The Evolution of Modern Feminine Fashion 1786.

Grand Robe, Rococo, fashion, court dress, versailles

France in 1786, the evolution of modern feminine fashion.

Paris à l’Anglaise.

Table of content

Rose Bertin, the Court dressmaker – Fashions in Paris à l’Anglaise – Gauze handkerchiefs round the neck – Hair-dressing – Excessive use of feathers in the hair – At Versailles a forest of feathers – Extravagant cost of feathers for hats

“Fashion is the great governor of this world. It presides not only in matters of dress and amusement, but in law, physic, politics, religion, and all other things of the gravest kind. Indeed, the wisest of men would be puzzled to give any better reason why particular forms in all these have been at certain times universally received,and at other times universally rejected, than that they were in or out of fashion.”

Robe, l'Anglaise, Rococo, fashion, gown, costume,
Robe à l’Anglaise. Coiffée d’un Bonnet à la Janot.

IN any investigation of the precepts which have governed feminine fashion, it will be found that, in every country and at all periods of time, the mind of woman has been strongly affected by the trend of events and by the ethical atmosphere of her own time, and, consciously or unconsciously, has formulated a record of history in her mode of dress.

Though she can scarcely be credited at any period with having individually selected this mode or that, we find that, whatever the prevailing influence, be it peace or war, austerity or dissipation, it has been faithfully and almost intuitively expressed in feminine fashion. In no country have these feminine traits been more marked than in France, where the normal temperament of the nation is of intense susceptibility; and, since Paris may be said to have always dominated the world of fashion in its extreme variations, one must give the Parisienne and her entourage the first place in a study of the subject.

Rococo, Fashion, Costume, French, Ancien Régime, fashion, 1787,
Fashion 1787

With these premises let us examine, in the first instance, the conditions which prevailed in France in 1786, from which period may be said to date the evolution of modem feminine fashion. A view of French life at about this time offers much that is worthy of study, from the unusual and exceptional elements that checkered its course, and which are not likely to recur. France was on the verge of bankruptcy, there was neither money nor credit, and there was a state of corruption at the Court which nothing seemed able to curb.

Louis XVI. – Calone, “The Euchanter”

The weak King Louis XVI was entirely under the domination of the Queen and her favorite minister, Calone, “The Euchanter” as he had been nicknamed whose sole idea appears to have been to pander to her every whim and extravagant caprice.

The depravity of Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette en Robe de Cour 1780. French Ancien Régime fashion. French Rococo costumes. Hoop skirt, Farthingale. Le Pouf.
Marie Antoinette en Robe de Cour 1780

Endless were the tales of the depravity of Marie Antoinette. Her passion for card-playing was known to every one; her adventures and intrigues were the subject of ribald conversation in all quarters of Paris; her clandestine visits to the dissipated night-haunts of the Capital in company with her bosom friend, the dissolute Madame de Polignac, were open scandal,—all, in fact, combined to explain the evil reputation which she bore amongst the populace, and it can be safely averred that no woman who ever shared a throne was more despised than Marie Antoinette at this period.

The corrupt atmosphere of the Court permeated the whole of the social life of the time, and one has to revert to the most licentious days of the Roman Empire to find a parallel to the cold-blooded insouciance and reckless profligacy of the French aristocrat of these years. The noblesse continued with unabated fervor its life of pleasure, utterly without feeling for the people, who laboured under iniquitous taxation, and remained totally indifferent to the appalling condition of semi-starvation which surrounded it.

Notwithstanding the perilous state of affairs in the country, amusement and fashion predominated over all other questions, and, in spite of the ominous signs of the times, persisted in monopolising the undivided attention of the Court. Balls and fêtes, in Paris or Versailles, were being continually given, and at all these there was an extravagance of ideas and costumes which was to be epochmarking.

Rose Bertin, the Court dressmaker.

Rose Bertin. French couturier. Rococo Fashion costumes. Marie-Antoinette dressmaker
Rose Bertin (Marie-Jeanne Bertin ) 1747-1813

Court-dressmakers took a prominent part in the life of these days, and quite one of the celebrities of the time was Rose Berthin, the famous modiste. Attached at first to the House which was privileged to supply Marie Antoinette and her Court, Mademoiselle Rose, by reason of her taste, beauty, and personality, made a great impression on the leaders of the fashionable world of Paris, ending by becoming a special favorite of the ill-fated Princesse de Lamballe. Later on during the Revolution, she had the opportunity of showing her gratitude for all the kindness she had received in former times, by refusing to apply for payment for the large amount owing to her from the Queen.

Princesse, Lamballe, Maria Teresa of Savoy-Carignan, 18th century, Rococo,
The princesse de Lamballe 1749-1792

Fashions in Paris à l’Anglaise.

Curiously enough, fashions in Paris in 1786 were chiefly à I’Anglaise. Apple-green and marigold-colored satin, striped alternately, was very prevalent, with plain gauze ruffles. Under robes of this description was worn a transparent muslin petticoat with a double fulness, over rose colored satin. Round the waist would be worn a triple girdle made of broad marigold ribbon edged with black and fastened in front with a large buckle, divided in two parts and forming medallions of polished steel or enamelled in blue or yellow and painted with a variety of devices. Shoes would be of the same color to match the dress, and would be ornamented with large white roses.

Buckles in fashion.

There never was a time when buckles were in so great a demand or of so great variety in pattern. An oval buckle, ornamented with all sorts of musical instruments, such as a guitar, flute, hautboy, mandoline, clarionet, or else with books, was the rage. Another buckle was of a lozenge shape made very plain in contrast to the former, although it was remarkably elegant. They were of an enormous size and often hid the shoe.

Gauze handkerchiefs round the neck.

A characteristic feature of the fashion was large white gauze handkerchiefs trimmed with lace, much puffed out, worn round the neck and fastened under the chin. Large cravats made of gauze and fastened with a rose in front were also worn.

A singular custom.

To enter even the gardens of the Tuileries when the Court was in Paris, full toilette of the most elaborate description was necessary, and there was a singular custom that when a lady had attained what was known as her “eighth lustre,” or, to put it more prosaically, her fortieth birthday, she was expected to wear a black lace cap, worn under the bonnet, and tied beneath the chin with strings.


The hair, when not powdered, was dressed in large detached curls, falling on either side of the neck à la Conseillière, and tied in the middle with a pin à la Cagliostro.

Favourite head-dress.

A favorite head-dress was the bonnet a la Turque, the band of which was in pleated marigold satin, to match the dress. The upper part was made of plain gauze very high and full, and usually ornamented with large feathers, thus completing a not unpicturesque costume.

Princesse de Lamballe. French nobility. Rococo fashion.
Princess Maria Teresa of Savoy-Carignan. The princesse de Lamballe 1749-1792

Excessive use of feathers in the hair.

Yet another vogue of the time was the excessive use of feathers to decorate the hair, a fashion which was carried to an exaggerated extent by Marie Antoinette.

At Versailles a forest of feathers.

It was said that when she and the ladies of her Court passed along the gallery of the Palace of Versailles, one only saw a forest of feathers raised a foot and a half above the heads, and waving in unison with the footsteps. Bonnets and hats also were so extravagantly trimmed with feathers, that the carriages were not high enough to hold them, so that the seats had to be lowered, or the occupants had to kneel. These articles of fashion caused a great deal of discontent,and many were the rumors that they would, if continued, ruin the ladies of the Court, as frequently these feathers would cost as much as two thousand livres each.

Source: Dame fashion: Paris – London, 1786-1912 by Julius Mendes Price. London: S. Low, Marston 1913.


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