Women's Fashion of the 18th Century

Part Six

here be music Comtesse de La Châtre by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1789

Comtesse de La Châtre by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1789

Towards the 1780s, the emerging ideas of enlightenment and human rights began to exert their influence on the fashion world. A healthy society has an astonishing ability to incorporate new and potentially dangerous ideas, thus rendering them powerless, and this is what happened as more and more voices began to doubt absolutism. Traits of the citizens' fashions entered the fashion of the nobs.

The English fashion which had long ago begun to incorporate symbols of civic emancipation spread throughout Europe. The robe à l'anglaise, descendant of the manteau, was the most fashionable dress. After a short sojourn of large and colourful floral, Indian-influenced fabrics expecially in 1770s England, colours cooled down to dark greyish and greenish blues, pale pink, silver and white.

Hoop skirts and overdone garniture went out of fashion. In the 70s, the skirt of the robe was made shorter than the petticoat (which sometimes was shorter than ankle-length) and caught up in large puffs in back, a dress style known as polonaise. Fabrics became simpler already, cotton entered the picture.

The Continental nobility, however, made a last effort to outdo itself: Hoop skirts, which had never left court fashion, were wider than even in the 1740s. Hairdos grew to new heights. The hair was draped over a wire cage, rolled into large locks and decorated not only with flowers and feathers, but also artificial birds with their nests and even miniature ships. Being expensive and time-consuming, these artworks were worn for weeks at a time, making necessary the use of scratch-sticks and lots of perfume...

During the 80s, the bulk of the skirt travelled backwards even more: Bumrolls bustled up the cul de Paris. Dresses had high waistlines, the robe was closed over the bust and opened wider towards the waist. Caraco jackets became popular as a replacement of the robe. Long, broad ribbons were used as belts. The décolleté was covered with a fichu - a symbol of protest against the open-hearted decadence of the court. The sleeves covered more flesh, too, went all the way down to the wrist and lost all lace and frills. Typical fabrics are white muslin and striped cottons.

While hairdos still were big, they now carefully affected a look of carelessness: At first there were only fewer locks than before, then a mass of tousled-looking hair, often topped with a large hat. Hats hadn't played any role at all during the previous decades, except maybe for the small straw hat known as bergère, but now they were worn frequently.


The music is Una donna di quindici anni from the opera Così fan tutte (1790) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Sequenced by yours truly.