What is an 18th Century Milliner / Marchande de Modes?

La Marchande des Modes (The Modiste) – Studio of Francois Boucher – c. 1746. Wallace Collection

When you’re just starting off in the world of 18th century dress, terminology can be *so* confusing.

For one, there are both English and French terms to learn and sometimes they don’t mean or describe quite the same things. It can be very baffling to run into fashion plates describing a gown, a night gown, an Italian gown, or a Robe a l’Anglaise and realize they all can mean the same thing at a given point in history! We here in the 21st century love to categorize and labels things clearly, but even the French fashion magazines of the late 18th century couldn’t keep it straight.

Sometimes the words remain the same but the meaning changes over several hundred years. For instance, a milliner of the 21st century is quite different than a milliner of the 18th. Today, millinery refers only to hats and hatmaking, a shift in definition that happened in the 19th century.

The 18th century milliner (English), or marchande de modes (French), was responsible for so much more than hats. She (and sometimes he) reigned over everything to do with trimming* and accessorizing an ensemble, from gauze puffs and fly fringe on the surface of a gown to caps, bonnets, hoods, poufs, and on and on.

Marchande de modes portant la marchandise en ville – Gallerie des Modes – 1778, MFA

The milliner differed from the mantua-maker. In France, the rise of the marchande de modes took a different trajectory than that of the couturier (dressmaker), driven by the success of Rose Bertin, the most famous marchande de modes to Marie Antoinette. The two trades worked together, often in the same shop, but it was not an exclusive relationship.** Fashions radiated from Paris, and it was not long before English and American milliners sprouted up too.

One of the most wonderful aspects of 18th century dress was the culture of refashioning. The milliner played a large role in this practice, often trimming and re-trimming the same gown multiple times. Mrs. Papendiek describes her puce satin gown in four incarnations between 1782 and 1788, being re-trimmed three times in various embroideries, laces, buckles, and a host of accompanying aprons, kerchiefs, and caps to change the look each time. “A silk gown would go on for years, a little furbished up with new trimmings.” (The Cut of Women’s Clothes, 124) However, when the cut of the gown itself fell from fashion, it was the mantua-maker who would pick it apart and refashion it into the latest hottest style.

Marchande de Modes by Jean Baptiste Mallet, 1780

Often today we as 18th century costumers do not take our ensembles far enough. When I first started, I was guilty of skipping the millinery, but I learned that all that fluff really made my gown look more authentic. It’s for this reason that we included so many millinery projects in The American Duchess Guide – aprons, caps, hats, kerchiefs, mitts, and muffs. The fun part of these accessories is that there is room for expression and variation – I can’t wait to try the 1780s Triceratops Cap in silk organza trimmed in lace, with a string of puffs and lappets – same pattern, but quite a different look from the cotton voile cap trimmed in blue silk ribbon we made for the book.

Now that you know the role of the 18th century milliner / marchande de modes, don’t be afraid to embody her trade. You can read more about the amazing marchandes de modes in Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell.

Mademoiselle Rose Bertin. Engraving by Jean Francois Janinet after Jean Honore Fragonard. No date (but looks mid 1780s to me). The Met, 24.80.141

*An exception here is when a gown is trimmed in self fabric, which still seems to have fallen to the mantua-maker. (Fashion Victims, pg 52)
** In France, the marchandes de modes were often independent of the couturiers, setting up shops such as Rose Bertin’s Au Grand Mogul, around the rue de Richelieu and the rue Saint-Honore. (Fashion Victims, pg 56)


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