Visiting PhD student, Lorenzo Merlino (University of Campinas, Sao Paulo, Brazil), outlines his work-in-progress on eighteenth century women’s dress in England and France.

During the first semester of 2021, I was kindly welcomed by the Centre for Design History, under the supervision of Dr Charlotte Nicklas and the considerate guidance of Professor Emerita Lou Taylor, to deepen my PhD research on the radical and profound changes in western costume in the late eighteenth century.

An eighteenth century painting of the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, dressed in a white gown and large hat.

Figure 1. Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, en chemise, Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, 1783.

Despite widely held belief, it is not fully attested that those changes occurred mainly due to a French influence, or that they were a direct consequence of the French Revolution.  To cite one fact, commonly used to demonstrate a French origin to these changes, we have the exhibition at the 1783 Salon of Marie-Antoinette’s portrait by the newly admitted académicienne Vigée-Le Brun, which portrays the Queen in a simple white muslin gown [Fig. 1]. This is a garment that would later become known as robe chemise, due to its resemblance to the chemise, the common undergarment at that time, and which later became one of the symbols of the liberation of the female attire, treated, perhaps mistakenly, as a correlate of the emancipation of women in what were perceived as new times of freedom.

An eighteenth century painting of the French Queen, Marie Antoinette, holding a rose.

Figure 2. Marie-Antoinette with a rose, Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, 1783.

A few days later, however, after the exhibition provoked virulent reactions from the public, who accused the Queen of showing herself as commoner, Vigée-Le Brun had to substitute his painting for a second one, in which Marie-Antoinette was portrayed wearing a much more usual and formal robe à l’anglaise, in the well-known portrait of the Queen à la rose [Fig. 2]. Through my research, I assert that if, in the French society, the appearance of such garment caused strong reactions, this suggests it was not an accepted fashion but, instead, something that was worn in more intimate royal circles.

An eighteenth century painting of figures in a park.

Figure 3. The Mall in St. James’s Park, Thomas
Gainsborough, ca.1783.

By contrast, the English context was quite different, as exemplified by Gainsborough’s painting of the same year, which shows fashionable ladies strolling through St. James’s Park, where two young woman wearing very simple gowns are surveyed by the central group [Fig. 3].

An eighteenth century painting of a female figure.

Figure 4. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Thomas Gainsborough, 1783.

Also by Gainsborough, and exhibited in the very same year at the annual Royal Academy Exhibition, a portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, wearing an unadorned dress, and titled at the time Portrait of a Lady of Quality [Fig. 4], did not cause any negative reception. On the contrary, the painting was praised and cited in contemporary newspapers, such as the Morning Herald, the Morning Post and the St. James’s Chronicle.

An eighteenth century painting of a female figure in a simple white gown.

Figure 5. Maria, Countess Waldegrave, Joshua Reynolds, 1764-65.

The custom of portraying ‘ladies of quality’ in simple and undecorated attire, usually referred as artistic dresses, was extremely prevalent in English portraiture throughout the eighteenth century. The examples can be counted in dozens. This fashion certainly had a role in the simplification of the everyday female garments of the period, even though those representations, in paintings, also served an allegorical purpose [Figs. 5 and 6].

An eighteenth century portrait painting of a woman dressed in white.

Figure 6. Lady Elizabeth Hamilton, Countess of Derby, George Romney, ca.1776/78.

Almost half a decade before Georgiana and Marie-Antoinette’s portraits, Romney’s Beaumont Family [Fig. 7: featured image] shows that simple dresses, in the first years of George III’s reign, featured in paintings in informal and almost quotidian ways. This suggests that their depiction was not solely used in the British upper class to represent poetic allegories. Their everyday use may, in fact, have been much more common than is usually assumed in fashion history.