Women’s Fashion in the Court of Marie Antoinette

Walter Raymond

The French court could be considered the birth of what we call today the fashion industry.

The dark, austere garments from the baroque period—heavily influenced by religion—gave way to lively and sumptuous fabrics like velvet, silk, and brocade, which became fashionable in the more colorful and scandalous rococo era.

Marie Antoinette
Still from the 2006 film Marie Antoinette.

This cultural change was marked by the personality of a woman, Marie Antoinette, Queen Consort of France and a symbol of glamor and elegance. The concept of fashion, as we understand it today, had arrived at Versailles, before spreading to Paris and on to the rest of the European courts and beyond.

The French style

Women’s fashion started to showcase lighter, flimsier and sexier lines. The splendid skirts were supported by an internal frame called panier (basket, in French) because the shape of the apparatus resembled an inverted basket, adding volume. The structure served to pull the skirt towards the hips, thus enhancing the female figure. In some occasions, the dresses reached a diameter of up to 15 feet, hampering the mobility of the wearer.

Marie Antoinette

The design had three parts, the gown, open at the front and ending in a train, the skirt itself, and the breastplate, a kind of blouse that covered the torso. To contribute to this incipient enhancement of the female figure, women wore a corset— a narrow semi-rigid girdle very tight to the waist— that served to enhance the breasts.

The awkward accessory had to be tied with ribbons in the back with the help of a lady’s maid. The lingerie consisted only of a knee-length camisole made of a lightweight fabric above several petticoats from the waist to the ankles. Finally, the stockings were made of silk or cotton and fastened with lace or embroidered silk garters.

The essential accessories

The accessories had as much importance as the dress itself. The rules of the court indicated that–for official ceremonies–the ladies who wore sleeveless dresses should have their arms and hands covered with gloves.

In summer, it was allowed to wear mittens, a type of glove that didn’t completely cover the fingers. To complement the attire, there was always a fan— usually adorned with delicate filigree— face powder, fragrances, cosmetics and, of course, the ubiquitous jewelry.

Marie Antoinette
The fashion industry

The “French style fashion” of the 18th century introduced unique details using precious stones and fine lace. For example, Madame de Pompadour imposed the use of ruffles, bows and a velvet collar decorated with flowers or jewelry. Women’s competition to look more beautiful and elegant led to the development of a flourishing textile industry.

Rose Bertin is a one of those examples. A pioneer of French haute couture, she became Marie Antoinette’s favorite seamstress. Rose was named “minister of fashion” and had her workshop at Versailles. She created dolls that she dressed with her designs and sent to the European courts, which is the birth of what we call today mannequins.

Already at that time the world was witnessing the beginnings of what is now known as the fashion industry, that incredible group of clothing manufacturers, designers, and models that dictate so much of modern life.  ■

© | 2019