An 18th century fashion ambassadress

This may look like the other costumes displayed at this year’s Court Pomp and Ceremony exhibition at Versailles. But this picture is deceptive: this is in fact but a half-size model of a French court gown.

Ordinary fine ladies, unlike the royal family of Sweden, could not rely on their own ambassadors to keep informed of Versailles fashions. So French dressmakers, like the famous Mademoiselle Rose Bertin, who supplied Marie-Antoinette, sent dolls such as this abroad to spread the good word about the newest fabrics, colors and decorative motifs (the cut of the gown itself remained unchanged until the French Revolution.)

Such fashion dolls were given diplomatic passports so as to be allowed to travel freely through Europe. It is only decades later, during the wars of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, that international conflict took its toll on the free diffusion of fashion information.

This picture is particularly interesting because it shows the back view of the the gown. Note that the ends of the bodice do not meet at the back, and leave a gap several inches wide. This was indeed the proper manner of wearing a court gown at Versailles, as my heroine Gabrielle might have told you: the – very sheer – chemise had to show in the back.

18th century fashion doll

18th century fashion doll court costume

Related post: 18th century court costume and Marie-Antoinette

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12 Comments to “An 18th century fashion ambassadress”

  1. Teresa Samperi says:

    This is one of the best blogs I’ve ever seen!! You’re teaching me things in an entertaining way! I have a question, when you say that this kind of dolls had ”diplomatic passports” do you mean that they didn’t have to pay taxes when they got to another country?
    And, I have always wondered, how did the people, back then, wash the clothes? and where did they store it? (I’m reffering to rich people) This they kept the garment on a room? on a closet?
    Thank you so much!

  2. nikki richardson says:

    Thankyou for the site to see all these wonderful treasures. In one section there was an exhibition of clothes at Versailles. there was comment that there were not as many clothes
    as expected. The Queens clothes were torn to threads when the women of Paris broke into her bedroom, she escaped through a secret staircase to the Kings chambers. The book I have shows a mint green camisole,the only piece that survives of her cloths

  3. Fascinating web site. I design exhibits for an 18th Century house museum in Virginia, and am currently in the process of dressing a doll, original intended to be a santos, as a colonial fashion doll, sent to a Virginia family about 1755. I have done this before, but making patterns has been a real chore. I have a wonderful fabric and trim source, and some wonderful reference books. I always strive to make things for our exhibits as they would have been produced in mid 18th C. Any suggestions that would help me? I LOVE your web site!

  4. Welcome to Versailles and more, Elisabeth! Yes, this dress of Edwige of Gottorp is beautiful beyond belief. See a picture of it on this post:
    I wish I could see the Stockholm exhibit…

  5. Elisabeth says:

    Wonderful post Catherine! I hope to be able to post more here as I am so passionate about 18th Century Life, Costume and Royalty. The Dress here reminds me of the glorious Wedding Dress of Hedwig of Gottorp which was part of the somewhat recent Display/Exposition in Stockholm on Royal Swedish Wedddings. Simply beautiful!


  6. Anna Sullivan says:

    Cheers for the info. It was a good read.

    Anna Sullivan

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks. Gabriela! In fact I don’t think these functioned as toys at all. Their purpose was to market and promote French fashions, and the target audience was grown women. They are also very large to be handled by children. This one must be about three feet tall.

    At the same time, as you note, upper class French girls received beautiful dolls, with full sets of clothes, and even real jewelry and gold watches. But these were really dolls, meant as toys. A different kind of artifact, I would say. The Comtesse de Boigne describes in her Memoirs a beautiful doll she received as a gift from Madame Adelaide. It served as an inspiration for the doll the daughter of my heroine Gabrielle (!) receives for her etrennes.

  8. Hello Catherine,

    Love this post, how amazing!
    Question for you…are dolls like these related in any way to the small and big Pandoras? Would you know?

    Thank you!

    ~ Gabriela ~

  9. Catherine Delors says:

    I wouldn’t wear it either, Penny! Especially since it is half-size.

    Madame Lever is right: MA had very little interest in politics at the beginning of the reign. She only became involved in public affairs a few years before the Revolution.

  10. Penny says:

    Definitely not something I could wear. Plus I think after seeing the tiny waist, I may have to lose 50 lbs to be healthy instead of the 40 I thought of. LOL. M-A was more interested in fashion than in French government or politics. At least that is the impression I get from the biography I am reading by a French historian. Evelyne Lever.

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    A treasure indeed, Tristan! Better than any fashion plate. This is probably a silk from Lyon, trimmed with silver lace. The colors are still completely vibrant. I assume this was the real fabric of a full-scale dress, so the pattern would have looked twice as large.

  12. what an amazing treasure! I have never heard of these traveling fashion “illustrations” before. Is the fabric pattern also produced especially to scale, or is it the actual fabric that a gown was crafted from?

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