18th century court costume and Marie-Antoinette

I saw the Court Pomp and Royal Ceremony exhibition at Versailles on its closing day last June and would have hated to miss it. My expectations were very high, and yet I could not help being somewhat disappointed, not by the quality of the objects on display, which were magnificent, but by their scarcity. I should have known better, of course: how many 18th century court costumes could have survived till the 21st century?

Interestingly, the few that did have been preserved in the royal collections of northern Europe, for instance the coronation gown(below) of Queen Sofia Magdelena of Sweden. It was made in Paris of silver cloth, and consists, like all French court gowns, in three separate pieces: bodice, skirt and train. Indeed in the course of the 18th century all European courts had adopted the Versailles court costume. Note the width of the panniers: 3 meters (12 feet!) The depth is no more than 2 feet, which gives the gown the shape of a very elongated oval.

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18th century court dress: cloth-of-gold gown

The back view of the same gown gives an idea of the length of the train:

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18th century court dress: back of the gown

The shape of the 18th century court costume, for men and women, originated at Versailles during the last decades of the reign of Louis XIV, and remained unchanged until the Revolution. It does not mean that court attire was immune to the dictates of fashion: fabrics, colors, ribbons and other decorative elements varied over time. But the cut of the garments was immutable.

Court costume was highly codified. Wearing a court gown was a privilege reserved for the Queen, the princesses of the royal blood and “presented” ladies. I have written a prior post on the preparations of dressing for Court. Wearing a court gown was mandatory for all ladies entitled to it, even for the Queen herself, on every formal occasion. The only acceptable excuse was an advanced pregnancy, obviously incompatible with the close-fitting shape of the bodice and the underlying grand corps (a special corset) that covered the entire abdomen.

Marie-Antoinette once apologized to the Venetian ambassador, who had come to Versailles to present his letters of accreditation, for not wearing a court gown on account of her pregnancy. If she had not done so, her wearing “regular” clothes on such an occasion would have been construed as a grave slight, and created a diplomatic incident. Court dress was no simple fashion matter.

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18th century court costume: man’s suit

The male court costume may have been more comfortable, but it was no less elaborate than its female counterpart. The King, princes of the royal blood and courtiers wore a three-part costume (breeches, waistcoat, coat) of embroidered fabrics, enriched with diamond buttons, decorations and trim.

See for exemple the wedding clothes (left) of the Crown Prince of Sweden, future King Gustaf III: gold cloth embroidered in gold, blue and red thread.

The Swedish Ambassador to France, Count Creutz, had been entrusted with checking the latest fashions and ordering the best money could buy in Paris. The Ambassador gravely reported to Stockholm that velvet, after being all the rage the previous spring, was now hopelessly passé. In any case, judging by the quality of the result, Count Creutz acquitted himself very well of his delicate mission.

Indeed for State occasions, European sovereigns ordered all ceremonial clothes from France. Such attire was so ruinous that King Frederic III of Denmark had to levy a special tax, known as the “Princesses’ Tax” to pay for his daughters’ Parisian wedding clothes.

One of the most beautiful pieces on display at Versailles was this shimmering wedding dress (below) of Edwige Elisabeth Charlotte, Princess of Holstein-Gottorp, who married into the Swedish royal family.

The fineness of the silver lace on silver cloth creates a garment of ethereal beauty in spite of its bulk. Note the extreme thinness of the waist. The sleeves, which would have been made of rows of matching lace, are unfortunately missing. I can only guess they were reused by another Swedish princess.

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18th century court dress: cloth-of-silver gown

This makes the comparison between these 18th century court gowns, in their pristine, unadulterated condition, with the famous “Marie-Antoinette” dress from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto (below) all the more striking. Here the skirt was altered to fit a round 19th century crinoline, and the plain ivory silk of the bodice does not match the exquisite embroidery work of the skirt and train. It should be noted that the Toronto gown was simply presented as “attributed to Rose Bertin” without any mention of prior ownership by Marie-Antoinette. I can only assume that such claim was not established to the satisfaction of the show’s curators.

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18th century court costume: Toronto “Marie Antoinette” gown

After visiting the show, I purchased the (very highly recommended) Connaissance des Arts special issue dedicated to it, and read therein an interview of Pascale Gorguet Ballesteros, Chief Curator of the Musee Galliera, and co-curator of the exhibition.

When asked whether Marie-Antoinette’s taste in fashions was copied at Court and beyond, Ms. Gorguet Ballesteros explained that the Queen was the the “number one fashion model” in France and greatly contributed to the success of the fashions she liked. But Marie-Antoinette did not “invent” any distinct style of dress. She launched nothing, she simply adopted some of the fashions available at the time.

Especially as a young woman, the Queen loved clothes, and other ladies tended to follow her taste. It was the Duchesse d’Orléans, then Duchesse de Chartres, who introduced her to the famous dressmaker Rose Bertin in 1774, as, incidentally, she also introduced her to Madame Vigée-Lebrun. “Marie-Antoinette,” says Ms. Gorguet Ballesteros, “sits at the border of two worlds, the sclerotic world of the Court and the world of fashion, where one is led to believe that one is going to express one’s individuality. But she has the misfortune of being of being the Queen.” When she sat for Madame Vigée-Lebrun “en gaulle,” in a simple white muslin dress, she created a scandal.

Marie-Antoinette was never forgiven for abandoning the traditional court costume in what may now be the most famous of her portraits.

See also Court costume: the male side.


44 Comments to “18th century court costume and Marie-Antoinette”

  1. Richard says:

    What I have found to be an interesting item is that the embrodery on the clothes were made before the cloth was cut. After the embrodery was completed the pattern was cut from the cloth. It was very labour intensive. There are several types of stiches in each piece, which would provide strength or allow a piece to be taken apart during a fitting or correct it more easily.

    These is a beautiful exhibit.

    may I link?

  2. Catherine Delors says:

    I didn’t know about the embroidery coming first. That left very little room for error, didn’t it?
    Of course you are always welcome to link, Richard!

  3. Penny says:

    what a beautiful dress. of course being the female version of Woody Allen, i would be falling all over myself and the ton would be laughing themselves to a stomachache.
    anyway thank you so much for this picture. it reminds me to be grateful for 21st century female clothes and being able to walk through a doorway and not knock into it with my dress besides i am not tall enough to even look good in a gown like that. not to mention i still need to lose weight:-(

  4. Richard says:

    Or weight change!
    here is a book from my colection that I purchased at Williamsburg…
    Eighteenth Century Clothing At Williamsburg
    While this tome features clothes from the middle to late 18th century in Virginia, many of the collections there were purchased from Europe. Construction techniques differed little during that period.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    Penny – Apparently wearing a court gown, though a great and rare honor, was not considered very comfortable by 18th century ladies. As soon as they were away from Versailles, they hastened to wear very different attire.

    Richard – This sounds most interesting. Do you have the reference for this book?

  6. Richard says:

    Since my family reenact this period, albiet a bit earlier 1755-63, to be authentic we have studied that periods clothes. Unlike the CW, 18th century organizations to not allow inauthentic or anachronistic items. Reenactors know what is correct and what is not. It is a blessing and a curse. What is correct for the revolutionalry period is not necessarily correct for the French and Indian War.

    It is very hard to view a period film because an anachonism is spotted immediately…

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Richard, I will check it out!

  8. wow stunning dresses! Thanks for posting. I wish I could have gone to the show.

  9. Christina says:

    Those dresses are stunning. After seeing these, I can now understand why Marie Antoinette caused such a scandal when she chose to be painted in a simple muslin dress. My modern eyes could only see that it was a pretty dress. No wonder people complained she was painted in her chemise – it must have looked like an undergarment next to these court gowns!

  10. Elise says:

    Hello, I love this post. You have the most beautiful and perfect site here. Thank you so much for sharing it … & best wishes

  11. Ana Trigo says:

    What a lovely blog your write! I have been reading your articles for almost…¡2 hours! I have really enjoyed them very much, thank you so much for sharing them with us. Best regards from Spain.

  12. Martina says:

    Absolutely stunning! I’m so happy I found this blog. It’s so wonderfully full of information :)

  13. Harlan Lewin says:

    As you mention with regard to count Creutz, the rapidity of changing fashions during the period very much impressed me. I’m writing an historical mystery about Jefferson in1786 and the fashions for 1780 were not the fashions for ’86. If I may, I might mention my website that offers some information and images having to do with Jefferson’s stay in Paris as Minister Plenipotentiary from America. It is at http://www.jeffersoninparis.com

  14. Elise says:

    Oh WOW, this is a great post & you have the most gorgeous site here. I had to stop by to leave this comment for you – and to say hello of course ! Your posts are creative and original and you have interesting pictures. It’s all perfect ! Thank you for sharing your site and best wishes….

  15. I have seen the dress of Sofia Magdelena many times since it is dislayed in one of my favourite museums here in Sweden usually. It is so beautyful, and the waist is so thin you can’t even imagine somebody wearing it :-)

  16. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks to all for this wonderful response to this post!

    True, Christina, one needs to see Marie-Antoinette’s portrait en gaulle next to these gowns to understand why the scandal was so great.

    Harlan, I look forward to learning more about your book re: Jefferson in Paris. I need to post a review of The Hemingses of Monticello, which I read with great pleasure.

    Donna Sandra, you are lucky! This was the first time I saw these amazing gowns. I love the pictures on your blog, and need to add you to my blogroll.

  17. Michelle says:

    The cloth and embroidery are beyond description! Very, very beautiful.

    But the shape of the dresses with those 12-foot panniers is quite dreadful! I don’t know why anyone would invent such a massive undergarment. The more rounded, smaller crinoline is deffinately much more beautiful and feminine.

    Was there some kind of historical reason behind 12-foot panniers? Some kind of logical explaination for their use?

  18. Catherine Delors says:

    Ah Michelle, it’s all a question of personal taste. I, for one, prefer ovals paniers to round crinolines. But in general I find oval shapes more elegant than round ones. Within crinolines, it think the 1860s-1870s tournures, also oval, were more elegant.

    As for the historical reason behind the 12 foot width, I really can’t think of any. It just happened to be the dominant fashion in the early 18th century, during the waning years of the reign of Louis XIV. As though the death of the Sun King froze Court fashions forever (or least until the French monarchy lasted.)

  19. Kristin33 says:

    People all over the world purchase the already written essays and custom essay at the term paper writing service just about this good post. Students heard about the essay writing from the essay writing organization.

  20. Olive says:

    I love your blog! These clothes are amazing! I read a book that focused on the significance of the clothes Marie Antoinette wore and the part they played in her popularity. It is a subject I have a great interest in and therefore I enjoyed your pictures very much!

  21. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks, Olive! Yes, clothes had (still have) a major political impact…

  22. amber says:

    wow, i really didnt think her dresses would still be in good shape. its amazing how clean they look. & its really cool to see a piece of history right in front of your face. (: thanks *

  23. lancerika says:

    Merci for posting such exquisite
    images,the beauty of the gowns is
    beyond belief!
    A delightful post.

  24. Jacqueline says:

    I love those gowns.
    I also own the same style gowns in replication from a professional theater designer.
    I just love to wear those gowns and of course the corset is extremely difficult to endure because the designer did it in a way to respect the fashion design.
    My waist is 18 inches when corseted for those gowns and it simply look outstanding.
    Jacqueline

  25. We still make 18th century corsets for men and women plus 1800 onward
    corsetiere@corset.ndo.co.uk

  26. Louisette says:

    I posted about the Royal Ontario Museum podcast today, Catherine, and included a link to this post so people could see how the dress had been altered. Beautiful post as always. I’m grateful to your archives — so many great things here.

  27. Thank you so much, Louisette! Believe it or not, but this is my most popular post ever.

  28. Ashley Lim says:

    Dear Catherine,

    I just came back from Versailles without seeing any of Marie Antoinette’s court gowns. I was going with the flow of tourists with my audio guide but did not come across any salon exhibiting her gowns. Did I miss those big time? OMG.

    Also, I would like to purchase a nice coffee table tome of a book showcasing wedding & court gowns with panniers and those with normal crinolines, en gaulle, etc., of the French court from Louis XIX on. Where can I buy online? I am now based in Guangzhou, China, near Hong Kong.
    Thanks very much.
    Ashley

  29. Ashley Lim says:

    Dear Catherine,

    Apologies. I meant Louis XIV. Thanks.
    Ashley

  30. Dear Ashley, indeed you missed these, but have no regrets: the exhibition closed 18 months ago. The wonderful gowns went back home, to the Swedish and Danish museums where they are displayed.
    Now about the furniture you want to purchase, I truly have no idea where to find it. Being a fairly handy person, I would take reproductions of the paintings you like, and do a collage onto an ordinary coffee table. Just an idea… Let me know if you find anything!

  31. During the time of the big frames under these dresses, some were as wide as 18 feet around, many women in them burned to death in fires. Unlike a palace, the house was not actually wide enough. She would get “stuck” in the door ways and around the furniture. They also wore extreme corrsetes around the w2aist to make them smaller and while trying to run out of the fire, the women litterly could not breath to move or run. During the days of these dresses, there were women that underwent surgery and had lower ribs removed so this unnatural waist could be made and cinched tighter. Women,s value was to make them smaller and smaller, the less space they took up, the more valuable they became. Foot binding and China,Twiggy, etc. Yes, the photos of this dress are amazing, and I am a sympathetic admirer of the 14 year old that was sent off to marry for diplomatic ties to another teenage boy, who seemed a bit of an oddball. It is a shame that all of the dolls that were sent to Marie Antoinette with samples of dresses and robes did not survive the French Revolution. I would have loved to see them as well as more of the dresses.

  32. What a beautiful weblog. I have been custom designing and making panniers that range from 1 foot to 4 feet at each side. The 4 foot panniers are huge and massive. Seeing the 12 foot panniers above makes my 4 foot panniers look small. The gowns are absolutely beautiful.I am finishing a sample for a wedding in medium blue brocade. I am never bored when making the Marie Antoinette dresses and watteau gowns. I especially love these French dress masterpeices in the finer interior fabrics.

  33. Thanks, Oreva! These can serve as inspiration for some of your creations. Speaking of which, if you want to send me pictures, or write a guest post, I would be delighted to feature them here.

  34. IVAN NAVARRO says:

    HELLO CATHERINE, MY CONGRATULATIONS, FOR THE USEFUL ARTICLES AND SO, MRS. VIDAL, AT TEA AT TRIANON, I HAD BEEN POSTED BEAUTIFUL ARTICLES IN MY SITE ON FACE BOOK. YOU CAN SEE IT UNDER THE NAME JEAN BAPTISTE, SINCE I FOUND TEA AT TRIANON MY LIFE HAS CHANGED, THANK YOU BOTH. SINCERELY, IVAN NAVARRO

  35. Theresa says:

    Oh what a lovely site! I enjoy the photos, so more please.

  36. carrie says:

    i would like to know how to get a wedding dress from her, i love her clothes

  37. Catherine, thanks for the invite to send pictures. I was so impressed by the dress with the long train,and 3 metre panniers, that I designed a blue brocade dress similar to it.I will send pictures of the blue dress. Apologies for the delayed reply.I had to get pass peak wedding season.

  38. Hello Catherine , I love your blog . I am going to Paris soon and would love to know wher the Rose Bertins shop was . Do you have any idea and are there any photographs of it or any of the other sights where she lived . Thankyou in anticipation Marianne.

  39. Catherine, your site never looses it’s savor.I decided to send photos of the dresses that are over the 46 inch wide panniers. Will email them to your gmail account.They are more dramatic. Soon and very soon. Regards and Happy Holidays

  40. Dawn-Rene says:

    Thank you for your beautiful posts. I love to make costumes and have recently started to sew a Marie Antoinette dress with very simple panniers underneath. It has been lots of fun to put this dress together and looking at your photos is very inspiring.

  41. Jason says:

    wow those panels in teh dress are very wide!!!!!!!!

  42. FranceLover says:

    Imagine these fabrics and constructions in flickering candle light, with incredible jewels at the ears, throat, and on the gown itself, along with the glowing skin of these young monarchs. I think it would have been an incredible sight. Thanks for sharing this.

  43. Chris Baker says:

    I am not sure if the comment about the panniers being 12-feet wide is correct. From the photo, the dress is as wide as the model is tall. So unless the model is also 12-feet tall, the panniers can’t be 12-feet wide. Perhaps the whole gown is 12-feet in diameter around.