The High Tide of French Fashion

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The High Tide of French Fashion

French Influence on Europe.

During the second half of the seventeenth century France had emerged as the pre-eminent state in Europe under the rule of Louis XIV. Although the king's reign was plagued with problems, particularly in the years after 1700, France's hold over the cultural imagination of Europe in the eighteenth century remained strong. During the eighteenth century, Paris, one of Europe's true metropolitan cities, continued to be the center of the fashion industry. Parisian fashions were avidly followed elsewhere in Europe, and the dress of the eighteenth century acquired a feature that it has possessed until present times: its frequent changeability and constant alteration to suit stylish society's sense of the times. It was not until the later years of the eighteenth century that the notion of an "annual fashion season" really took off and became a feature of urban societies throughout Europe. But throughout the century the forces that made fashion an infinitely alterable landscape—subject to subtle modulations of whims, fancy, and tastes each season—were gathering steam in Paris. In the early years of the eighteenth century, French fashion dolls outfitted in the latest examples of court and city dresses were sent out from Paris to merchants and royal courts throughout Europe. These dolls were displayed in shop windows and kept women abreast of the latest trends in France. Later in the century, the fashion magazine replaced these dolls, performing much the same task of keeping women up to date on changes in style. The fashion magazine thus provided a cheaper and more convenient way to inform women of the latest changes in taste, and allowed for the circulation of fashion knowledge among an even broader range of society. Through these marketing innovations France secured a position in the world of European dress that it continues to hold even in contemporary times.

New Lighter and More Decorative Styles.

The French fashions that eventually conquered Europe were not the elaborate and imposing ceremonial dress typical of Louis XIV's Versailles, but a new sort of clothing that reflected the changing tastes of the eighteenth century. In the years following the death of Louis XIV, the tastes of wealthy Parisians began to change rather quickly. The new king, Louis XV, was the great-grandson of the Sun King, and when he acceded to the throne he was only five years old. His uncle Philippe, the Duke of Orléans, served as his regent. In the later years of Louis XIV's reign, the king's increasingly rigid piety and France's involvement in costly and draining international wars had given a tone of gravity to the times. Although the French state was heavily indebted at the time of Louis XIV's death, the Regent Philippe favored styles and fashions that were lighter and less grave than those of Louis XIV's era. Despite France's problems, the early years of Louis XV's reign were notable for the appearance of a new "Regency Style," a style actively supported by the Duke of Orléans. Philippe moved France's government from Versailles back to Paris, where a glittering aristocratic society was just beginning to develop the salons and other social institutions that were to discuss the ideas of the Enlightenment. In the houses of the wealthiest Parisian nobles a new fashion emerged for rooms that were filled with light and with splashes of gold. The art used to fill these spaces suggested scenes of everyday enjoyment, that is, of popular pastimes undertaken in parks, at fairs, or in the countryside. New fabrics made use of patterns inspired by Chinese or Arabic designs that gave an exotically foreign taste to the interiors of the time. Thus the Regency fashions that flourished in France during the later 1710s and 1720s laid the foundations for the elegant, yet light and sprightly features of Rococo style that by the mid-eighteenth century defined upper-class tastes.

The Triumph of the Rococo at Court.

Although these new standards of taste were rather quickly adopted in Paris, the dress of the court was at first barely touched by them. The prescriptions of Louis XIV on dress in court circles continued to be respected, particularly at formal state occasions. But by the 1730s and 1740s the winds of change in clothing styles were having their effect even there. Although Louis XV moved the government back to Versailles and relied on the elaborately formal etiquette of his great-grandfather's time, he carved out a private world for himself, his mistresses, and family in the grand palace that reflected the lighter, less serious tastes of the era. In the 1730s he redecorated an apartment of private rooms in the palace in the new less ponderous fashions of the day. He relaxed the observance of sumptuary regulations in France, helping to sponsor an era of magnificent display and seeming abundance. During his long reign, women at court and in Paris's wealthy aristocratic circles played a new role as arbiters of fashion. The expenditures of aristocratic women on clothing were by this time about twice that of men, and the greatest women of Louis XV's court—including his most powerful and enduring mistress, Madame de Pompadour—defined the fashions of the era, giving rise to an era of Rococo indulgence and opulence that now seems in most modern people's minds to be synonymous with the style of the entire eighteenth century.


introduction: Eighteenth-century men and women of fashion were avid consumers, and men were every bit as well informed about the latest fashions for women as their female counterparts. In the following excerpt from Samuel Richardson's novel, Clarissa, the male character Lovelace describes the attire of his love in the most minute detail

Thou hast heard me also describe the wavy ringlets of her shining hair, needing neither art nor powder; of itself an ornament, defying all other ornaments; wantoning in and about a neck that is beautiful beyond description.

Her head-dress was a Brussels-lace mob, peculiarly adapted to the charming air and turn of her features. A sky-blue ribband illustrated that.—But altho' the weather was somewhat sharp, she had not on either hat or hood; for, besides that she loves to use herself hardily (by which means, and by a temperance truly exemplary, she is allowed to have given high health and vigour to an originally tender constitution), she seems to have intended to shew me, that she was determin'd not to stand to her appointment. O Jack! that such a sweet girl should be a rogue!

Her morning-gown was a pale primrose-colour'd paduasoy: The cuffs and robings curiously embroider'd by the fingers of this ever-charming Arachne, in a running pattern of violets, and their leaves; the light in the flowers silver; gold in the leaves. A pair of diamond snaps in her ears. A white handkerchief, wrought by the same inimitable fingers, concealed—O Belford! what still more inimitable beauties did it not conceal!—And I saw, all the way we rode, the bounding heart; by its throbbing motions I saw it! dancing beneath the charming umbrage.

Her ruffles were the same as her mob. Her apron a flower'd lawn. Her coat white satten, quilted: Blue satten her shoes, braided with the same colour, without lace; for what need has the prettiest foot in the world of ornament? Neat buckles in them: And on her charming arms a pair of black velvet glove-like muffs, of her own invention; for she makes and gives fashions as she pleases. Her hands, velvet of themselves, thus uncover'd, the freer to be grasp'd by those of her adorer.

I have told thee what were my transports, when the undrawn bolt presented to me my long-expected goddess.—Her emotions were more sweetly feminine, after the first moments; for then the fire of her starry eyes began to sink into a less-dazzling languor. She trembled: Nor knew she how to support the agitations of a heart she had never found so ungovernable. She was even fainting, when I clasp'd her in my supporting arms. What a precious moment That! How near, how sweetly near, the throbbing partners!

By her dress, I saw, as I observ'd before, how unprepar'd she was for a journey; and not doubting her intention once more to disappoint me, I would have drawn her after me. Then began a contention the most vehement that ever I had with lady. It would pain thy friendly heart to be told the infinite trouble I had with her. I begg'd, I pray'd; on my knees I begg'd and pray'd her, yet in vain, to answer her own appointment: And had I not happily provided for such a struggle, knowing whom I had to deal with, I had certainly failed in my design; and as certainly would have accompanied her in, without thee and thy brethren: And who knows what might have been the consequence?

source: Samuel Richardson, Clarissa. Vol. III. (1748; reprint, Stratford Upon Avon: Basil Blackwell Oxford, 1930): 28–29.

Rococo Women 's Fashions.

The chief innovation of the period in women's dress was the garment that became known throughout Europe as the robe à la française, a gown that was worn over a bodice decorated with a stomacher (a decorative V-or U-shaped garment) and outfitted with hoops or paniers that supported its skirt. The gown was parted in the middle to form a V-shaped opening that allowed contrasting or identical underskirts to show through, thus creating an impression of an abundance of cloth and material. In the 1740s, these styles were often decorated with a profusion of bows, lace, elaborate braidwork patterns, or embroidery, and the sleeves of the gown were cut to make elaborate flounces at the elbows that were usually decorated with lace. While trains were common in the early years of the robe à la française's appearance, they tended to be ever more restricted to court circles, where the train was an obligatory element of dress. During the 1740s and 1750s the hoops or paniers of these skirts grew progressively wider. The fashion soon became popular among wealthy and aristocratic women almost everywhere in Europe, spawning regional variations. In England and Scotland, for example, women had abandoned the broad hoops typical of French gowns of this type by the 1750s, and instead favored only small side hoops at the hips or no hoops at all. The resulting innovation made their skirts trail elegantly behind them on the ground as they walked. The robe à la française became one of the most popular upper-class fashions throughout Europe, and it reflected the reigning taste for costly silks, brocades, and floral patterned fine cloth of the day. Many of the fabrics used in these costly creations also reflected the taste for Chinese and Arabic motifs, and during the 1760s and 1770s, the rising popularity of cotton meant that the garment came to be made out of this fabric as well. At court, more elaborate dresses constructed of taffeta, brocade, and other expensive fabrics remained the rule, but cotton offered the advantage of quicker production times, and thus a cheaper price tag, bringing the elegance of the robe à la française into the reach of a broader number of women in society. Many of the new cotton fabrics used at this time for dresses were printed, rather than woven from colored thread, thus greatly simplifying their production. Of all the cotton manufactories that turned out cloth used in these elaborate aristocratic fashions the most famous was the French factory at Jouy, near Versailles, an institution that gave its name to the toile du Jouy fabric popular in the second half of the eighteenth century. Louis XV had acquired this industry in 1760 at the instigation of his one-time mistress Madame de Pompadour. For many years, Madame de Pompadour and her circle at Versailles had disregarded royal regulations against the wearing of richly printed fabrics, fabrics long acquired from foreign sources. Pompadour's daring fashion innovations were thus a force that encouraged Louis XV in his plans to found a national industry for the production of printed cloth. The Jouy factory turned out a succession of prints that were filled with exotic Chinese, Arabic, and Indian motifs as well as scenes of everyday life. Since their appearance, these prints have become known in most European languages merely as toile. The influence of the fabric stretched throughout Europe and the many high-quality cotton prints produced there were avidly copied elsewhere.

Men 's Wear in the Mid-Eighteenth Century.

For most of the eighteenth century the three-piece ensemble that included a justaucorps, vestcoat, and britches remained the dominant pattern of male dress in French aristocratic society and came to be adopted throughout many parts of Europe. This style had first appeared during the late 1660s at Versailles and in Paris, and it continued to be elaborated upon in the eighteenth century. By 1700, the justaucorps worn at court occasions had become increasingly tight fitting, and was now embroidered at its front opening with gold and silver thread or with lace made from these precious metals. Floral patterns eventually gave way on the justaucorps to more restrained patterns of embellishment, while the interior vestcoat tended to become ever more elaborate in its decoration. It was not uncommon for the decoration on these jackets and vestcoats to cost a great deal more than the velvets, silks, and taffetas out of which they were constructed. The colors used in the most elaborate of these male costumes in the first half of the eighteenth century now appear quite garish to modern eyes. Such dress, though, was worn in the evening, when the glow of candlelight softened the effect and refracted the light brilliantly off the bright metal surfaces and precious gemstones that were used to decorate the buttons. In England and the Dutch Republic, patterns of male dressing were far more restrained than in France or Germany. The Protestant ethos of these countries made the elaborate display typical of Continental dress seem too opulent for daily wear. English men were said to prefer browns, dark grays, blacks, and blues, and although aristocratic men donned costumes for ceremonial occasions at court that were almost as grand as those of their Continental counterparts, men's costumes were, on the whole, restrained in England when compared to France. Men generally avoided a great profusion of decoration on the clothes they wore on the streets of London or Amsterdam. In contrast to the many different kinds of women's dresses that were popular throughout Europe and the many variations that existed in women's wear for different occasions, men's fashions were relatively standardized in much of Western Europe by the eighteenth century. The three pieces that comprised men's primary wardrobe—britches, vestcoat, and justaucorps—were common to men of affairs and commerce almost everywhere, and were only distinguished by the wealth of their fabrics and decoration.

The Wig.

While the custom of wearing wigs had been common in the ancient world, it had generally died out in medieval Europe where religious leaders taught that false hair was a sinful indulgence. During the sixteenth century, though, the elaborate styles of hair worn in Renaissance cities saw the popularity of hairpieces grow among women. Queen Elizabeth had more than eighty of these to dress her hair in the elaborate hairdos of the period, while her cousin, the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, was also known for her great quantities of false hair. During the seventeenth century wigs had first become common as menswear at the French court of Louis XIII (r. 1610–1643). For the first years of his reign, his son and successor Louis XIV avoided wearing wigs since he was generally proud of his full head of hair. Still the custom grew among Louis's courtiers, many of whom relied on wigs to imitate the young king. The years of the mid-seventeenth century saw wigs make their way into the fashions of the age, since the tastes of the era favored long male locks that were elaborately dressed into curls. When Louis XIV began to go bald around 1670, he, too, succumbed to the fashion for wearing wigs, and false hair among French men became all the rage. King Charles II and his court established the practice in later seventeenth-century England, and by 1700, the wig was required menswear in English cities, reaching the zenith of its popularity in the first few years of the new century. As wigs became a common fashion accessory for men, their shapes and forms altered. Originally intended to serve as a replacement for men's hair, the wig functioned more and more like an element of fashion. The colors favored grew increasingly fantastic, first evidencing a flair for grey and white, later for such colors as pink, blue, and lavender. In England and elsewhere in Europe, the styles of wigs men wore also reflected their station in life, with men of the law generally favoring a different kind of peruke, as they were then known, than merchants or country gentlemen. Although wigs continued to be worn by men after the first two decades of the eighteenth century, they were gradually confined more and more to ceremonial occasions and to circles of the nobility. Women, by contrast, retained a fondness for false hair much longer than men, although even among women a new fashion for more naturalistic hairstyles developed in the last decades of the eighteenth century. During the Rococo period, women's hairstyles frequently grew to enormous heights. Women's wigs were sometimes outfitted with replicas of model ships, dressed with turbans in imitation of Arabic styles, or with pompoms constructed of fur and feathers (a style inspired by Louis XV's mistress Madame de Pompadour), and with other excesses that were frequently mocked and caricatured even at the time. Urban legends grew about women whose wigs had harbored nests of vermin, and the doors of carriages grew higher to accommodate the styles. Stories of court women who had to hold their heads outside carriages to avoid spoiling their hairdos were common. These styles came to a high tide of popularity in the 1760s and 1770s before beginning to wane. In the years that followed, a taste for more naturalistic, less artificial hair fashions grew, so that by the 1780s women in portraits were seen sporting rather simple lace caps or restrained hats placed atop free-flowing, seemingly natural hair.


Millia Davenport, The Book of Costume (New York: Crown Publishers, 1948).

Madeleine Delpierre, Dress in France in the Eighteenth Century (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997).

Aileen Ribeiro, Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, 1715–1789 (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1984).

see also Architecture: The Rococo in the Eighteenth Century

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The High Tide of French Fashion

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