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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Eighteenth-Century European Dress

Dress of the eighteenth century is not without anachronisms and exoticisms of its own, but that singular, changing, revolutionizing century has become an icon in the history of fashion. The eighteenth century was a time not without memory. Its masques and remembrances of the seventeenth century were vivid, if occasionally comical. If we observe the traffic that colonialism and world markets built, we know that cultures of dress were converging and each culture was gaining from the observation, whether admitting it or not.

It is difficult to define not only the spirit of the century but also its dress. As fashion historian Aileen Ribeiro noted in Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, 1715–1789, most think immediately of Paris and the French court when they ponder that time, forgetting reverberations in England (C.I.65.13.1a-c), Italy, and elsewhere worldwide. By the eighteenth century there was already an assumed supremacy in French taste, which has lingered into our own time.

Certain signposts of eighteenth-century style arise in shapes and silhouettes. Dilated hips, especially as achieved by panniers (1973.65.2; 2001.472), are a point of attention. Likewise, the corseted waist, especially with extreme restriction of mobility as might be indicated by a center-front dip well below the natural waistline, should afford early warning. Correspondingly, the deep décolletage allowed by such infra-edifice would offer a sign of inner structure and of potential eighteenth-century reference. The drapery-parted opening of the skirt (open robe) to reveal underskirt, petticoat, or a like dress would always be a measure of eighteenth-century theatricality and sensuality (33.54a, b; C.I.61.34a,b). But one should not forget that the period of the 1780s and 1790s would provide a fin-de-siècle Neoclassicism that must also be included as an indicator of the eighteenth century, if only in its final years (1998.222.1). Polonaises and gatherings to flanks would be a sign as sure and as unsure as any other, but positively placed on the screen of attention (1970.87a, b).

In textiles and surface ornament, there were also preliminary expectations of style that were more or less borne out. Silks might transmogrify (C.I.64.14), but Rococo patterns (1991.6.1a,b) would abide and late-century stripes with pattern retain their allure. Linens, those creamy and tactile luxuries of eighteenth-century textile better known outside the court, might haunt later dressmakers’ imaginations. Embroidery, never defunct and itself an art of preserved patterns of ways of working and seeing, could be telling of a proclivity to eighteenth-century origins if and when, in style and placement, it accorded with the paradigms of sumptuous costume in the ancien régime. Through the example of embroidery, we would remember menswear (2003.45a-c; C.I.61.13.2a-c) as well as womenswear and would have to allow for crossover, as one always does in the history of dress. Further, the ancient art of lace and of linens and fichus applied to dress would have to be remembered.

The elegant life of the eighteenth century was lived among mirrors that reflected the immediate, and some would say ephemeral, radiance of fashion. Those mirrors also constitute a metaphorical glass of history, glimpses, icons, and suggestions that persist through reflection and imagination into our own time.