3yd) in lentgh – a very extravagant fashion and very much to the poor ostriches regret.
Already in the end of the 1770s, however, the mounted-up coiffures became lower and were displaced by what looked like a mob of curly hair (what it actually was) with curls hanging on shoulders and back. This new height of chic was worn with wide-brimmed hats. Paintings of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire show her with that hairstyle and the film adaption of her life (“The Duchess”) flatters with quite accurate hairstyles and dresses. To the Chemise a la Reine (introduced in the 1780s) Marie Antoinette wore her hair curly with a big straw hat adorned with a light-blue ribbon and bow and ostrich-feathers. The high hairdos and the mob lasting until the 1790s disappeared and only left low coiffures, small curls and and braids behind.
As high-quality lace was as valuable as gemstones, it was also used as jewellery, worn as a choker around the neck. Pearl-necklaces and pearls earrings were in
vogue, just as well as diamond jewellery in form of collars, earrings and bracelets (a set of two identical ones for each wrist).
All in all, only a minimum of gemstone/diamond jewellery was worn around the neck – generally, the lace quill is adornment enough (with perhaps a small pearl-necklace). It was very popular to wear miniatures (portraits or the profile as relief) on necklaces and ribbons around the neck, on a pearl or ribbon bracelet (looks like a watch) and as a brooch attached to the bodice. Likewise, cameos were fashionable.
- Please note that this list claims no completeness and does not operate as advertisement. It was merely composed for informative purposes. Furthermore, no valuation of the patterns is implied or intended -
Keywords: epoch, Madame de Pompadour, Jeanne
Poisson, Marie, Antoinette, dress, robe, gown, engageants, robe à la polonaise, robe à l'anglaise, robe à la francaise, pet-en-l'air-jacket, floral, hoop-skirt, paniers, Manteau, Jube, stomacher,
wig, powder, mouche, fabric, Lamballe, volante, cul de Paris, à l'Anglaise,a l´Anglaise,riding,caraco, Francois Boucher, orient, Sultana, France, gaulle,chemise à la reine, Trianon, Louis-heel,
coiffures, accessories, shoes, belle poule, Duchess of Devonshire, Gorgiana, pouf, mob, miniatures, pattern, fabric, silk, taffeta, cotton, fashion, Epochs of fashion, Rococo
© Nina Möller