February 25, 2015

Closet Histories no. 4.4: Later 18th Century

I have to say, the later half of the 18th century is probably my favorite period of historic fashion. The 18th century was the first era of history that stole my heart, and I have never fully recovered! Something about the crisp taffeta poufs of a polonaise, the frothy layers of ribbons and silk of the 1780's, the "rugged" charm of a well cut riding habit, they all make me swoon! So today lets take an overview of 18th century fashion from 1760-1790. I will be doing individual posts about polonaise styles, the chemise a la reine, ridding habits and more soon; today we will just be looking over the basics of how styles changed in the later half of the century.

fig. 1, 1768                                                     fig. 2, 1763-4                                                    fig. 3, 1766
So when we left off, we had reached the rococo decadence of the 1750's. The ladies in figures 1-3 are dated to the 1760's, and all are wearing solid color silk gowns in either the robe a la francaise or robe l'anglasie style. It is hard to tell in these portraits (as they do not show us the back of the gowns) which styles are being represented, but both were popular until the end of the century. Gowns in solid silks were more popular in the second half of the century than in the first, where brocades reined supreme. Brocade and jacquard remained popular in the 1760's (and later) though increasingly were used for evening gowns as opposed to day dresses. Less formal gowns of taffeta or cotton became common in the later part of the century.

Notice above that these ladies are all still sporting relatively small pompadour hairstyles, as hair is about to reach new gravity defying heights in the 1670's!

fig. 4, 1760, British, MET
 This bright yellow silk gown from the 1760's lives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This gorgeous example, a robe a la francasie, is trimmed with self fabric ruffles with a pinked edge. Worn with a matching petticoat and stomacher, again trimmed in ruffles and frills, the overall effect is not only stunning, but also provides us with a great example of 1760's fashion.

fig. 5
fig. 6, 1779                                                     fig. 7, 1776                                                       fig. 8, 1776
 The gowns of the 1770's continued to layer on the frills. Here two royal ladies show us their finery, in fig. 6 Juliana Maria of Denmark and Queen Charlotte. The photo of the portrait of Juliana is incredibly HD, click the link! The details of her gown are fully articulated by the artist and the painting must be even more stunning in reality. Her zone front style robe a la francasie is made primarily of off-white silk, decorated with ruffles of lace and accented with light lavender silk ribbons! Also, check out that excellent 1770's hair! That is a tall pompadour by anyone's standards and her cap perched on top looks almost comical in proportion (though it seems she has a rather large diamond pinned to the center of it!). You can even see her matching silk shoes under her skirts, they seem to have jeweled buckles!

Queen Charlotte models our next two looks. In fig. 7 she wears a grey/blue silk gown in what again seems to be a zone front style with the addition of a large collar. Her gown is trimmed in self fabric pleated trim. She is wearing an apron over her petticoat in a transparent gauzy silk, it looks like some sort of organza with stripes and tiny bows or flowers woven in. Again we see the gravity defying hair style is accented with a gauzy cap on top. Charlotte accessorizes with a simple strand of pearls, a matched pair of six strand pearl bracelets with cameo/jewel clasps, and a slim neck kerchief.

Charlotte's second look is for a more formal style full length portrait. Here she wears a white silk gown trimmed again in self fabric pleated trims and with pleated gauzy silk fabric. She wears another transparent silk apron with wide pleated trimming, she seems to have a large shawl in the same transparent silk. This time she has some diamonds pinned amongst the silk draped in her large hair style.
fig. 9, 1775, French, MET
 This floral and striped gown from 1775 is another great example of 18th century gorgeousness! It is trimmed in not only self fabric ruffles and puffs, but also floral multicolored silk fly fringe. The flowers woven into the fabric are roses and pansies. You can see that the silhouette has not changed much from the gowns earlier in the century. Painers still hold out the sides of the skirts, the widest skirts reserved for the most formal of court occasions.

fig. 10
fig. 11, 1788                                                   fig. 12, 1788                                               fig. 13, 1787
Our next set of ladies are modeling 1780's styles. The 18th century silhouette finally changed in the 1780's, as the fullness of the skirts changed from the wide panier shape of the middle of the century to a more rounded shape with extra fullness in the back. Full length sleeves were more popular in the 1780's, as were cotton fabrics. The ladies in fig. 11 and fig. 13 are both wearing white gowns with colored accents in their accessories (waist sash, hat, ribbons). The silhouette further changed with the profusely foofy (technical term you guys) neck kerchiefs that were worn to fill in the necklines of gowns creating a pigeon breasted effect. I feel like foofy/floofy/poufy what have you is an accurate term for 1780's fashion, these ladies look like beautiful clouds!

fig. 14, 1785-87, French, MET
 This lightweight striped silk gown perfectly encapsulates the 1780's. There is a layer of simplicity going on here, gone are the layers of trimmings, only a single deep ruffle on the petticoat remains. You can see the new rounded shape of the skirts with fullness shifted to the back as opposed to being concentrated on the sides. The panier was replaced with bum rolls or pads to create the more rounded shape. The front of the gown is arranged in the zone front style so popular in the later half of the century. A gauzy kerchief provides the perfect 1780's accessory!

fig. 15
fig. 16, 1785-7                                                fig. 17, 1780                                                    fig. 18, 1788
A footnote here with fig.s 16-18, this is the chemise a la reine! I will be devoting an entire post to this style, as it caused such a stir when it came into fashion, and still transfixes costumers today! In contrast to the structured and tailored gowns of the century before its debut, the chemise a la reine (also called the gaulle) was a looser style all together. Though still worn over the stiff conical stays and layers of petticoats, the look was considered quite scandalous to some. A chemise after all was a woman's under-most garment, and to have a gown modeled after one's underwear was a bit shocking! I told you guys cotton was taking over the fashion scene in the 1780's! We will delve into the chemise la reine another time...

fig. 19, 1795                                                           fig. 20, 1793                                                            fig. 21, 1796
Just when fashion had hit the peak of cloud-like girly glory, the revolution was brewing in France and fashion too hit a tumultuous time. The ladies above represent the transitional period of the 1790's. The waistline began to rise, the rounded shape became slimmer without skirt supports, the entire look for ladies began to streamline into something completely different and very new! Our fashion forward ladies above will have to wait until we move onto the fashion revolution however, as we still have plenty of 18th century topics to cover!

Whew! As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you guys enjoyed this little primer on late 18th century fashion!

All of the information for this post has been gathered from the textbook Survey of Historic Costume (5th edition) by Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eurbank, from the links above or my own knowledge. I want to share the resources I come across with all of you as much as possible. The portraits used to illustrate today's post are credited to either the museum where they reside (whenever possible) or the source where I found them, and are linked via their fig. # underneath. Again I repeat my disclaimer that I am not a historian, and if you have corrections or additions for this post, please begin the discussion in comments as I would love to learn more!


  1. One time machine ticket, please! :) Goodness, how I adore this same time period, too. It, along with the 1870s and 80s, have to be my favourite pre-twentieth century eras ever from a fashion standpoint.

    ♥ Jessica

    1. I totally agree! I love the 1880's too, I need to get a move on with the Victorian dress I have planned so I can experience a bustle gown for the first time. One day, probably next year at this rate, Closet Histories will cover the 1880's too :)

  2. Hello,
    Your articles are extremely coherent and nice to read!
    I am doing reasearch for my master's degree in film costume design. I am making costume proposals for "Amadeus" (1984) and I find your tutorials and articles very helpful. Do you have any thoughts on the differences between french fashion and austrian-german fashion in the late 18 century? If you have seen the movie, to me it seems to have some serious french influences in the feminine costumes especially.

    1. Thank you so much! I need to get back in the habit of doing closet histories posts like these, I've been neglecting them too long. I'm so glad if they have been helpful! I don't have much insight myself on the differences between the French and Austrian court fashions, but I would recommend reading the book Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette wore to the Revolution as I think they went into the differences a bit-- talking about the two courts. At that time most were trying to emulate the French fashions which I assume is the reason they went with a more French aesthetic in the film, which sadly I have never seen! I really must remedy that ASAP as I recently noticed it is available on Netflix currently. Thank you so much again for your lovely comment :)


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