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
In England, the Robe à la Francaise received a makeover to form a new style: the Robe à l'Anglaise. Without paniers, just pillows and padding, . 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, other fashionable developments took place. Dresses with ruffled up skirts in the back are often immediately referred to as Robes à la
Polonaise. However, in a Polonaise there is a waist seam separating the bodice part from the skirt. A deceptively similar garment is the Robe à l´Anglaise retrousee but there the front bodice
goes seamlessly into the skirt. The name refers to the alleged inspiration from the clothes of Polish peasant women who tucked up their skirts to protect the hems while working on the fields. The
ruffled up skirt was held up either through drawsting channels so that you could pull up the skirts and tie a knot in the strings to keep it up, or through loops of ribbons that lift the skirt or
small loops that go around buttons at the waist seam. Therefore, sometimes fashion prints and paintings show the visible ribbons that fasten the skirt.
The tight sleeves, which were not sewn into the armhole but placed and fixed on top of it, were elbow-length. There, a folded up cuff sat, or great flounces of fine lace or delicate embroidered fabric called Engageants.
Once the Robe volante had become popular in the ladies court wardrobe, the gown underwent several changes over the course of time. The Robe à la Francaise evolved. The waist was more and more defined and the cut changed (the sack back construction remained).
It consisted 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.
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.
Over the chemise (the under-dress), a relatively close-fitting and calf-long underskirt can be 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. Costume historically speaking, corsets do not appear before the 19th century. In the earlier eras it was stays. 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 achieve a period accurate look when making historical dresses.
While tighly laced and ill-fitted stays do cause discomfort and shortness of breath, a good pair worn in a good way does not.
Stays were specifically made for that person and thus could provide a good fit. They were not worn necessarily to create a very small waist, but mainly to get that smooth silhouette the styles
required and also to improve posture. Not every woman tight-laced, in fact very few did. It was probably mainly among the top of fashionable society that people did tight-lace. For the majority
of the population, stays were only hugging the body and not constricting it. Therefore any tales of deformed organs cannot be true for any woman who did not tight-lace on a daily basis. Many such
reports came from medical professionals or members of the cleric who censured the 'frivolous' fashions or assumed negative effects on women's fertility or 'hysteria'. As late as the later 19th
century, such medical practitioners wrote for example that the womb could wander off and fall out by wearing heels (yes, they really wrote such things!). Well-fitted stays made sure the dresses
sat well, helped achieve the silhouette and improve posture. Like nowadays where some celebrities wear extreme shapewear or have plastic surgery, it is a few people and not all of us. 18th
century stays, made from buckram and whalebone, warmed up to body temperature during wear and are flexible enough not to restrict movement too much. You can bend down in stays, or run. Clearly
modern clothes give more freedom to slouch in front of the computer or on the couch for example, but stays were no torture devices.
The stays are followed by what shapes the skirt: pocket
hoops (paniers) or different kinds of padded pillows. which are indeed used as pockets). Paniers come either as two
seperate baskets or joined into a long hoopskirt. The paniers are hollow and used as pockets to store and carry items around.
Padding options include the cul de Paris, a padded pillow also tied around the waist and sitting at the central back, or the Split Rump, two large pillows/sacks filled with padding material or bits cork that are mainly used with the Polonaise.
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 in the Francaise 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.
The style changed over the course of the 18th century. The Francaise is cut to reveal the stomacher and its silhouette is wide at the hips but narrow in profile. Towards the later 18th century the shape changed to a more all-round full skirt (hence the Split Rump for example) and the bodice was now cut to shut in the front or back and no longer reveal or require a stomacher. These later styles, like the Anglaise, cut the bodice front pieces on the bias of the fabric so that they stretch nicely and lie flat over the torso and stays.
For daily live beyond the courtly occasions, a light kerchief called Fichu was worn around the neck (usually white) and inserted into the neckline. This
Fichu emphasised the bust while providing warmth and a degree of more propriety during daytime. Like nowadays, everyday clothes and evening wear differ.
For travel and for horseback riding, a riding habit was worn: a jacket with short tails and an overlong skirt to drape down and veil the legs when sitting on horseback. Sometimes, riding habits were quilted. Often, they are modelled on male (military) dress. The Brunswick was another type of dress for travel, or just informal everyday wear. Again it is made up of a skirt and (hooded) jacket. Both styles are long-sleeved for practicality, sometimes Engageants are hinted at by the means of ribbons or flounces attached to the long sleeve above the elbow.
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
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