French Fashion History, c. 1785-1805

The end of the eighteenth century was a seriously fascinating and pivotal time for fashion. Influenced by major cultural movements and political changes (the French Revolution, anyone?), fashions for European women’s clothing became more simplified compared to the earlier part of the century. Today, in celebration of the launch of our new Josephine pumps accurate to 1785-1805, we’re taking a closer look at what makes fashion from this period so special.

To begin, nothing speaks to the dramatics of this shift like the two portraits below of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. Before the French Revolution (May 5, 1789 – November 9, 1799) we can already see the influence of “Anglomania” and overseas cultural exchange on the “Queen of Fashion” herself. In the earlier portrait, she wears a white cotton muslin gown known by several names: gaulle, chemise a la Reine, and robe en chemise. In many ways the taste for a simple bucolic lifestyle was considered English. However, this cotton fabric was not of English origins. A craze for cotton textiles among English consumers was created with the establishment of the East India Company. According to Historic UK, by the mid-eighteenth century, Britain was importing raw cotton from other colonized areas such as the West Indies. In short, this gown is everything the French Queen was NOT expected to wear: unadorned, lightweight, loose, bordering on dishabille, and worst of all — not French. As such, the negative reception to this painting forced Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun to paint another portrait where we see Antoinette wearing sumptuous French silk textiles and lace.

Another case of a French portrait being repainted has a somewhat opposite effect. In 2021, the Metropolitan Museum of Art published an article titled “Refashioning the Lavoisiers,” revealing that the grand c. 1788 double portrait by Jacques-Louis David of Antoine-Laurent and Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier had been repainted to hide some of the couple’s expensive furniture and a large flashy hat (known as a chapeau à la Tarare) worn by Marie-Anne. Why did the couple suddenly change their minds about showing off their wealth? The answer, of course, is the French Revolution.

The original 1788 painting by Jacques-Louis David, infrared reflectogram of the painting, and combined elemental distribution map of lead and mercury obtained by macro X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the midst of a political movement that executed those believed to be against the working class (like Lavoisier), what one did or did not wear was seen as a statement of allegiance. Another important aspect of this was color. For French citizens and foreign visitors alike, wearing the national colors of blue, white, and red was compulsory. This could be achieved by wearing a tri-color cockade pinned somewhere about the body — although it could also be brought to the extreme with entire ensembles of blue, white, and red. Two examples can be seen in the fashion plates below. (It’s a good thing our new Josephine slippers are available in Red/White and Blue/White!)

Yet another portrait by Jacques-Louis David, of Madame Pierre Sériziat and completed in 1795, shows the ideal for women’s fashion at the end of the French Revolution. Though not as loose-fitting as the gaulle, Sériziat’s white cotton gown would have been seen as more hygienic and practical than the rigid silk gowns associated with the ancien régime. Notice that it’s also made all in one piece, with a gathered neckline and waistline slightly higher than the natural waist.

Jacques-Louis David, Madame Pierre Sériziat, c. 1795, French.

As the calendar progressed towards the start of the nineteenth century, the proportions of this silhouette became a bit more extreme and waistlines were directly under the bust. We call this dress style a “round gown,” and we help you make your own in The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking! Although colorful silks were used in women’s fashions, fine white cotton muslin was still a prized dress textile. The examples below are all circa 1795 and in the collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute. Notice that although this ensemble is relatively modern, the skirts are still quite full and loose.

After the end of the Revolution, when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, the major influence on fashions for clothing, decorative arts, and architecture in France was neoclassicism. Fashionable women’s dresses leaned further into the short-bodice look, with the bosom pushed up and out. Eventually long skirts shifted to become more a-line in the front, resembling an ancient Greek column. There was still a significant fullness at the back of the skirt to create a classical flowy effect, and trains were fashionable too. A fashion icon from this period is Joséphine de Beauharnais, who became the Empress of France in 1804 through her marriage to Napoleon.

You get a 15% discount when you pre-order our new Josephine pumps! Josephine features a classic 1790s tapered toe, striped cotton uppers, and luxe 100% SILK ribbon trim, and is available in sizes 5-12 (standard width) in Charcoal/White, Yolk Yellow/White, Taupe/White, Red/White, and Blue/White. After June 30th, your favorite color and desired size may sell out. (If you’re not sure which size to order, our fit experts at [email protected] are just an email away!)

Pre-Order is Open
June 21-30, 2024
15% Discount Per Pair

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