Let's Play Dressup!
Here she is, direct from 1775, your very own british model. Check out how she looks in the various costumes of the ages, from French to British dress (11). But don't leave her standing in just her corset. Remember, even in the bizarre age of rococo, women still had their limits!
Rococo was marked by a love of anything bizarre, gaudy, or indulgent. Lovers of the style paid close attention to how ornamentation was percieved, and the ways that light reflected off of the body. It was an art completely in love with itself; it was the narcissism of the wealthy, and they searched far and wide for new techniques and trends. This love introduced Europe to fabrics from India, designs from China, and styles from Japan. It represented the new spirit of adventure that went hand in hand with the Age of Enlightenment. Even Rousseau, who pushed for more simplistic, natural styles of dress, couldn't resist subjecting himself to rococo in his own way. In an effort to hide his catheter, he began wearing Armenian clothing, complete with cap and robe. While certainly much different from the styles of many of the men of the day, it was as much an adherence to the flair of rococo as anything worn in court. The art of rococo accepted the ugly and the strange as another mode of expressing beauty, and Rousseau became just another case in point.
The switch from rococo to neoclassicism came slowly, and with just as much back-pedalling as forward movement. However, it became one of the most dramatic switches in fashion history; women who grew up burdened by the weight of their clothing and accoutrements ended their lives in lightweight cottons, muslins, and chintz. Both fashion trends stemmed from a love of the exotic, but neoclassicism drew from the traditional arenas of ancient Greek and Roman culture. The excavation of Roman ruins mid-century was followed by a huge outburst of interest in the simple lines and draping fabrics of the togas worn so long ago.
In addition to the resurgence of interest in Greek and Roman style, the French were beginning to become disillusioned with their self-glorification, and began to search for something else. What they found was England, a country that had always looked to them for fashion. Now the tables began to turn, as the French began to adopt the dress of English pastoral society. By the end of the century it was Britain, not France, that was leading the way as the trendsetter of the day.
Surprisingly, this interest may have also stemmed from Marie Antoinette herself. With her entrance into French court life, she brought a new zest for life that forced rococo out the door. Instead of spending hours each day dressing herself, she preferred to sneak away to the palace grounds with her maids, where they would play dress-up as country shephardesses (10). These games became more than just games, as all of France followed her lead, and began to take off their many layers of opulence. By 1780 English tailoring was en vogue in France, and by the end of the century, rococo was an amusing figment of the past.
Our own dear Mary Wortley Montagu, an interested party in the topic of women's fashion, was known to send to Paris for her gowns in the 20's. She, like all other faithful fashion slaves, knew where to get the best, and at that time the best was indeed in Paris. However, she, like many others throughout the era, still had to smile at the fashions which were so unbelieveably extravagant. She satirizes the ideals of her own time period, writing:
I drank bohea in Celia's dressing--room:
Warm from her bed, to me alone within
Her night-gown fastened with a single pin;
Her night-clothes tumbled with resistless grace,
And her bright hair played careless round her face;
Reaching the kettle made her gown unpin,
She wore no waistcoat, and her shift was thin. (4)