Sunday, June 26, 2016

See-Through Summer Dresses for 1782?

Sunday, June 26, 2016
Isabella reporting,

Satirical prints were in their glory in London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and for us researching Nerdy History folks, prints can be a wonderful source of information about society and fashion at the time. We just have to keep in mind that they're satire, not fashion plates.

This print is a perfect example. Glance at it quickly, and it looks like countless other prints showing the latest fashions, with three ladies showing both front and back views plus elegant hats and hair. The title of the print, Summer Dresses, makes it sound as if it's exactly that, too.

But if you look a little more closely (click on the image to enlarge it), you'll see that the women are combating warm weather by wearing less - a great deal less. They've left off their stays (corsets) and most of their other undergarments. The fabric of their gowns and aprons is so sheer that their bodies are plainly revealed (which makes those elaborate hats, stockings, and shoes a little strange by comparison.)

But it's a joke. Really. No London ladies were dressing like this. The light-hearted rhyming caption makes it clear:

   My Dear fair Friends
   For two great Ends
   This Summer Dress is recommended.
   Your Health's secured
   Sweet-Hearts insured
   The happy Objects here intended.

In other words, by parading about like this, ladies will not only stay cool and comfortable, but attract sweethearts galore.

But as is often the case with satirical prints, there's a grain of truth, however small, at work here. Over in France, Queen Marie-Antoinette was causing a sensation by wearing a new kind of dress dubbed the chemise a la reine, right.  This was a simple, unstructured dress made of white, light-weight cotton muslin that was a complete turnaround from the stiff silks and brocades, worn over rigid stays, that had dominated women's fashion for most of the century.

Although the chemise a la reine still looks like a lot of dress to modern eyes, in the early 1780s it was considered scandalously insubstantial. To the English satirical artists - the new styles were ridiculous, revealing, and above all FRENCH. See-through dresses were an easy target, and one sure to sell to the stalwart English print-buyers who must have delighted in the scantily clad women of Summer Dresses.

But such prints didn't stop Englishwomen from embracing the new muslin dresses for themselves. By 1785, fashionable aristocrats like Lady Elizabeth Foster, lower left, were posing for portraits wearing the English version of the chemise a la reine. Change was definitely in the air....

Thanks to Neal Hurst for recently posting Summer Dresses on his Facebook page.

Upper left: Summer Dresses, by an anonymous artist, London, 1782, British Museum.
Right: Portrait of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1783. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Bottom left: Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Foster, by Angelica Kauffman, 1785, Ickworth House, National Trust.


Sarah said...

Satire is so very revealing [no pun intended!]. And just what I need for the WIP which is set in 1787 so I can clothe my heroine in just such a gown!

Anonymous said...

French history nerd here... apologies in advance for my poor command of English & long message.
I am very surprised you mention the chemise à la reine as a typically French garment that later came into fashion in London as I've always heard influence went the other way round at the time. Late 18th/early 19th century fashion in France was greatly inspired by clothing worn by the English countryside gentry. A typical exemple is the dark jacket worn by men during the Georgian era: you call it a "riding-coat" in English, it became "redingote" in French thanks to our poor aptitude at articulating foreign languages...
Now regarding the chemise à la reine, you rightly mention that those dresses were made of light cotton fabric. That was British India grown cotton, fabric woven in England. Marie Antoinette famously created an uproar in the French textile industry when she started wearing those dresses. She was accused of promoting English products (God help us!) to the detriment of the French textile industry (mainly the luxury silk textile companies in Lyon). That was one of the first missteps the "Austrian" queen did that generated resentment against her in France and lead to her tragic downfall...
As for see-through dresses, they would become an actual thing a few years after Marie Antoinette's tragic ending. Indeed, right after the Révolution, a young and beautiful widow named Rose de Beauharnais created a massive scandale in Paris (and a name for herself) when she was spotted on a Sunday afternoon strolling around the Champs Elysées, arm in arm with her best friend Thérésa Tallien, both women wearing extremely thin muslin Empire style dresses with no undergarment. It left absolutely nothing to the imagination! Rose de Beauharnais and her fashion sense became all the fuss in Paris, she later on married a young general with a promising career and she is known to posterity under the name Empress Joséphine Bonaparte!

Christina Mitchell said...

There may be some questions about the chemise a la reine but references show that;

1. Muslin cotton from India was imported as woven fabric from England to France.

2. In 1784 Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire attended a concert in a muslin chemise given to her by the Queen of France. (Norah Waugh, The Cut of Women's Clothes 1600-1830).

3. French colonial association with West Indian, Creole dress. (Katherine Joslin, Crossings in Text and Textile).

I tend to lean towards the French taking the lead with the chemise.


Anonymous said...

Hieroglyphs depict ancient Egyptian women in very sheer linen garments. And didn't Helen of Troy scandalize her contemporaries with very airy dresses? Sheer has legs, historically speaking.
Felicia Swoop

Christina Mitchell said...

Anonymous July 4.

The clothing portrayed on Egyptian wall paintings idealized the body. The fabric would have been linen. So what is usually depicted as women's clothing i.e. sheer sheath - was not an actual representation. Woven cotton was not used at that time;

Helen of Troy was also personified and she is a mythical character...


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