Women's Fashion of the 18th Century

Part Seven

Madame Recamier by Jacques Louis David, 1800

Madame Recamier by Jacques Louis David, 1800

You don't have to study fashion sociology to know that social changes are accompanied by changes in fashion that express the social changes in a symbolic way. The French Revolution was the most prominent socio-political change since the Renaissance and triggered an accordingly thorough change in fashion.

As has been said in the previous chapter, the sensitive seismograph of fashion had recorded the upcoming changes years ago. But they proved to be too great to be incorporated and disarmed in the usual way. Fashion did, of course, not change all of a sudden. On July 15th, the same clothes were worn as on July 13th. Outside France, the fashions of the 1780s were worn well into the 90s.

Like the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, fashions after the Revolution derived their ideas from the proto-democracies of ancient Greece. Female dress imitated the Greek chiton, a flowing sleeveless white robe. White cotton and linen featured largely, sleeves were short, waists high (just below the bust in fact) and clasped with a soft belt, ornaments scarce and geometric: Simplicity was sought for. Shoes lost their high heels altogether - the ancient Greek wore laced sandals or no shoes at all, so shoes were laced. Even hairdos showed Greek influence. Contemporary critics made fun of the ladies walking the streets in "nightgowns" - after centuries of corsets and multi-layered, heavy clothing, this new fashion must have seemed almost indecent.

This Grecian fashion continued into the 19th century and comprised not only clothing, but also the design arts such as furniture. In its totality it is known as Directoire, named after the parliament that governed post-revolution France. Programmatic of the time are Jacques Louis David's portraits of barefoot Madame Recamier, name patron of the recamière, a typical Grecian piece of furniture.