Unlike the 19th and 20th centuries, fashion in the 18th century didn’t change very much for several decades. One can identify a dress from the 18th century with only a couple of tools in her arsenal.
The first is silhouette. When most people think of dresses in the 1700’s, their mind immediately conjures up the riotous cartoons from Louis XVI’s France. Cartoons of wild, towering wigs decorated with birds or fruit or even boats. The cartoonists weren’t just lampooning Marie Antoinette’s wigs. They were going after the pannier too, which reached ridiculous proportions in the 1750’s and was brought back by Marie.
I found this picture from the University of Michigan. I have no idea if the photograph is in their collection or if the pannier and stays is in their collection. It’s a good example of a pannier and stay of the time. I don’t know the date, but I’m guessing it’s from sometime in the 1750’s to the 1770’s.
There are stories of Catherine the Great, Empress of All The Russias, once having worn a pannier that was eight feet across from one end to the other. The blue dress here is a British court dress from the 1750’s in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
At the beginning of the century, the silhouette wasn’t all that different from the 15th and 16th centuries. Full skirts, three-quarter length sleeves with lace at the cuffs, ribbons, embroidery and sometimes garish prints. That silhouette flowed into the mantua, a cone shape silhouette so popular that for decades, tailors and seamstresses were often called mantua makers.
From the conical shape of the mantua, came the pannier. Introduced probably in the late 1740’s for court dress, it quickly became popular, reaching its zenith of size in the 1760’s with the above referenced dress worn by Catherine.
Only in France did the pannier continue to be popular. In the 1760’s a style of dress commonly called the saque dress came into style. While still having that definitive big hips silhouette, it was much smaller and featured what I think is one of the most flattering things in all of historical costume: a pleated back that fell from the neckline to the floor in one graceful piece of fabric. See what I mean? I love it. These two dresses are also at the Met in NYC.
From here we enter the 1770’s and the styles seen at Colonial Willamsburg and on the American Girl doll Felicity. The pannier is still present, but it’s continuing to shrink in width. By 1785, panniers had almost completely disappeared and the silhouette returned to a more normal shape. But if you look closely at the skirt, it’s not hard to imagine where the bustle of the 1870’s and 1880’s came from. There truly is nothing new in fashion. If you look back far enough, with the exception of the mini-skirt, it’s been done before.
In 1790, the pannier is dead, never to be resurrected. The silhouette is columnar in form, with a skirt that’s losing fullness by the year and a waistline that’s moving up. In 1800, the Regency/Empire style is in full force.
The second tool is fabric choice, though it’s not as reliable as silhouette. Western block printing was perfected in the mid 1700’s and this led to an explosion of elaborate, striped floral fabrics. For some reason they also loved bows and ruffles. Lots of them. At the same time. On fabric with very busy patterns. Particularly in France. It’s really quite easy to see why French fashion of that century was a favorite subject for cartoonists.
Next time we’ll take a look at men’s fashion. As boring as that is, it must be done.