Fashion Flashback: Given that fashion was instrumental in the creation of Canada, this blog series explores the development of what Canadians wore one era at a time.
Woman’s Dress (Redingote) (c. 1790) [Source]
This week we continue our look at the fashion landscape in Canada both during and in the years after the French Revolution. With men’s fashion we saw that the decade-long political turmoil in France led to the beginning of the move to a more recognizably modern look. Now it’s time for the ladies. Did their apparel also move towards modernity?
Spoiler Alert: Nope. Not by a long shot.
So why is that?
The causes of the French Revolution were far more complicated than the ill-fated Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe, but the overly lavish lifestyles of the French monarchy certainly fueled the fire of the angry, poor masses. As such, one would think women’s fashion post-revolution would have moved away from decadence and become more simplistic. After all, that is what happened with men’s clothing. However, although women’s fashion did become more simple and naturalistic for a time, this change did not last. Rather, fashion historians state that the overall effect that the Revolution had on women’s fashion was deeply reactionary.
Silk dress from 1790 [Source]
Just how reactionary? Try two thousand years, give or take a century or two. Fashion designers looked to Ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration. During the 1790s, skirts remained full but were nothing like the craziness from before. Whereas necklines began to dip, waistlines began to rise and eventually transformed into the empire silhouette. The skirt started to get pulled more and more back to reveal more of the petticoat underneath, (the dress above is an excellent example of this). Drawstrings and ribbons, although used before, became especially popular because of their usage in creating the ideal waistline and puffy sleeves.
So why did fashion designers look to antiquity for inspiration? They were actually a bit late from the get-go; European Neoclassicism began in the mid-eighteenth century as a reaction to excesses of the Baroque and Rococo styles. The artistic principles of simplicity, symmetry, and reason from Ancient Greece and Rome overtook visual arts, architecture, music, and finally women’s fashion. Neoclassical fashion for men never really took off. Which isn’t surprising, I mean, would you trade your new trousers for robes? Only Greco-Roman hairstyles (aka short hair on men) became and stayed popular.
Dress (c. 1810-1814) [Source]
Just as with art forms, neoclassical fashion pushed back against extravagant corsets, heavy silk dresses, and the over-the-top appearance of French court dress before the Revolution. In its place came loose, light dresses, often white and made of sheer muslin. Like men, the new female shape was much more natural.
Surprisingly, Marie Antoinette was the one who first popularized the look. Although she is most remembered for wearing gowns that neoclassicism was supposed to be rebelling against, she also was the first to wear the Chemise a la Reine, (gown of the queen) the precursor to the empire silhouette. Although that style of dress came more from the European countryside than the Greco-Roman world, its simplicity made it get tied into the rise of neoclassic fashion and things took off from there. Prior to the 1790s, dressing up in classical costumes only happened at themed balls or for portrait painting, but now it was the look of choice for women. Girls’ fashion followed suit, their waistlines went up and corsets were discarded for now as well. Also, although less wealthy women would not have been able to afford expensive fabrics (like sheer muslin from India), the shape of their dress was still influenced by neoclassicism.
Marie Antoinette en Chemise by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1783)
Round Gown (c. 1795) [Source]
The round gown is also considered to be a precursor to the empire gown. Its softer look contrasted the rigidity of Rococo dresses.
Cotton and Linen Dress with Empire Silhouette (c. 1800-1805) [Source]
Woman’s Dress (c. 1805-1810) [Source]
Joséphine and Napoleon Bonaparte were tied to both the rise and fall of the empire silhouette. As Empress of France, Joséphine influenced fashion trends and her love of neoclassical dresses undoubtedly helped with their popularity. Napoleon on the other hand helped sustain the fashion and eventually help bring about their end. Napoleon esteemed Greco-Roman principles and neoclassical style became rampant throughout France. However, later on he became worried about the French silk industry which was in serious decline by 1805. This, in addition to being at war with England, Napoleon suppressed the fabric trade by passing at decree that made it illegal for members of the court to wear anything but French materials. Essentially forced to use silk, designers slowly went back to older styles and by 1815 the white empire dress that was ubiquitous throughout the Napoleonic era was gone.
Not all of women’s fashion during this time fell into the neoclassical look. Riding coats or redingotes from England and big hats with tall feathers became popular. Riding coats had existed for a while, but it was only during the late 18th century that they became fashionable. They became less bulky and styled after menswear. With feathered hats, as big powdered wigs fell out of style, they were replaced with large hats. (Although anti-aristocratic sentiment spelled the end of the wigs, the heaviness of the hats most likely sped up the abandonment of them). You may have noticed the tall feathers in the above Marie Antoinette en Chemise painting. Yes, she started this trend too. Hats were not only adorned with tall feathers, but women would often just stick one to two into their hair as an accessory.
Woman’s Dress (Redingote) (c. 1790) [Source] Yes, this is the same dress from the top of the post. If you love this dress as much as I do, please click the link and flip through the 10 different pictures the LACMA has of it.
Too Much and Too Little by Isaac Cruikshank (1796). [Source] A satirical look at old Elizabethan and new clothing styles.
Part of the rise of the riding coat was due to the obvious fact that the lighter dresses required various outerwear to keep the wearer warm. British colonial women certainly were not strutting around York or Montreal in the winter in sheer muslin. Cloaks, wraps, spencers (short high-waisted jackets), muffs, capes, pelisses, and regular coats were heavily worn. The Indian shawl was the most popular however because it could be worn both indoors and outdoors. Like the dresses of the time, these shawls were also made of silk, cashmere, and/or muslin.
White Muslin High-Waisted and Short-Sleeved Dress with Silver Dot Decoration and Shawl (c. 1808-1812) [Source]
The black slippers were are a good representation of what women wore on their feet, (during the warmer weather, naturally. Canadian winters = leather boots). High heels were discarded for a time in favor of thin, flat shoes made of velvet, silk, or leather.
Julie Boucher de La Perrière by Louis Dulongpré (c. 1805). [Source] Fun fact! The National Gallery of Canada notes that this is “one of the finest Canadian rococo portraits in existence.” I guess rococo was not completely dead by this point, but the woman in the picture is definitely wearing an empire gown.
Maria Sutherland by William Berczy (c. 1805-1806). [Source] Maria was a fur trader’s daughter and this portrait reflects the Greeco-Roman influence on hairstyles. Natural hair, soft curls, and ringlets that framed the face were extremely popular during this time.
From the MET’s “Summer in Style” exhibition Jun. 17, 1960. Dresses from 1805–1810. [Source]
Aside from the whole throwback to the classical era, the other reason that the French Revolution had a reactionary effect on women’s fashion is that the shift towards the natural female form did not last. If you know anything about Victorian fashion, you will know that it is the complete opposite of the empire gown. (Actually, it was a backlash against it. The Victorian era viewed 1790-1810 fashion as highly immoral). In a sense, as the 18th century moved forward women’s fashion begins to once again look like it did prior to the Revolution. Women almost seem frozen in time whereas men’s fashion continued to progress towards modernity.
Silk Dress (c. 1810) [Source]
There are several reasons behind this, but the first of which is that it was men, not women, who experienced actual lasting change as a result of the Revolution. Women continued to be barred from the expansion of the political arena. The other reasons have to do with Victorian era ideals, but that’s for another post!
So what do you think of women’s fashion from 1790-1810? Gorgeous? Too simple? Are you as baffled as I am as to why everyone decided “hey let’s go back to corsets!” after this era? Let me know!
DK Publishing, Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style, London: DK. 2012.
Downing, Sarah Jane, Fashion in the time of Jane Austin, Shire Books, 2012.
Ribeiro, Aileen, The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750–1820, Yale University Press, 1995.
Palmer, Alexandra, Fashion: A Canadian Perspective. University of Toronto Press, 2004.