Finding Inspiration in the 1790s with Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun

Self Portrait by Vigee-Lebrun, 1791

Those of you who have been following for awhile will know I’m not a huge fan of, well, anything with an empire waist.

I just can’t seem to find my groove with Regency attire. I see my gorgeous friends dressed in their early 19th century finery and I think they look fantastic, but when it comes time to wear it myself….not so much.

Part of this has to do with our own personal styles. When you’re looking at pretty dresses on Pinterest, of course you will naturally gravitate to what fits your style, whether it’s 2016, 1916, or 1816.

My style veers towards redingotes, pelisses, military overtones, menswear vibes, orientalism, and clean lines. Some eras seem like they offer more for my style than others – for instance, the 1780s are full of everything I love, but I feel the turn of the 19th century isn’t.

Of course, I’m wrong! It’s just a matter of finding those fashion plates, extant pieces, and paintings that speak to us.

When deciding on the chapters in our 18th century costuming book, coming out next year, Abby and I deliberated on whether to include the 1790s or not. The silhouette changed significantly in the 1790s, which we though was important to include. However, we want to *really* focus on the 1790s as a period aesthetically quite different from the fashions to follow, with particular attention paid to the cut of the gown and the accessories. We want to show a different 1790s than the typical, and explore a period of dress unique and interesting in itself.

Without telling you *too* much of what we’ve been working on, here are some of our inspiration images:

Atelier of the Artist (Madame Vigee Le Brun and her Pupil Marie Victoire Lemoine) by Vigee Lebrun, 1796 (The Met)
Portrait of Countess Catherine Skavronskaya by Vigee-Lebrun, 1790
Theresa, Countess Kinsky by Vigee-Lebrun, 1793
Portrait of Empress Elisabeth Alexeievna (Louise of Baden) by Vigee-Lebrun, 1795
Portrait of a Young Woman, by Vigee-Lebrun, c. 1797
Princess Belozersky by Vigee-Lebrun, 1798

These paintings are all by Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. The fashions are both French and Russian, but you can see the clear interest this period had in Eastern dress. Some of the gowns are white, some rich colors. The accessories are many – turbans, whimples, shawls, chemisettes, long sashes, exotic colors. This is a side of the 1790s that, to me, is rich and interesting and full of lots of enticing details.

What do you think? Do you like these looks or prefer the more English style?

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