Court Dress, 1777

£5.00

History of Costume II 1660 to 1800

Availability: In stock

Having read the statement that wide panniers had gone out of fashion during the 1750’s it will be a surprise to see them used with such extravagance in 1777. The reason for their introduction in the first place is the explanation of their long life. Actresses in the early part of the century had found that the wide-sided skirt made them more noticeable and that the possibilities it gave to dramatic entrances and exits were immense. It was an idea to appeal to the exhibitionist leaders of French fashion who used it to telling effect in the wide spaces of state apartments. When the hair began to rise in the 1770’s the combination of the two extremes was the most impressive court dress that has ever been worn, despite a weariness for the incommodious garment there seems to have been a tacit agreement in the highest circles of Europe that nothing so fitting or stately could be designed for the purpose and that a change would only be an anti-climax. So it was that, while less cumbersome dresses were being worn both in France and in England, the stiff panniers existed side by side with them for Court and ceremonial occasions. These, in France, were becoming more and more extravagant as another figure made her appearance on the stage of fashion, this time of the right quality of birth and beauty to further the promotion of French culture, in the person of the queen, Marie-Antoinette. After a poor start, in which even her mother had misgivings as to the cleanliness of her daughter’s neck and the royal entourage held her in the same contempt as her husband the Dauphin, she blossomed into a figure of the greatest elegance and personality. Although it is said that she preferred simplicity and comfort in dress to a degree of slovenliness (another failing that called forth a sharp note from her martinet of a mother) the modistes and hairdressers of Paris were hardly likely to let slip the opportunity of using her as a gilt-edged mannequin, and her reputed extravagances were mainly due to their pressing importunities. For wear clothes he could – not with the feline ease of a Pompadour whose every detail appears to be a personal choice – but as a beautiful model enjoying wearing fashionable clothes. There are some people who deliberately court criticism in the furtherance of a spectacular career – and get away with it – while others start off on the wrong foot and never manage to fall into step. Poor Marie-Antoinette was one of these unfortunates, and although nobody has denied her charm or wit, her every action was a battleground for contention. This made her appearance even more challenging and a still greater asset to the fashion community, for although every new mode she wore was metaphorically pulled to pieces, there were many only too eager to be as provokingly fashionable. The power of the French queen’s influence, in a clothes-dominated nation, can be gauged by the satirical title of ‘Minister of Fashion’ given to her modiste, Mademoiselle Bertin, who modestly commenced all observations with ‘the Queen and I’. Fashion’s greatest folly came at about the time of the accession of Louis XVI, when hairdressing rose to ludicrous proportions. At its zenith it was said that a smart woman’s chin came halfway between her feet and the top of her hair. Having started to raise it by natural means of backcombing and loose coiling the inevitable law of fashion compelled it to continue to the ultimate extreme of exaggeration. Marie-Antoinette had in her coiffeur as persuasive a personality as her modiste and allowed him – some say participating with him – to perpetrate the wildest creations. So indispensable was this gentleman’s services to the queen that it has been said that through waiting for him to join the royal party on their flight to Varennes their plans miscarried, the family was brought back to Paris and the queen lost the head he had served so well. As there were six hundred other hairstylists now established in Paris the competition in original creations was intense. Horsehair pads were first used and, later, frames to raise the hair to the required height and strength to support the ‘feature’, known in France as the pouf au sentiment, that eye-catching finish to the confection. This called for real invention as no items were barred. Sailing ships, moving birds and whole flower gardens (kept alive by water-filled glass tubes inserted in the hair) vied with one another in the great game of outdoing every new inspiration. For court wear the inevitable white feathers nodded over all. If the wearer lacked sufficient hair to carry up and over the required height, wig frames were made to rest on the head with the natural hair swept up and over it in front and fixed into the false curls on the top and sides. The back hair was arranged in coiled plaits or rows of sausage curls with a few loose locks resting on the neck while the side pieces were curled – into large rolls, slanting rather to the back of the ears. The whole erection was covered with pomade and dusted with pounds of rice powder and, with care and a little touching up, was expected to last a week. Dainty, long-handled ‘scratchers’ were made to give the no doubt necessary relief in these days of infrequent washing, but it was not considered the right thing to use them in public – except in the coarse minor German courts. This extreme of exaggeration in dress reflects the aimless life passed by high society in the 18th century in which the French were not alone in their frivolity. Even that most modest and retiring of ladies, Queen Charlotte of England, can be seen wearing a head-dress to equal in exaggeration that of the queen of France. Historical events may repeat themselves but throughout the history of costume there is one constant factor: the urge which makes people ignore comfort, discretion or ridicule in the name of fashion. Enormous head-dresses appear outrageous to a modern generation who have accepted, in less leisured times, stiletto heels that ruined floors and trapped hurrying feet, or the contradiction of sleeveless woollen dresses designed with complete indifference to the predominantly cold climate. The British aristocracy had never had it so good as in the late 18th century, and with the distinction that a great many lived sober lives there was a large pleasure-seeking set whose behaviour was as frolicsome as the French. Another difference was that the English did not have royal sanction for their behaviour and were more provincial, making towns like Bath, that had originated for medical reasons, into centres of the most extravagant and expensive amusement. Sedan chairs were found convenient for short journeys by a vastly increased amusement-seeking community. For attending crowded court ceremonies at St James’ or in the steep and narrow streets of Bath these litters were less obstructing than cumbersome carriages. There were privately owned, beautifully decorated equipages carried by liveried bearers, or they could be hired with chairmen, as taxis are to-day. It is strange that at a time when clothes became bulkier these small vehicles should have become so popular but having made the obstacles human ingenuity managed to circumvent the difficulties. When they were first used hairdressing was quite low but as it rose the roofs of sedan chairs were hinged to lift, enabling the passenger to enter in comfort and sit down. If the pouf was still too high the top had to be left open, revealing the feathers bobbing in time to the bearer’s walk. The wide panniers had already proved difficult to negotiate through doorways so slit pockets had been made either side, through the skirt, to enable the wearer to catch strings underneath that pulled the flexible, whalebone hoops forward. Even then it was a tight fit and graceful execution needed a lot of practice. Men’s coats became increasingly slim-fitting in the 1770’s. The neck rose into a high-standing collar and the embroidery round the edge of the coat became diagonal in design, two fashions that have survived in ceremonial diplomatic dress. Hat crowns and cocked brims were raised in the general trend towards height and the man’s costume of Plate VI shows the introduction of the narrow-striped material that was to become the typical pattern of the last years of the century.

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm