What The Heck Is This 18th Century Dress?

I keep a Pinterest Board called “Historical Costuming Weirdness,” wherein I pin all the things I find that don’t match up nicely with what we think we know about historical dress *right now.* I love these images because they make me scratch my head and speculate, but most importantly, they make me research. Down, down, down the Research Rabbit Hole I go and if I don’t find the answer iron-clad, I’ve learned an awful lot of cool stuff along the way.

Such is the case with these two 18th century portraits:

La Liseuse, by Jean-Etienne Liotard, c. 1746
A similar portrait attributed online to Jean Baptiste Mallet. I haven’t found a confirmed date for this portrait, but based on the hair, we think late 1760s to early 1770s.

Artist Interpretation = Bunk

To be honest, I haven’t seen a lot of mindful speculation on what these women are wearing. Most of the commentary has been “artistic license,” and “artist interpretation,” which is maddening because it shows a complete lack of understanding of historic portraiture and has become the thing to say rather than a simple “I don’t know.” Before I tell you what I think this garment is, I’m first going to say that in representative art prior to the 19th century, particularly portraiture, there was a reason for everything. There has to be a reason to depict something in a portrait. Often this is symbolism (look at any portrait by Holbein), but when it comes to dress, you just don’t see clothing being completely “made up,” painted from imagination. It references something real. Fancy dress, yes; extravagant gowns, yes; Europeans depicted in exotic dress of the orient, oh yes. But these items of clothing existed and were on that person (or a dummy) when he or she sat for the painter.

The reason I know this is because I am a trained artist, and the school in which I trained shares a direct link with the great masters of the Renaissance. My art training was intense, strict, all-consuming, and effective. Drawing from life was the foundation of everything. Reference, reference, reference. Does this sound familiar when applied to historical reenacting? To “just make it up” was as looked down on and as obvious as just “making it up” when re-creating a historical ensemble. To illustrate the point, here’s an example of an artist “just making it up”:

Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, by Jean Fouquet, c. 1452. Part of the Melun Diptych. This is an example of  an artist NOT drawing from life. Although the depiction is of the Madonna, the woman is believed to be Agnes Sorel, mistress of King Charles VII, who had died two years earlier. Definitely not drawing from life!

There was a very real shift in the philosophy of art in the mid-19th century. We call it “Art for Art’s Sake,” and this shift lead to well-defined and well-known stylistic periods: impressionism, post-impressionism, surrealism, dadaism, cubism, abstract art (and on and on to today). But this was not the expectation or leisure of working artists before the mid-19th century, whose financial security and success depended on their ability (and training) to paint realistically. Realism in art, especially portraiture, was king (the invention of photography replaces this requirement in the mid-19th century, and profoundly alters the course of art ever after). “Artistic license” is in flattering the sitter, enhancing what’s already there, or downplaying what’s not desired, but in the time when the gown painted in a portrait cost significantly more than the painting itself, it would be highly unprofessional for the artist to change it!

Now you know my partial motivation for spending hours digging for the reference for these portraits, so let’s get back to them.

Jean Etienne Liotard and “The Reader”

The first is commonly called La Liseuse (The Reader), and is by Jean-Étienne Liotard, c. 1746. Further digging revealed that the portrait is of Liotard’s niece (Mlle Marianne Lavergne, or Miss Lewis), and there are two versions of it.

Another version of La Liseuse, or Mlle Lavergne, the painter’s niece.

Liotard was Swiss-French, born 1702 and perishing in 1789. He was renowned for painting Europeans in Turkish, Arabesque, and other fancy dress. He also showed an interest in regional dress, like in this lovely chalk portrait from 1737 described as a Roman lady:

click for larger image, to read the caption.

The portrait in the Rijksmuseum has an inscription on the back that says “Madelle Lavergne de Lion peint par Liotard.” Another reference from a 1907 publication called “The Art of the Dresden Gallery” calls the picture “La Belle Lyonnaise.”

Excerpt from “Catalogue of the Pictures, Miniatures, Pastels, Framed Water Colour, Drawings, Etc. in the Rijks-Museum at Amsterdam”, 1905

Excerpt from “The Art of the Desden Gallery” 1907

This was the first real clue.

French > Lyon > Swiss > Zurich > Liotard

Immediately I went hunting for depictions of 18th century regional dress, particularly from Lyon. I found very little, and most of the images were from the 19th century, but I began to see similarities in garments….but not from Lyon.

The most similar depictions were Swiss, particularly from Zurich:

The caption on this one was “Swiss-Canton of Valais Lotschentaler wedding people”. I feel this one is closest, but again this is from the 19th or early 20th century.

Swiss – Canton of Appenzell Ausser Rhoden – though sleeveless, the broad stomacher with spiral lacing through rings is very similar. 

NYPL – depiction of early 18th century Zurich dress, from an 1898 document. (there are many versions of this). The ensemble on the right most notably.
This bodice, though sleeveless, shows a similar under-bodice sort of garment, though this one looks like it’s sewn to the outer bodice. Again, this is a 19th century image and we know that clothing, even regional dress, changed across this period.

None of these are spot-on, so I cannot and will not say categorically that what Mlle Lavergne is wearing is Swiss regional dress, but the connections are easily seen. Liotard was Swiss. This sitter was a real person. She was wearing real clothing.

Maybe-Mallet and the *Other* “Reader”

Now, the second portrait…

For the time being, I am going to say this portrait is by an unknown artist. Though the image is on Pinterest, attributed to Jean-Baptiste Mallet, I cannot find a reliable original record, accession number, or any mention of it in catalogs to confirm that it is indeed by him. (if you have a record, please let me know!) The reason for our skepticism is because Mallet was born in 1759, and the hair style of the sitter indicates the late 1760s to early 1770s, and the painting style the 1750s through 1770s. This is completely inconclusive, please note, but until we learn more about this portrait and where it’s held, I’m not going to definitively say it’s by Mallet.

Whoever did paint this portrait, it appears they came into contact with Liotard’s earlier work at some point. The sitter is in the same pose, performing the same action, and is clearly wearing a very similar outfit, but the similarities end there. The sitter is looking straight at us, with fashionably dressed hair. Her gown appears to be a sacque in a subtley fancy fabric, but the ensemble lacks the details of Liotard’s depiction, notably the apron, the bows at the waist, and the finely painted elements of the underbodice and lacing.

This portrait was “informed by” Liotard’s, to use a very art world phrase. It’s not a copy, but it’s inspired by. This could come about any number of ways – the artist could have loved Liotard’s work and wanted to do an homage, or the sitter could have loved Liotard’s work and asked to be depicted in this way.

While both painters were painting real people, Liotard’s portrait has an authenticity to it that the later work lacks. You can see this in the lack of realism on the later portrait’s gown, which leads me to believe that his reference for the clothing was Liotard’s painting, not real Swiss regional dress, OR that the sitter’s marchande de modes concocted this costume.


The lesson I learned in all this, and that I wish to pass on to you, goes back to research. Don’t accept a modern excuse of “it’s just artist interpretation; it’s just artistic license.” Instead, dive down that rabbit hole and find the answers! There are myriad weird-ass things in historical costume, but just like in science, it’s all “magic and mystery” before somebody uncovers the evidence and links it together, to the benefit of us all. That “somebody” could be you.

A super-big image of Liotard’s painting can be seen and studied here.
The book with the portrait of the Roman woman is available here.
Read “Art for Art’s Sake: Its Fallacy and Viciousness,” 1917, here.


  • Adrien

    February 27, 2023 at 2:56 AM

    I discover your article right now and this is making me think about a dress sold during an auction in France, 2020.
    Someone send me the portrait by liotard after I show him the dress. It apperas some very particular elements are litteraly the same, even we expect the dress is a later version of the one worn by the sitter.
    Let me know an email adress I could send you the pictures of the dress in question. It’ll interest you for sure.

    All Best


  • Koba

    March 18, 2024 at 5:24 PM

    Hey, i’m no expert and i’m barely an amature but when i saw the picture, i thought she was wearing a pair of jumps under her gown.

    With her gown’s lacing (looser at the top, even drooping and the end of the ribbon not tucked out of the way) and the pattern of the sleeves (not exactly matching what can be seen of assumed jumps), i figured it’s meant to be a painting of her in a more relaxed state. Not to mention her hair looks comfortably tied back.


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