Reading Loretta's blog yesterday, I was struck not so much by the white muslin gowns themselves, but what was happening beneath them. This high-waisted style must have been truly shocking. For the first time in hundreds of years, the curves of a woman's breasts were on display.
European ladies began reshaping their bodies for fashion in the 15th century or so, via stays, corsets, busks, boning, even iron. Weirdly, their goal didn't do nothin' for feminine attributes. The ideal was a long, pointed, straight front that bound the breasts almost flat. Check out these two examples below left: the first is mid-16th century, the second is two hundred years later in the mid-18th century, but the silhouette is almost exactly the same.
All this changes in the last decade of the 18th century. Whether it's a classical inspiration, the French Revolution, or just the ever-swinging pendulum of fashion, suddenly it was stylish to show the actual shape of both breasts. Yes, there are caricatures of the time showing dubious "ladies" going completely au natural, but most women turned instead to the newest in corsetry (above left) for support, separation, and enhancement. Divide and conquer, indeed.
As fashion/art historian Aileen Ribeiro notes in her excellent Ingres in Fashion, "It is interesting how many portraits of this period exploit the sexual appeal of the early nineteenth-century equivalent of a Wonderbra and depict women leaning forward in this way; Lawrence's portrait of the Countess of Blessington [below right] exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1822 is an example."
So are the portraits of Madame Recamier and Harriette Wilson. Can you hear those early 19th century men still cheering?