The Ladies of Rococo: Beyond Bows and Ruffles

Marie Antoinette and Madame de Pompadour

18th Century fashion usually gets pegged as being full of pink, light blue, ruffles, skirts wide enough to get caught in doorways, lots of escaping bosoms, and tall wigs coated with flowers, ships, bows, and lace. All of this is very true, but just like today, fashions changed immensely from 1700-1799, riding multiple trend waves like all those miniature boats on giant wigs. The world was in a great upheaval: kings gave way to parliaments, colonies gave way to nations, frivolity gave way to reason, and then it all reversed again. Every nation gained power, then seemed to lose it. Fashions fluctuated just as wildly as the times, but the haze of forgetfulness and generalization has condensed most of these fluctuations into the brief world of Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764) and Marie Antoinette (1755-1793). But even these ladies didn’t remain stuck in one fashion trend their whole lives. Over the course of their lifetimes, the world and fashion changed drastically.


Madame de Pompadour

This is truly the lady who took fashions to the extreme. As mistress to the king, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, aka Madame de Pompadour, indulged in fashion from the start. Born to a relatively unknown family, Jeanne was considered a commoner by the French nobility.  1745, however, she received a Marquise estate as a gift from the king who made her his official mistress.  In order to prove her worth, the highly intelligent woman began to craft the most luxurious outfits she could. If a lady had fifteen bows on her gown, Jeanne had twenty. She adored fabric prints, exotic imports from the East, and watercolor-like “ikat” or “chine” weaves. Silk was the only material any proper lady would wear to court. There were even laws banning imported cotton just so French silk weavers would be assured a brisk business.

As a patron of the arts, Jeanne adored the Rococo style, commissioning artists and architects to lavishly decorate her palaces for her. Her gowns were just as much artistic and architectural endeavors as her chateaus. Her favored sleeves were made of tiers of lace and ruffles that cascaded from her elbows. They were called “Pagoda sleeves” after the tiered Japanese towers. Her gowns were also held out at the hip with large panniers and her tiny, pointed waist was the result of a heavily-boned corset, giving her the silhouette of an upside-down tulip on a stem.

She also popularized the turkey or sack back style dress, which had a cape built into the back of the bodice that melded with the skirt, like the back feathers of a bird. This back is often seen in Robe à la Français (The French Dress), which are what most people picture when they think of a Rococo dress. This style of gown is supported with panniers, unlike it’s sister, the Robe à l’Anglaise, and is considered much more sumptuous.

Madame de Pompadour was very aware of her age. She never fully left her luxury behind. She was a Grand Mistress to the end, making sure that even in her last portraits, she had a little wink in her eye. As she became older, her spirit stayed young, but her body began to lose pace. Jeanne adopted dresses with more coverage. Jeanne took to wearing a bonnet tied with a bow to hide her tiny double chin , but still teased the king with glimpses of skin from her low bodice. She was mourned greatly when she died at age forty-two from tuberculosis.


Meanwhile, elsewhere in the court, there was another lovely lady trying to avoid knocking over vases with her panniers:

Marie Antoinette

Even during her lifetime, Marie Antoinette went through fashion changes. Her famously gigantic balloon dresses, even 300 years later, are still some of the most talked-about fashion creations ever sewn. Many of her richer gowns were born more out of courtly expectations and loneliness (since her husband paid little attention to her), than pure folly. Clothes and make-up became two of her few socially acceptable forms of self-expression. Marie Antoinette loved soft blue; it was the color of choice for many of her portrait gowns. Held out on either side with panniers (fashioned by cane arcs in fabric or by padded “dumplings” of fabric) that sat at the hips, her huge silk skirts were dripping with every form of ornamentation possible. The sleeves and bodice of her gowns fit tightly, exposing her bust and lily shoulders in a sensuous curve.

When she wasn’t at a ball, portrait studio, or public function, however, Marie’s dresses, though still rich confections of fine silk and lace, were much less impractical. Her skirts were slimmer and clung to her legs.  Though she indulged in wild court costumes much of the time, she took to reading books and hosting salons when she had a moment to herself. After the birth of her children, Marie began to wear deeper, richer colors like browns and reds, and the shoulders of her gown moved closer to her neck with a little lace and long, fitted sleeves. This style of fitted overdress was known as the Robe à l’Anglaise (The English Dress), which had no pannier underneath to support it, relying on petticoats instead.

The extravagance of her gowns cost her a lot of public respect. It seemed that she couldn’t please anyone, so Marie abandoned the excess in favor of simpler fashions. She grew tired of the heavy rococo style. She had lost almost all of her influence in court and almost all her relationship with her husband, so she devoted herself to her children. Towards the end of her life, Marie’s huge gowns vanished from all but her more formal portraits, and she created the chemise dress: a plain, filmy gown with layers and poufs of fabric that draped around her. A wide satin belt delineated her waist and added a pop of color to the otherwise light gown. The French people were slightly upset about this, believing it to be unfitting of a Queen, but as the tide turned even more against her, even her simpler dress was criticized as too scandalous, even condescending.

Her big hair never truly left her wardrobe. When she was young, her powdery hair fell in straight ringlets around her neck. Later came the infamous pompadour and towering wigs, but unlike her friendly rival for whom the hairstyle is named, Marie’s wigs were more relaxed, even “fuzzy.” She preferred volume with air, rather than solid hair. By the end of her life, she was styling her hair in large upsweeps, much like the ladies of the late 19th century. She adopted many large hats and bonnets, feathered and lacy, and draped transparent scarves around her neck and shoulders. Dark velvets with delicate, contrasting lace and a flowing plain underdress became her favored outfits– foreshadowing the slim, unadorned gowns of the Regency period. By the end of her reign, Marie Antoinette was much more a regal matron than the seductive vixen the angry revolutionaries claimed her to be. She was executed in a plain white slip and bonnet at noon on the 16th of October, 1793. With her died France’s monarchy and the unbelievable lavishness of Rococo.

All of the pictures in this article are linked to to sites detailing each section, so feel free to click and explore!

Further reading and research you might enjoy:

Undressing Romance: 18th Century Underwear
Overview of Rococo
The French Revolution via SparkNotes
Fashion after Rococo: Regency

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