“How constricting and unhealthy your manner of dressing is! Your shoulders and arms are imprisoned, your body is compressed, your chest is squeezed. You can’t breathe at all. And why, if you please, expose your thighs and legs to bad weather?” (Mercier, pg. 303). Mercier is talking about a conversation he imagines having with someone from the year 2440. The man is talking about the elegant dress of the Louis XV era the Mercier is wearing. Mercier describes the dress of the future as loose and practical. Elegant dress was very important for people in France during the 18th century. During the time leading up to the French Revolution, however, the people of France, mostly those of the 3rd Estate, began to reject elegant and luxurious dress and resorted to more humbling attire that expressed their sense of citizenship. The robe displayed below, is a robe that is currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was made in France around 1774 to 1793. This robe is a very luxurious piece of clothing and was most likely worn by women of the 1st and 2nd Estates.
The women of the 3rd Estate couldn’t wear clothes such as this robe because of their economic situations. “The women of the third estate are almost all born without wealth…Having fulfilled the first duties of religion, they are taught to work; having reached the age of fifteen or sixteen, they can earn five or six sous a day” (Petition of Women of the Third Estate to the King). The women of the third estate had to work for very little pay and even if they were lucky enough to get married, it would be to an “unfortunate artisan”. Robes, such as the one above, were sewn by men, or by women of the higher estates. The women of the third estate wished to be able to take jobs were they could enrich the fashion culture of France. They wanted to stop being educated in the sciences, because that helped them very little, and wished to take classes in embroidery and how to become seamstresses. “We ask that men not be allowed, under any pretext, to exercise trades that are the prerogative of women—whether as seamstress, embroiderer, millinery shopkeeper, etc., etc.; if we are left at least with the needle and the spindle, we promise never to handle the compass or the square” (Petition of Women of the Third Estate to the King). With the Revolution about to occur, it is unclear if these jobs were ever given to women, but, with the new movements in fashion by the people of the third estate, it is doubtful that any women in that social class ever wore or even desired to wear robes such as the one depicted above.
In relation to the history of fashion in the revolutionary Atlantic, the robe above is an example of a type of clothing that was worn by the wealthy and privileged. The very intricate thread work that went into the creation of this piece of clothing shows that it was very expensive and elegant. The bright color also might indicate that the robe was meant to be worn during the day and it was probably very popular amongst those in France who could afford it. This robe also represents what France was trying to change. During the time that this robe was made, France was in great turmoil and revolutionary groups, such as the Sans-Culotte were rising up against the monarchy. “The ‘costume of the sans-culottes’ is based on popular dress, but transforms it into a symbol; it should therefor be detached form its social determinations” (Wrigley, pg. 20). The Sans-culotte dressed up in the same attire as the workingmen in France so that they could show that they were relating to the common people of France. They disregarded luxurious and elegant dress. Much like the homespun movement that occurred in Revolutionary America, where the people created their own clothing and rejected English clothing, the French people of the 3rd Estate chose to wear common and popular clothes and the women decided to take fashion into their own hands and became seamstresses and embroiderers. In Mercier’s writing about the year 2440, we can see this progressive attitude towards dress in his fantasy. The people of the future didn’t care for elegance in dress; they dressed for comfort and practicality.
This dress is very similar to the robe that I have chosen to discuss. This dress was made in the 1790’s and is made out of cotton. Because it was made out of cotton, it can be assumed that it was either made in America or the materials were brought from America. This dress could very well be a product of the homespun movement.
This corset was made in England around 1775-1799. It was made by a professional stay maker who was most likely a man, and was pretty expensive because it had to be fitted and made during private appointments. Women of the upper classes in British society probably wore corsets like this one.
Wrigley, Richard. “The Formation and Currency of a Vestimentary Stereotype: The Sans- Culotte in Revolutionary France” in Fashioning the Body Politic: Dress, Gender, Citizenship. New York: Berg. Pp. 19-47.
Mercier, Louis-Sebastien. “The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One”. Amsterdam, 1771. Pp. 300-313.
“Petition of Women of the Third Estate to the King (1 January 1789) in The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Lynn Hunt (Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston/New York), 1996, Pp. 60–63.
1790’s Dress. Bath Fashion Museum. Museum number: 1.09.2004
Corset. Bath Fashion Museum. Museum number: 2003.734