OVERVIEW

Womenswear

Wikipedia summarized 1790s women’s fashion, writing:

“Women’s clothing styles maintained an emphasis on the conical shape of the torso while the shape of the skirts changed throughout the period. The wide panniers (holding the skirts out at the side) for the most part disappeared by 1780 for all but the most formal court functions, and false rumps (bum-pads or hip-pads) were worn for a time. Marie Antoinette had a marked influence on French fashion beginning in the 1780s. Around this time, she had begun to rebel against the structure of court life. She abolished her morning toilette and often escaped to the Petit Trianon with increasing frequency, leading to criticism of her exclusivity by cutting off the traditional right of the aristocracy to their monarch. Marie Antoinette found refuge from the stresses of the rigidity of court life and the scrutiny of the public eye, the ailing health of her children, and her sense of powerlessness in her marriage by carrying out a pseudo-country life in her newly constructed hameau. She and an elite circle of friends would dress in peasant clothing and straw hats and retreat to the hameau. It was out of this practice that her style of dress evolved.

By tradition, a lady of the court was instantaneously recognizable by her panniers, corset and weighty silk materials that constructed her gown in the style of à la française or à l’anglaise. By doing away with these things, Marie Antoinette’s gaulle or chemise á la Reine stripped female aristocrats of their traditional identity; noblewomen could now be confused with peasant girls, confusing long standing sartorial differences in class. The chemise was made from a white muslin and the queen was further accused of importing foreign fabrics and crippling the French silk industry. The gaulle consisted of thin layers of this muslin, loosely draped around the body and belted at the waist, and was often worn with an apron and a fichu. This trend was quickly adopted by fashionable women in France and England, but upon the debut of the portrait of Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, the clothing style created a scandal and increased the hatred for the queen. The queen’s clothing in the portrait looked like a chemise, nothing more than a garment that women wore under her other clothing or to lounge in the intimate space of the private boudoir. It was perceived to be indecent, and especially unbecoming for the queen. The sexual nature of the gaulle undermined the notions of status and the ideology that gave her and kept her in power. Marie Antoinette wanted to be private and individual, a notion unbecoming for a member of the monarchy that is supposed to act as a symbol of the state.

When Marie Antoinette turned thirty, she decided it was no longer decent for her to dress in this way and returned to more acceptable courtly styles, though she still dressed her children in the style of the gaulle, which may have continued to reflect badly on the opinion of their mother even though she was making visible efforts to rein in her own previous fashion excess. However, despite the distaste with the queen’s inappropriate fashions, and her own switch back to traditional dress later in life, the gaulle became a popular garment in both France and abroad. Despite its controversial beginnings, the simplicity of the style and material became the custom and had a great influence on the transition into the neoclassical styles of the late 1790s.

During the years of the French Revolution, women’s dress expanded into different types of national costume. Women wore variations of white skirts, topped with revolutionary colored striped jackets, as well as white Greek chemise gowns, accessorized with shawls, scarves, and ribbons.

By 1790, skirts were still somewhat full, but they were no longer obviously pushed out in any particular direction (though a slight bustle pad might still be worn). The “pouter-pigeon” front came into style (many layers of cloth pinned over the bodice), but in other respects women’s fashions were starting to be simplified by influences from Englishwomen’s country outdoors wear (thus the “redingote” was the French pronunciation of an English “riding coat”), and from neo-classicism. By 1795, waistlines were somewhat raised, preparing the way for the development of the empire silhouette and unabashed neo-classicism of late 1790s fashions.”

The Ale House Door

Fig. 1 - Henry Singleton (English, 1766 - 1839). The Ale House Door, c. 1790. Source: Pinterest

Journal des Dames et des Modes, Costume Parisien

Fig. 2 - Artist unknown (French). Journal des Dames et des Modes, Costume Parisien, 1799. Source: Pinterest

Woman's Dress

Fig. 3 - Designer unknown (England). Woman's Dress, 1790-1795. Silk plain weave (taffeta) with silk and metallic thread supplementary weft-patterning; center back length (a) overdress): 64 1/2 in. (163.83 cm) center back length (b) underdress): 50 1/4 in. (127.64 cm). Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.57.24.10a-b. Costume Council Fund. Source: Pinterest

Princess Sophia of the United Kingdom

Fig. 4 - William Beechey (English, 1753-1898). Princess Sophia of the United Kingdom, c. 1979. Oil on canvas. Source: Pinterest

Menswear

Wikipedia summarized 1790s men’s fashion, writing:

“Throughout the period, men continued to wear the coat, waistcoat and breeches. However, changes were seen in both the fabric used as well as the cut of these garments. More attention was paid to individual pieces of the suit, and each element underwent stylistic changes. Under new enthusiasms for outdoor sports and country pursuits, the elaborately embroidered silks and velvets characteristic of “full dress” or formal attire earlier in the century gradually gave way to carefully tailored woolen “undress” garments for all occasions except the most formal.

In Boston and Philadelphia in the decades around the American Revolution, the adoption of plain undress styles was a conscious reaction to the excesses of European court dress; Benjamin Franklin caused a sensation by appearing at the French court in his own hair (rather than a wig) and the plain costume of Quaker Philadelphia.

At the other extreme was the “macaroni”.

In the United States, only the first five Presidents, from George Washington to James Monroe, dressed according to this fashion, including wearing of powdered wigs, tricorne hats and knee-breeches. The latest-born notable person to be portrayed wearing a powdered wig tied in a queue according to this fashion was Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich of Russia (born in 1779, portrayed in 1795).”

Journal de la mode et de gout

Fig. 1 - Artist unknown. Journal de la mode et de gout, no. 7 (April 25, 1790): Plate 1. Source: Pinterest

Man's morning coat

Fig. 2 - Designer unknown. Man's morning coat, England, 1795-1800. Shot silk twill, lined with linen, hand-sewn. London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 940-1902. Source: Pinterest

Mr. Middleton of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in the Character of Romeo

Fig. 3 - After W. Willings (British). Mr. Middleton of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in the Character of Romeo, 1793-97. Stipple engraving, printed in color; 24 × 16.8 cm (9 7/16 × 6 5/8 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 17.3.756–1086. Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1917. Source: The Met

CHILDREN’S WEAR

Wikipedia summarized 1790s children’s fashion, writing:

“In the late 18th century, new philosophies of child-rearing led to clothes that were thought especially suitable for children. Toddlers wore washable dresses called frocks of linen or cotton. British and American boys after perhaps three began to wear rather short pantaloons and short jackets, and for very young boys the skeleton suit was introduced. These gave the first real alternative to boys’ dresses, and became fashionable across Europe.”

The Sackville Children

Fig. 1 - John Hooner (British, 1758-1810). The Sackville Children, 1786. Oil on canvas; 152.4 x 124.5 cm (60 x 49 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 53.59.3. Bequest of Thomas W. Lamont, 1948. Source: The Met

Mrs. Charles Willson Peale (Rachel Brewer) and Baby Eleanor

Fig. 2 - Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741-1827). Mrs. Charles Willson Peale (Rachel Brewer) and Baby Eleanor, 1790. Watercolor on ivory; 6.5 x 5.2 cm (2 1/2 x 2 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.235.127. Gift of Gloria Manney, 2006. Source: The Met

Mrs. John Garden (Ann Garden, 1769–1842) and Her Children, John (1796–1854) and Ann Margaret (born 1793)

Fig. 3 - John Hoppner (British, 1758–1810). Mrs. John Garden (Ann Garden, 1769–1842) and Her Children, John (1796–1854) and Ann Margaret (born 1793), 1796 or 1797. Oil on canvas; 127.3 x 101.3 cm (50 1/8 x 39 7/8 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 15.30.41. Bequest of Maria DeWitt Jesup, from the collection of her husband, Morris K. Jesup, 1914. Source: The Met

References:

Historical Context

Wikipedia: 1790-1799
Rulers:
Events:

[To come…]

Europe in 1792. Source: emmersonkent.com

Events:
  • 1790 – United States President George Washington gives the first State of the Union address, in New York City.
  • 1790 – Louis XVI of France accepts a constitutional monarchy.
  • 1793 – The Louvre is officially opened in Paris, France.

Primary/Period Sources

Resources for Fashion History Research

To discover primary/period sources, explore the categories below.
Have a primary source to suggest?  Or a newly digitized periodical/book to announce?  Contact us!

NYC-Area Special Collections of Fashion Periodicals/Plates
Fashion Periodicals (Digitized)

Etiquette Books (Digitized)

Secondary Sources

Also see the 18th-century overview page for more research sources… or browse our Zotero library.

Online

Books/Articles
Pinterest