Photo: Typical 1780s chemise ensemble. Auguste Wilhelmine Maria of Hessen-Darmstadt and children. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Much has been written, and was even at that period, about how 1790s fashion reflected the decade's social turbulence by shifting more rapidly than at any recorded time previous. The French revolution had quite an effect on what women wore, of course, as did ever-increasing international trade with India and the Far East, import bans and taxes. So did the passion for Classicism so apparent in all of the arts, and Enlightenment philosophy and its result, and what one article (Wikipedia) calls the "triumph of informality".
Photo: A Regency ensemble, 1798. Louise von Preussen. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
(Oh yes, I hear you, those of you who love Nancy Bradfield's Costume in Detail: Women's Dress 1730-1930. She keeps the decade whole, and I love her too, relying on her superb drawings perhaps more than those of any other book. However, perhaps because she wasn't able to examine extant garments of these types, her book doesn't feature two garment styles that were important in marking the transition from Enlightenment to Regency. Norah Waugh's The Cut of Women's Clothes does to some degree too, but many of us find that book exceedingly expensive, and interlibrary loan isn't available to all of us Finally, there is a terrific costume exhibit at the Kent State University Museum, curated by Anne Bissonnette, titled "The Age of Nudity", that ran in 2006-2007. The exhibit website is still up, the text concise and authoritative, and the images marvelous, but such a brief view, and no book produced! Alas.)
Let's do something different this time.
In this post, I've collected an unscientific, convenience sampling of paintings and engravings and fashion plates from Wikimedia Commons, from the 1780s through about 1800. As you scan them, you will see something fascinating. The 1780s chemise dress will morph into the Regency gown, the 1780s open robe and redingote styles will open up and travel towards the back of the body until the resulting overgarment feels more like a sort of long jacket or long vest than a gown. To keep things moving along, I have focused mostly on these garments rather than on the wider breadth of styles in that were in favor, so that we can watch them grow and change, much as we watch caterpillars morph into butterflies.
By the way, all this examination relates to a project. I have five months to complete an ensemble for the Jane Austen Festival in Louisville, and have chosen to dress for the years 1795-1797.
Given that the months are slipping by fast, I've forgone the much of the research I usually do, so sad to say, I haven't read literature of the period or looked for period magazine texts or other sources for help.
As always, please click on the images to see larger versions. I've also included links to the Wikimedia Commons originals, some of which are very large files with good detail.
Here We Go...
Here is a portrait of Princess Marie Josephine Louise of Savoy, called "Madame", the future wife of Louis XVIII of France. Her painter, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun, made this painting in 1782.
Le Brun has painted Madame in a chemise dress of the time, an informal style worn for "undress" occasions. As Norah Waugh has it, the style was popularized by stylemaker Marie Antoinette, and was dubbed the chemise a la reine, after a portrait by Vigee le Brun that appeared at the 1783 Paris Salon (Waugh, p. 73).
I wonder whether the style was already on the rise, since other women wear versions of it in paintings of slightly earlier date -- like the portrait above. After all, children had been wearing chemise dresses for some years (look at the little child in the top photo and Miss Willoughby, at right, 1781-1783, by George Romney), and fashionable people had been tiring of heavy or trim-encrusted, stiff-bodiced formal dress that had proclaimed wealth and status for centuries. Those of you who have studied the philosophy and social history of this period, do you have details or pointers to add?
This dress is likely of muslin. The collar is trimmed with lace, which I imagine may be whipped on right to the edge of the muslin so that the lace forms a smooth extension of the collar edge. Like so many of these dresses, drawstrings likely are used to close it at neck and waist, and more drawstrings and ribbons to create the puffs on the arms.
Yes, let's have a look at a detail from the top photo again. That belt -- isn't it handsome? It appears to be embroidered, with a "buckle" being perhaps a portrait. It is hard to see and I do not have a larger version of this painting to hand.
This painting also makes clear that not all chemise dresses were as loose as those worn a little later. This dress is loose only at the bust, while the lower section of the bodice is quite shaped, and the bodice is long. The dress has a sheen too, which makes me wonder it it might be made of a soft silk, perhaps a gauze?
Let's move on to another example or two.
Here's a painting of Elizabeth Foster, by Joshua Reynolds. Ms. Foster is quite fluffed out, no? Have a look at her dress. Here the chemise collar is worn high up, and the waistline is a little raised, courtesy that very wide, colorful sash, and see the ribbons that tie around her sleeves? They're pink and do not match the sash.
One last example. This is Sarah Villiers, Viscountess of Jersey, by Ozias Humphrey, and painted in 1786. In this case, the chemise dress has a wide falling collar that spreads out over the shoulders, and a far narrower sash. Look at her sleeves: how long they are! Regency sleeves would often do this: be very long and pushed back to wrinkle up on the lower arm. Note how she wears her bracelet: over the sleeve.
As you can see, just this limited sampling of dresses shows the variety that the chemise dress could take.
Now, let's have a look at a few other examples of late 1780s dress, and look for items that would carry on into the next decade.
Now, scroll back up and look at the lady sitting in her long-waisted dress at the right side in Il Ballo. We know that the open robe was an ancient design. Here's a common example from a little earlier in the century, a portrait of the Archduchess Maria Christine, painted in 1770. Notice how the dress -- called in French a robe -- opens up in the bodice to show the decorate stomacher, and in the front of the skirt a smallish portion of the skirt, called a petticoat, beneath.
...the rest of the story.
See all my 1790s posts, plus experiments in costuming in 1790s: Costumes. You'll find a lot of research, such as analysis of extant clothing, portraits, portrait miniatures, fashion magazine texts and plates, even translations from the German Luxus und der Moden, and of course secondary sources, that I've done in efforts to document each part of the costumes made.