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 the heroine of Mistress of the Revolution, Gabrielle de Montserrat:
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 the colour of my hair.
My source here was the Memoirs of Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (in the black hat) who painted numerous portraits of Marie-Antoinette, and many society ladies.
In particular Madame Lebrun is the author of the beautiful portrait (below) of Louise-Marie de Bourbon-Penthièvre, great-granddaughter of Louis XIV. She was married to the Duke d’Orléans, future Philippe-Egalité. See how this portrait shows the natural color of the model’s hair, instead of the dusty grey of powder.
These white muslin dresses were appropriate as a lady’s informal attire. For more formal occasions in Paris, ladies would have dressed like Madame Necker, wife of the Comptroller General of Finances, in the portrait below, or as the young woman in the Fragonard painting featured on the cover of Mistress of the Revolution.
Various colors went in and out of fashion (see below the portrait of the Marquises de Pezay and Rougé, also by Madame Lebrun) but white remained a favorite for women of the upper classes.
So what was the reason for this trend towards simpler female fashions, which would become ever more pronounced during the Revolution?
I believe it had to do with the prevalent taste for simplicity and everything “natural,” along the lines of the Queen’s hamlet and dairy farm at Trianon.
There might also be another, more prosaic but equally important, reason for the sudden popularity of white fabrics: the discovery in the 1770s by the chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet of l’eau de Javel, chlorine bleach.
The natural bleaching of muslin in sunlight had been an expensive and costly process, but now it could be done quickly and easily thanks to l’eau de Javel.
All posts in the Footsteps of Gabrielle series: