Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The 18th Century Fashion Revolution

The high-waisted, neoclassical women's gowns that we now associate with the Regency actually came into fashion during the last decade of the 18th century, following the French Revolution.

The radicals who toppled the ancien regime in 1789 deliberately rejected the aristocratic fashions of the day. Citoyens wore long cotton pantaloons rather than velvet knee breeches and silk stockings. Citoyennes turned away from stiff corsets and elaborate silk skirts supported by panniers and toward simple cotton gowns with neoclassical lines.

The new gowns were meant to evoke the days of the Roman republic. Ironically, the fashion developed at least in part out of a style that was favored by Marie Antoinette (and called the chemise a la reine in her honor).

Nicholas Heideloff's Gallery of Fashion, 1795
(Museum of London)
French fashions, then as now, were soon adopted in other parts of Europe. The round gown, a garment made from a column of fabric gathered at the neckline and just below the bust, was the height of fashion in 1795. By the end of the decade, it was old-fashioned, replaced by the chemise dress (a more tailored version of the neoclassical gown). You can see several examples of round gowns on my Pinterest board for 1790s fashion.

The evolving political situation in Paris during the 1790s continued to impact fashion. An anti-Jacobin petit-bourgeois militia known as the Muscadins (for the musk cologne they supposedly favored) came to prominence in 1794-5. They wore bright, contrasting colors and coats with large lapels. Their fashion choices were taken up and exaggerated during the Directoire period (1795-1799) by the aristocratic subculture known as the Incroyables (for men) and Merveilleuses (for women).

Diaphanous gowns with scanty or no undergarments were worn in public (and were lampooned by British cartoonists at the time). Men's frock coats and waistcoats were shortened, and lapels became more popular. With the rise of Napoleon at the end of the decade, women's fashions became less risqué. New styles of corset, without boning, were introduced in the early years of the 19th century, after several years of less supportive fashion.

This is not to say that the older fashions disappeared completely. The two very different modes coexisted, with the younger generation preferring the radical new fashions and their conservative parents often clinging to the old. Knee breeches continued to be worn for formal occasions. The specialized costumes for court presentations preserved the longer waistcoats for gentlemen and skirts with hoops for ladies through the Regency (although these garments were only worn for court events).

So, while we are tempted to think of knee breeches and hooped skirts as Georgian and trousers and column dresses as Regency, the reality is that the two eras and two styles overlapped.

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