Dressing for Court, and preparing to glide…

18th century French court dress 1778

18th century French court dress 1778

So far in this series we have followed the heroine of Mistress of the Revolution, Gabrielle de Montserrat, to Versailles on several occasions. How was she dressed then? Well, a lady was supposed to look like the fashion plate. The legend translates as “Young lady of quality in great dress, wearing an elegant bonnet or pouf called The Victory.”

Please note that the lady’s dress is a Court gown. This kind of attire is different from what she would have worn in Paris, even for formal occasions.

My source for this part of the novel was the Memoirs of the Marquise de La Tour du Pin, who, as a young woman, wore these fashions herself.

Now let us have a peak at Gabrielle as she gets ready for her first visit to Court. Let me remind you that she is staying with her elderly cousin, the dear Duchess d’Arpajon, who asks:

“Have you any Court gowns?”

“No, Madam. Pray what will I need? I know that such attire can be expensive.”

“My dear, some of the Queen’s gowns cost over 10,000 francs. Mademoiselle Rose Bertin, her dressmaker, has made a fortune.”

I smiled in dismay. “I have less than 3,000 francs altogether.”

“I would lend you some of my own Court gowns, but they would be too short for you.
Do not worry; you can purchase used ones from another lady’s chambermaid.”

18th century corset

18th century corset

Within a week, Mélanie, the Duchess’s chambermaid, found a white Court dress suitable for my height, although it needed to be narrowed around the waist. It had a few wine stains on the bodice and smelled of its prior owner’s now faded fragrance. I was reminded of the time when I had worn my mother’s discards, but this gown was in a very different style, adorned with silver embroidery and grey ribbons. It was designed to be worn over paniers, “baskets”, giant oval hoopskirts that only allowed the ladies of the Court to go through doors sideways. A long train attached to the waist of the dress. The bodice was cut to leave all of the throat and shoulders bare. It required a special corset, the lacing of which exposed part of the chemise in the back.

My jaw dropped at the sight of this attire. “How can anyone wear anything so immodest in public?” I asked.

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette

“My poor Belle,” said the Duchess, laughing, “please remember that I, at my age, have to dress in the same fashion at Court. And the chemise one wears under this corset must be sheer, so your back will be almost as visible as your throat and shoulders. Believe me, you will become used to it, like many a modest lady before you.”
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But that was only the beginning of the fun. Now that Gabrielle has secured a proper Court dress, she must think of her hair. Note that, contrary to a common misconception, most people did not wear wigs. Marie-Antoinette certainly did not, and neither does Gabrielle.

I sat at my dressing table. She [Manon, the chambermaid] covered my shoulders with a vast cloth and proceeded to smear generous quantities of jasmine-scented cream over my hair. I opened my mouth to protest.

“If I don’t put pommade in Your Ladyship’s hair,” she said, “the powder won’t stick. It’ll all fall on your shoulders. Now that wouldn’t be too pretty. And your hair wouldn’t stay up either.”

I sighed and kept silent. This was the first time I had my hair powdered and dressed in that manner. Half an hour later, it stood in a foot-high array of pinkish-grey locks and curls. I thanked Manon in a tone that lacked conviction.

The Duchess nodded with satisfaction. “This is beautiful, Manon. The great Léonard himself, who attends to the Queen, could not do any better.”

She sent for her jewelry case and picked diamond necklaces, bracelets, hair ornaments and earrings. She asked me to stand and tried them all on me.

“Your Grace is too good,” I said. “I cannot accept…”

She raised her hand to silence me. “I am afraid you have no choice in this matter, Belle. No lady was ever presented without wearing a pound or two of borrowed diamonds.”
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The second-hand gown, the powdered hair, the borrowed diamonds… Is Gabrielle all set for Court? Not quite. Now the Duchess is going to teach her to walk:

“Now I will show you the gait expected of a lady at Court. Look at me, Belle, and pay close attention. See how I glide slowly as if I were on skates. I barely raise my feet off the floor.”

I could not repress a smile.

She arched her eyebrow. “Now let us see you do it, dear.”

I obeyed, feeling clumsy and utterly silly.

“Not quite good enough,” she said. “Try again. Remember, you will be walking on the floors of Versailles, which are waxed often and can be very slippery. Also, you must be careful not to step on the train of the lady in front of you.”

I bit my lip and looked at the Duchess with mingled exasperation and desperation, but she was relentless. She would not declare herself satisfied until I glided as easily in my paniers as I walked in my regular clothes.

Voila! Now Gabrielle is ready to go to Versailles…

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All posts in the Footsteps of Gabrielle series:

Return to Fontfreyde

Cottage life

Arriving in Paris

Fashions in Paris before the Revolution

Dressing for Court

Discovering Versailles

The presentation to Marie-Antoinette in the Salon of the Nobles

The Royal Chapel

The Queen’s Bedchamber

The sweetness of living

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21 Comments to “Dressing for Court, and preparing to glide…”

  1. kelly says:

    hi,, what was the purpose of panniers???

  2. James V Despain says:

    Thanks for the great post. Page Bookmarked

  3. CrzM says:

    Your website is wonderful… and I love all the details you have had us divulge into about the life of aristocrats in the 18th century! Thank you.

  4. SugarSkulls&Flowers says:

    A wonderful article on 18th century court dress, although very colorful and beautiful it must have been a pain wearing all of that and on top unable to shower due to pomade. And of course some men wore corsets it was fashionable to have a small waist even more if the men were on the heavy side.

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  9. Marquise Louise Josephine says:

    very dresses I would like to put on court panier, so I could be dressed every day

  10. Marquise Louise Josephine says:

    moje marzenie zawsze było ubrać robe francaise, gorset mocno wiązany, peruka i puder, ale nawet mogłabym być pokojówką i codziennie ubierać królową albo inną dama

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Maybe not for the very poor, whose main concern remained food, but for the upper classes of society, yes, clothing was an indication of rank, and thus of paramount importance. I am working on a post on Court costume in the 18th century, following the Versailles exhibition on the topic. Some nobles did face financial ruin due to clothing expenditures. Stay tuned!

  12. Anonymous says:

    I once heard at the costume museum in Madrid that clothing for many centuries had constituted the vast majority of a family`s expenditures. Is it true?

  13. Catherine Delors says:

    Certainly, Penny, but is this more absurd than our footwear, and the emaciated look that is supposed to look good on top models?

  14. Penny says:

    It amazes me what trouble women went through to look good. I bet the men did not wear corsets. how did women breathe, let alone walk around with such clothes and heavy jewels. must have breathed very shallow.

  15. In the footsteps of Gabrielle: fashions in Paris before the Revolution

    By now you know all about the proper attire required from the ladies of the Court. But the same women, hampered by their cumbersome paniers in Versailles, dressed quite differently, and in my opinion more elegantly, in Paris. Let us listen to Gabrielle: In the capital, the new fashion for ladies was to forego hair powder and to wear straw bonnets and simple dresses of white muslin during the day. This suited my finances very well. Instead of the blue sashes favoured by other women, I would choose bright pink ones, while decorating my hats with matching ribbons to highlight …

  16. In the footsteps of Gabrielle: fashions in Paris before the Revolution

    By now you know all about the proper attire required from the ladies of the Court. But the same women, hampered by their cumbersome paniers in Versailles, dressed quite differently, and in my opinion more elegantly, in Paris. Let us listen to Gabrielle: In the capital, the new fashion for ladies was to forego hair powder and to wear straw bonnets and simple dresses of white muslin during the day. This suited my finances very well. Instead of the blue sashes favoured by other women, I would choose bright pink ones, while decorating my hats with matching ribbons to highlight …

  17. In the footsteps of Gabrielle: discovering Versailles

    We saw Gabrielle readying herself for her first visit to Versailles. Especially for a young woman who was going to be presented to the Queen, it was a momentous experience. Let us listen to Gabrielle:The Duchess and I left early on a fine Sunday morning for Versailles. I was attired in all of my new finery. She wore a black Court gown and the rest of her diamonds. Aimée, much to her chagrin, had to remain in Paris. Children, except those of the royal family, were not seen at Court. I dried her tears and assured her that …

  18. Catherine Delors says:

    Yes, and trying to go through doors. What astonishes me most is how they managed to get into the sedan chairs. The wicker structure must have been semi-flexible.

  19. Danielle says:

    I have a feeling that those dresses must have been terribly heavy and uncomfortable if they needed those giant hoopskirts! Imagine trying to sit down!

  20. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Melissa!
    For the pommade, I was not aware of it either until I read the memoirs of Court ladies. It all makes sense: they had no hairspray to hold the hair up, and the powder would never have stuck otherwise.

  21. Fascinating! And I didn’t realize they put all that pommade in the hair – that would have driven me nuts. Of course, we’re used to bathing every day now and they weren’t, so that makes a difference.

    Great job on revealing all these details in your prose, as well.

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