Fashions in Paris before the Revolution

Vigee-Lebrun-self-portrait-1782

Vigee-Lebrun-self-portrait-1782

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.

Vigee-Lebrun-Adelaide-de-Bourbon-Penthievre- duchess-d-Orleans

Vigee-Lebrun-Adelaide-de-Bourbon-Penthievre- duchess-d-Orleans

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?

madame-necker-vigee-lebrun

madame-necker-vigee-lebrun

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.

Vigee Lebrun Marquises Pezay and Rouge

Vigee Lebrun Marquises Pezay and Rouge

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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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9 Comments to “Fashions in Paris before the Revolution”

  1. This article helped me a lot. I don’t have to research anymore beacause this article has it all. Thank you so much for posting this.

  2. Georgia says:

    I’m not certain that this is the place to leave the following comment, but thank you Ms. Delores for such an engaging novel. I am only half through the book and completely overcome…as a Mother of a lovely 17 month old daughter I get very little chance to indulge but I find every page worth foregoing folding laundry…and that is on my days off! History Education is my training and I find your novel correct and enthralling. Many thanks for the escape!
    Georgia

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    That sketch is pretty miserable, and I am sure it doesn’t do justice to Jane. Keep browsing, Penny…

  4. Penny says:

    Thank You for leading me here. I agree the fashions outside of court were more elegant. I like the “pouf” better than the lace cap I saw in Cassandra’s sketch of her sister Jane Austen.
    You have so many lovely places to visit here that I missed this one until you sent me the link.

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  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks for the links, Richard. I will include them in my ebook (when I have mastered the insertion of hyperlinks in PDF, that is.)

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you for the link to Williamsburg, Richard. It is must be a great trip and the site is a lot of fun. It makes me feel like a little girl again, dressing and undressing those people.
    The choice of the portraits for this post was quite difficult because of the embarrassment of riches. I hesitated whether to include Marie-Antoinette en gaulle, but that portrait is already very well known, and used elsewhere on this blog (and Elena’s.) And I wanted to introduce my readers to a few new faces. I think the Duchess d’Orleans was beautiful, with rather sad eyes. It must have been quite a trial to be married to that man. Gouverneur Morris mentions her quite often in his Dairy.

  8. You have chosen some fabulous portraits.
    I think Marie-Antoinette could have worn buckram and looked elegant.

    It wasn’t the clothes that made the woman it was how they carried themselves.

    I never liked the a la turc turban, that is worn by the Marquiss Rouge. They always looked so sac like. It is as if women were wearing a havresac on their heads.

    Here ia a site for you., it is from Williamsburg which is right up the road from me.

    http://www.history.org/History/teaching/dayInTheLife/webactivities/dress/dress.cfm

    Dieu Sauve Le Roy…
    Richard

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