Reaction to the Rococo

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Reaction to the Rococo

Changing Tastes.

During the 1770s fashion began to change in Europe rather quickly. By this time the tendency toward opulent decoration and to fanciful and fantastic clothing seemed to many to have been spent. While richly decorated women's dresses and men's suits remained popular in some court circles for a time, new and simpler styles first began to appear in England and then to spread to Continental Europe. English fashions, although profoundly influenced by the French throughout the eighteenth century, had long evidenced a fondness for simpler and less artificial lines than those popular in France. French innovations, such as the use of elaborate paniers or hoop skirts, had been widely popular in the country among women, but had given rise to native innovations. By the 1750s, English women began to abandon the paniers altogether or merely to favor hip pads that widened this area of the body. They also began to wear dresses in which the cloth was gathered and elegantly arranged to flow toward a woman's back. The reigning fashion common among upper class and aristocratic women in England became known throughout Europe as a robe à la anglaise, or "English robe." It was simpler than its more elaborate French counterpart, but no less feminine. Where the robe à la française had been open at the front to reveal a woman's corset, bodice, and petticoats, the English version fit more snugly, and was all of one piece. The classic formulation of such robes was far simpler than the elaborate concoctions that had been popular in France during the height of the Rococo period. Typically, a robe à la anglaise's skirts were gathered at the back and allowed to fall in folds. A colored sash often held these folds in place and was worn high, just below the bust line. A new fondness for cotton muslins and for dresses made from white cloth and other lighter colors as well as the new cotton fabrics replaced the once great affection for expensive taffetas, silks, velvets, and brocades. English women also began to wear simple fichus—that is, scarves made of transparent material—around their shoulders, one of the defining elements of the "English style." The new fashion spread quickly among aristocratic woman in Continental Europe, although France at first resisted the greater naturalism of these dresses. Despite the resistance offered by members of the French court and aristocracy, these fashions had begun to make inroads there by the 1770s.


introduction: Before the advent of fashion magazines at the very end of the eighteenth century, much knowledge about the latest trends circulated in the letters that aristocratic and wealthy women wrote each other. The following excerpts from Betsy Sheridan, an English gentlewoman, were written to her sister, who lived in provincial Dublin to try to keep her abreast of the latest changes in fashion.

1785. Tunbridge Wells.—Now for Article of fashions. I like your habit very much. I hope you wear no powder, all who have fine hair go without and if you have not quite enough 'tis but buying a few curls. … My Habit tis what they call Pitch colour—a sort of blackist green not beautiful but the most stilish now worn. Dark blues are very general—indeed all dark colours are fashionable. Cambric frills and white waistcoat. Rather large yellow buttons.

Washing gown of all kinds are the ton. … As a Dress gown I have brought down a Robe à la Turque—violet colour—the peticoat and vest white–Tiffany, gauze and pale yellow ribbons—with that a sash and buckle under the Robe. Gauze gowns and clear muslin gowns are very much worn in full dress. … Miss Belsay has taken a particular fancy to every article of dress she has seen me wear and frequently applys for patterns, this I most readily comply with.

1786. London—However you may tell her as a friend gradually to reduce her Stuffing as Rumps are quite out in France and are decreasing here but can not be quite given up till the weather grows warmer. The handkerchiefs are not so much puff'd out … the hair loose—curls without pins and the toupée as if it was curled and a comb run thro' it. Aprons very general, chiefly tucked. Most fashionable collours dark green, pale straw collour, and a very bright purple.

1788. Hats are also worn, like riding hats. The Hair universally dress'd very loose in small curls. … As to gowns—all kinds—Chemises, Round gowns, with flounce or not. Great coats made very open before to shew the peticoat. … I must add to my chapter of Fashions that fur Muffs (very large) and Tippets are universal.

1789. Wednesday they all sup here and there is to be quite a crowd so I make up a new dyed sattin Gown for the occasion. We are to have the Prince, Duke of York, Mrs. Fitzherbert, all the fine people. … We are all busy making our gowns and aprons for tomorrow Evening so I must leave off.

source: Betsy Sheridan, Letter from Sheridan's Sister to her Sister in Dublin, in The Cut of Women's Clothes, 1600–1930. Ed. Norah Waugh (New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1968): 125–126.

Impact of the Enlightenment.

The new styles of the era were, in part, inspired by the impact of Enlightenment thinking in Europe. In France, one of the most important literary vehicles for conveying the new values of this movement was the Encyclopédie, a massive, multi-volume project begun by the French Enlightenment thinkers Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and Jean D'Alembert (1713–1787). Published in 28 separate volumes during the years between 1751 and 1772, the Encyclopédie was not widely read by all French men and women, although it was avidly consumed by the upper echelons of society. The enormous work did not convey a single point of view, but Diderot and D'Alembert enlisted authors whose opinions often fit closely with their own. Fashion was one subject touched upon in hundreds of entries, with the Encyclopédie offering opinions on the history and usage of scores of items of clothing as well as giving advice generally on elements of good taste, manners, and etiquette. As the primary guiding spirits behind this enterprise, Diderot and D'Alembert championed the cause of social utility in clothing, customs, and consumption. They believed, in other words, that society's customs and even its clothing should be judged according to whether they were truly useful. Thus in contrast to the guiding spirit of opulence and decoration that had prevailed in the Rococo style, the Enlightenment championed an aesthetic that stressed naturalness over artificiality. Of course, the ideas of philosophical thinkers like Diderot and those he enlisted to write for the Encyclopédie did not immediately shape the clothes that were worn in aristocratic society. But the criticism of the artificiality of the eighteenth-century style laid the foundation for a new taste that cultivated greater simplicity and utility over mere decorativeness.

The Spread of English Tastes.

For much of the eighteenth century, close contacts between England and France had invigorated the world of fashion in both countries. While English aristocrats and wealthy Londoners generally avoided the extremes of opulence of the French Rococo style, they had nevertheless adapted those fashions to their own purposes, and both men and women of the upper classes had kept abreast of the changes in style that emanated from Paris. At the English royal court the styles of prescribed dress closely resembled those worn at Versailles and in other French royal palaces by the mid-eighteenth century. Yet in their great rural estates, England's aristocrats generally favored clothes that were more rustic and natural than those worn by the wealthiest French nobles of the period. The fondness for hunting and other outdoor pursuits gave rise to the creation of the riding habit, a close-fitting coat and britches worn by both men and women. These rustic fashions, the Baroque equivalent of modern "sportswear," were constructed of simpler, more practical fabrics like wool and cotton than the sumptuous silks, taffetas, and velvets worn by the French upper classes at the time. Although these styles were initially resisted in France, they had begun to make inroads there in the 1770s, and by the following decade were widely popular among the country's aristocrats. In the years immediately preceding the French Revolution, Queen Marie-Antoinette and members of her circle at court often indulged their love of English informality by choosing dresses that reflected the more natural and comfortable styles preferred in Britain. In 1783, the queen allowed one of her favorite portraitists, Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun, to paint her wearing this kind of dress. When the portrait was displayed that year at the Royal Academy's annual salon, it caused a great controversy; members of Parisian society complained that the queen had allowed herself to be painted in nothing more than a chemise, the equivalent of the modern slip. Vigée-LeBrun's picture was soon withdrawn from the exhibition, but the furor that it caused helped to popularize the simple yet feminine style in French society. These dresses were usually modeled on the chemise and were sewn in a simple cylindrical tube shape. Equipped with a drawstring at the neck, they were worn gathered at the waist with a sash. Thus in place of the artifice of hoops, trains, and ruffled sleeves that had long served to delineate members of the court, the queen and members of the French aristocracy sided with the cause of English informality. Marie Antoinette and members of her circle indulged their affection for these comfortable styles at the queen's retreat, the Petit Trianon, a small palace at the edge of the grounds of the Versailles, much to the consternation of many of the traditionalists at court. When the party returned to the royal chateau to participate in the grand receptions of state, though, the tradition of court dress with its rigid and unbending rules continued to hold sway at Versailles.

Men 's Dress.

The increasing divide between French elegance and English informality and practicality were perhaps even more notable in men's dress than in women's. In France, men in the 1770s continued to wear elaborately trimmed outer and vest coats that were tailored to show off rich fabrics of silk and other costly fabrics. By the 1780s, though, English styles were present among members of the aristocracy and wealthy bourgeoisie in France. By this time, the more informal and comfortable frock coat had become the norm of middle class and aristocratic dress in England as both day and evening wear. The frock coat had originally been an element of hunting clothing worn by gentlemen and aristocrats in the countryside. Throughout the eighteenth century its cut had grown simpler, and in place of elaborate cuffs and side pleats, English men favored garments that were elegantly tailored, yet devoid of decoration. By 1750 the fashion for the frock coat had spread almost everywhere in the English speaking world and was common attire for men of commerce and political affairs, country gentry, and even New World colonists. In England, the combination of frock coat, waistcoat, and britches was worn everywhere except at court, and the elaborately cuffed sleeves had disappeared in favor of simple slits at the wrists. Decorated side pleats had also been replaced by a short skirt on the jacket that was held in place by slightly stiffening the fabric. The most common element of design in the frock coats of the time was their relatively small, turned-down collars. Instead of the elaborate lace flounces that had once been worn under these garments, English men now favored undecorated linen shirts and a shorter waistcoat that was of a complementary but lighter color from the dark fabrics usually used to tailor the frock coat. Simple tan britches completed the outfit. In keeping with this more informal fashion, men wore their hair naturally or lightly powdered, and the wig soon fell out of use altogether except by members of certain professions and among domestic servants, particularly footmen. While French men resisted these styles for several decades, they had gained a foothold amongst the aristocracy and wealthy bourgeoisie by 1780, and in the years that followed the frock coat and britches became even more popular. Emulation of English dress was stimulated by the dictates of fashion, but at the same time the fondness for things "English" represented an important triumph of Enlightenment thinking in France. For most of the eighteenth century, Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau had celebrated the customs and mores of the island country for their modernity and freedom. Now, as the French Revolution approached, English styles became one way in which France's aristocrats and bourgeoisie expressed their fondness for the concept of greater liberty.

The Fashion Press.

The taste for the new informal styles that emanated from England was fed throughout Europe by the increased production of fashion plates: engravings of men and women dressed in the most stylish clothing of the day. By the 1770s fashion plates had begun to replace the dressed mannequin dolls that had long been sent out annually from the major dress and tailoring shops in Paris to courts and shops throughout Europe. The custom of illustrating clothing in engravings had long existed, although not until the later eighteenth century did publishers and designers begin to exploit the possibilities of the press for satisfying an appetite for news of the fashionable world. During the sixteenth century German engravers and printers began to publish large collections of engravings known as Trachtenbücher, or "costume books." The purpose of these volumes had been to illustrate the various types of dress worn by members of society's different orders and professions. As the custom of producing these costume books spread throughout Europe, these books served by and large to satisfy an anthropological interest. Costume books, for instance, had often informed their readers of the kinds of clothing that were worn in societies throughout the world, satisfying an innate human curiosity about the exotic customs and manners of other peoples. In the later decades of the eighteenth century French artists, designers, and printers began to sense the commercial possibilities that lay within the medium. They now used it to satisfy readers' desires to learn about the latest styles worn by the country's aristocracy. In 1775, one of the most brilliant and beautiful of all the costume books appeared under the title Le Monument du costume physique et moral de la fin du dix-huitième siècle (Monument of the Physical and Moral Costume at the End of the Eighteenth Century). The accomplished artist Jean-Michel Moreau (1741–1814) drew many of the designs for the plates that illustrated the work, while the novelist Restif de la Bretonne (1734–1806) wrote the accompanying text. Today, the work's illustrations continue to be widely admired, and their influence on fashion journalism has long been recognized. In capturing the styles and dress of the period, Moreau and the other artists who contributed to the series did not pose men and women lifelessly, but instead, like modern photojournalists, they showed a young man and woman of fashion going about their social duties on the Parisian scene. The work's prints thus captured its imaginary characters in the fashionable world in settings that were by and large natural.

Fashion Magazines.

In the years that followed the success of the Monument other printers in Paris responded by commissioning series of fashion engravings from other prominent artists and distributing them in small collections. By 1778, two Parisian publishers, Jean Esnaut and Michel Rapilly, commenced the distribution of their Gallerie des modes et costumes français (Gallery of French Style and Costumes). Over the next decade Esnaut and Rapilly produced some seventy different collections of fashion plates that they released every few months. Each collection contained six colored engravings of costumes currently being worn on the Parisian scene. The popularity of the Gallery prompted many leading artists of the day to draw illustrations for these collections and thus high art and popular tastes for style combined to make the new fashion plates an immediate success. The Gallery's appeal soon prompted other imitators, and by the later 1780s France had a number of regularly published fashion magazines or journals. The first of these, Les Cabinet des modes (The Cabinet of Style) commenced publication in 1785, but soon changed its name to Le Magasin du modes nouvelles françaises et anglaises (The Magazine of New French and English Styles) one year later to take account of the widespread popularity of more informal English dress. The periodical appeared every two weeks, complete with several fashion plates and articles that informed readers about the latest changes in dress. Despite the aristocratic tone of the magazine, publication continued even during the first years of the French Revolution, and in 1790, the journal became known merely as Le Journal de la mode et la goût (The Journal of Style and Taste). When the Journal ceased publication in 1793, other fashion magazines continued to proliferate on the scene, some appearing at intervals as often as every five days. By this time styles began to change so quickly that Paris's new ranks of fashion journalists and illustrators faced a serious challenge in keeping up with the pace of style.


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

Doris Langley Moore, Fashion Through Fashion Plates, 1770–1970 (London: Ward Lock, 1971).

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

Daniel Roche, The Culture of Clothing (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Cynthia L. White, Women's Magazines, 1693–1968 (London: Joseph, 1970).

see also Architecture: The Development of Neoclassicism