To be adored at the Royal Court of Versailles, one had to be fashionably dressed. But following fashion trends cost ladies and gentlemen a literal fortune. To afford to keep up with fashion, nobles would raise the rents and taxes owed to them by poor farmers and tenants, which undoubtedly contributed to the French Revolution.
So, Why Were Court Dresses So Expensive?
Just remember, this was a time before the industrial revolution; sewing machines didn’t exist. Everything had to be handmade. To have even four or five dresses was considered lucky by ordinary women. Yet, the Versailles courtiers were continually buying new clothes and remaking old ones to look fresh. Think that sounds expensive? Consider this: the queen was never supposed to be seen wearing the same dress twice. Though her dress allowance was large, I can hardly imagine it stretched to 365 dresses every year.
But here’s something else to think about. Although iconic, the grand, over-the-top clothes most often associated with this period in French history are only an accurate representation of what about 2% of the population wore. To suggest otherwise would be like saying that everyone today wears the haute couture seen in fashion shows. Only a small number of people actually do. Like today, the rest of the population was much more simply and cheaply dressed. Let’s quickly sidestep and have a look at what ordinary people wore!
What the lower classes wore
Countrymen’s attire was made of a simple shirt, frac, breeches, stockings and leather shoes. Hair was worn long and tied back at the nape of the neck, often with a felt cap. Countrywomen and middle-class women wore a shirt under a corset, a short skirt over several petticoats, an apron, a fichu on their shoulders, a bonnet as a hat, and flat leather shoes on their feet.
Bearing that in mind, let’s take a look at what was involved in keeping up with fashion in the last half of the 18th century.
The taste for spectacular women’s clothing resulted in a return to exceptionally wide skirts held up by a frame underneath. Known previously as the guardainfante, a distinctive feature of earlier, 17th-century Spanish fashion, the skirt was first designed to hide pregnancies. It was reimagined in the first half of the 18th century as the pannier, in an allusion to the skirt’s inverted basket shape. Panniers could reach enormous proportions, as much as 5 metres in diameter! This type of clothing was never intended to be comfortable or practical. For instance, two women could not pass one another in a doorway or sit beside one another in a carriage. Can you imagine?
The robe à la Française
Unlike the 17th-century guardainfante, the French pannier shifted the skirt’s volume to the hips, an effect accentuated by the corset, which raised the bustline and narrowed the waist. It was tied at the back with straps, so a noblewoman needed a servant’s help to get dressed. Her undergarments would have consisted of a long camisole that reached her knees and a petticoat that extended from the waist down to the ankles.
The best-known variant of this court fashion was the robe à la française or sack-back gown, which came into its own in the 1740s in France when it was popularised by Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV. It had a less exaggerated shape than previous dresses, allowing for greater mobility. The robe à la française was the hot trend for 18th-century European aristocrats. It had three parts: the gown, open at the front, the stomacher, and the petticoat.
The gown was cut in one piece from shoulder to hem and featured pleats that fell from the shoulders to the floor. The pleats were held in place by a series of stitched-down points. This design feature allowed for a smooth front while still providing ample volume in the back. The gown’s back was left to drape in folds from the shoulders to the hem, giving it its characteristic “sack-back” appearance.
The stomacher was a triangular-shaped panel that was worn at the front of the gown to cover the corset. It was often decorated with embroidery, lace, or jewels to add to the gown’s luxurious look.
The petticoat was worn under the gown and served to provide additional volume to the skirt. It was made from a separate fabric and could be decorated to match or complement the gown.
Overall, the robe à la française was an elaborate and expensive garment that was reserved for the wealthiest women in society. It required the assistance of a servant to dress and was not practical for everyday wear. However, its popularity lasted well into the 1770s, when it was eventually replaced by a more streamlined style known as the robe à l’anglaise.
The robe à l’anglaise
The robe à l’anglaise was a style of dress that emerged in the mid-18th century, with a fitted bodice with a waistline that was slightly higher than the natural waist and a skirt that fell in a straight line to the floor. It simpler than the earlier rococo style, which featured a heavily embellished bodice and a skirt with a hooped petticoat that created a wide silhouette. The robe à l’anglaise was favoured by women of all classes as it was more comfortable and practical than previous styles.
Marie Antoinette, a known fashion lover and trendsetter, popularised the dress. She began wearing it during a time when sought to simplify her life, including her wardrobe. She incorporated the latest French fashions and Austrian influences, often choosing pastel colours and floral prints with ruffles, lace, and ribbons. She frequently wore the robe à l’anglaise, particularly in light, flowing fabrics like muslin and silk, which complemented her delicate features and graceful movements. Still, her extravagant spending on fashion was criticized by the French public, despite her efforts to simplify her life.
Despite the controversy surrounding her fashion choices, Marie Antoinette’s influence on the robe à l’anglaise style helped solidify its place in fashion history. The dress continued to be popular throughout the 18th century and into the early 19th century, and variations of the style can still be seen in modern fashion today.
Practice, Practice, Practice
When it came to wearing full court dress, practice was essential. Women had to practice moving in the outfit, which included enormous skirts that could weigh up to 25 kilograms! They had to practice arranging the skirts so they could sit comfortably, and they had to practice walking without tripping or getting tangled up in the skirt’s voluminous fabric. In addition to that, they had to practice holding their posture correctly because the dress was designed to accentuate a woman’s figure. The weight of the skirt required women to learn how to distribute their weight evenly while walking and standing. All of this practice was necessary to ensure that they could move gracefully and elegantly in their full court dress as it was a symbol of their social status and sophistication. Even though it may have been cumbersome to wear, the dresses were an important part of formal occasions and events during its time, and women were expected to wear them with poise and confidence.
Accessories were just as necessary as the clothes themselves. Ladies were required to cover their hands and arms with gloves if their dresses were sleeveless, except in summer when gloves revealing half the length of their fingers were allowed. Fans were also a must-have accessory.
The Importance of Fans
Fans were aHUGEpart of Versailles culture.An entire language was formed around the subtle flicks and twirls of a clasped fan.
Do you speak fan?
Fans were used for flirting, concealing, seduction, and, most surprisingly, for keeping cool on balmy summer evenings! Different movements of the fan indicated different meanings, and it was forbidden to open a fan in the presence of the king.
High heels and red Shoes
High heels were essential for both gentlemen and ladies if they wanted to be considered fashionable. Louis XIV popularised red heels and made it a rule that only very high-ranking nobles could wear them, making red high heels a symbol of power and nobility.
Proper Dress Could Be Rented
Visitors to the palace had to dress appropriately, which meant a somewhat fashionable dress for women and a sword for gentlemen. If a visitor turned up at the gates without the proper dress, the appropriate items were available for rent.
Swords And Treason
Carrying a sword was both a symbol of status and also a practical necessity – men were required to carry swords in case they were needed to leap to the king’s protection. The sword was often decorated with intricate designs, symbols, and even precious stones, making it a statement piece as well as a practical tool.
Carry it, yes, draw it, no. Drawing a sword in the presence of the king was considered a grave insult and an act of rebellion. It implied that the person drawing the sword was willing to use it against the king or his entourage, which was a serious offence. Therefore, carrying a sword at the palace was a delicate balance between being prepared for any eventuality and avoiding any behavior that could be misconstrued as a threat to the monarch.
The Business Of Fashion
The extravagant fashion trends of 18th-century France were actually driven by a strong textile industry, which received support from protective policies introduced by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the minister to Louis XIV. This led to the growth of silk production in Lyon and the success of factories making stockings, hats, and lingerie.
Notable French Fashion Designers
Marie-Jeanne Bertin, also known as “Rose,” pioneered French haute couture in the late 18th century. She opened her own fashion store in Paris in 1777 and quickly became the dressmaker of choice. The Duchess of Chartres introduced her to Marie-Antoinette, who was so taken with her designs that she had a workshop built for her in Versailles where she created ever more extravagant designs for the queen. Her creations were exported to courts in London, Venice, Vienna, Lisbon, and many other capitals.
The High Cost Of Fashion
The obsession with fashion and extravagance was not limited to Versailles alone. Across France, the wealthy classes indulged in a lifestyle of excess and opulence while the poor struggled to survive. The social inequality caused by the elites’ unchecked spending and taxation led to widespread poverty, hunger, and suffering.
The French Revolution was a direct result of the deep-seated anger and frustration felt by the people towards the aristocracy’s disregard for their suffering. The lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the elites was seen as an insult to the people’s struggles, and they were determined to bring about change. The revolution signaled the end of the old order, and a new era of democracy and equality was born.
So, the fashion trends of the French nobility had a significant impact on the lives of ordinary people, ultimately contributing to the downfall of the old regime and the emergence of a new political and social order.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that today’s fashion industry learns to do better,