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.”

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.”

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…


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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