The Birth of Fashion

January 23, 2022

Last November, the Musée d’Arts de Nantes debuted a fashion-themed exhibition, “À la mode. L’art de paraître au 18e siècle,” which explores the rising influence and representation of fashion in the Enlightenment era. With more than 200 objects on display, the show is credited to three scientific curators: Adeline Collange- Perugi, heritage curator, in charge of the collections of ancient art at the Nantes Museum of Arts; Pascale Gorguet Ballesteros, chief heritage curator, in charge of the 18th century fashion department at the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. It continues through March 26th and warrants the short day trip beyond Paris. 

Alexandre ROSLIN
Le Duc Fredrik Adolf, (1750-1803), prince de Suède, frère de Gustave III, 1770
Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, copyright : Erik Cornelius / Nationalmuseum 2006

The exhibition, “À la mode. The Art of Appearance in the 18th Century” highlights the deep connection between fashion and painting. How would you describe the fascination for fashion amongst painters – portraitists, in particular?
Not all painters have an interest in fashion. Indeed, many of them during the 18th century favoured religious or historical painting, which was more highly esteemed by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture than portraiture. Nevertheless, more and more artists sought technical excellence in the representation of clothes and especially their fabrics. Manuals existed that explained the representation of draperies and the shine of silks. They were often criticised for this technical skill when they exhibited at the Salon. Diderot accused some of them of neglecting the models’ physiognomy.

François Boucher, La Marchande de modes, 1746
Stockholm, Nationalmuseum © Cecilia Heisser / Nationalmuseum

To what extent are painters the ancestors of fashion designers? 
Painters play a dual role. They prefigured the influencers of our time by depicting painted models wearing clothes and accessories. These models also illustrate the taste of the portraiture as well as that of the artist. For example, Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun liked to depict her models in bathrobes or simple white dresses, borrowing them from her studio wardrobe if necessary. Moreover, the painter designed clothes and textile motifs, unlike the fashion retailer who assembled ornaments on a garment, thus playing a more downstream role in the creative chain. In this way, painter-drawers played an essential role, in a sense designing the fabric decorations and the fashion images disseminated by the press. These painters undoubtedly contributed to the establishment of French fashion.

Which garment is most emblematic of this era?
It is difficult to focus on a single garment. Regarding women’s clothing, two forms of dress perfectly illustrate the wave of freedom that swept through the Age of Enlightenment: The French dress and the straight dress. The first one, characterised by a back decorated with a double series of flat folds, remains linked to a vision of the female body inherited from the 16th century – that is, structured and geometrical. It is worn atop stiffly ribbed boning and a panier which, depending on the decade, accentuates the volume of the hips. It is the rococo dress by definition, from the years 1740-1760, wonderfully worn by Madame de Pompadour in her formal portraits. In contrast, a form of dress gradually emerged in the second half of the century that featured white cotton muslin imported from India as a reinterpretation of Antiquity revived by the recent discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This dress, which became very popular in the 1780s, is shaped straight and is worn without rigid undergarments. Nevertheless, it is just as ostentatious as the French dress since it implies certain living conditions such as well heated living rooms.

Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Yolande- Martine-Gabrielle de Polastron, duchesse de Polignac, 1782
Versailles, châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, photo : © RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

Festivities and entertainment are at the heart of this phenomenon. Did they lead to the acceleration of fashion trends? 
Yes, these are opportunities to show off. We know that theatres, for example, were an opportunity to be seen. The architects of the current Odéon Theatre in Paris proposed a circular building shape to show off the ladies. Another famous architect, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), refers to the way ladies ’embellished’ the halls with their various finery. The auditorium prefigures today’s fashion show areas. In the exhibition catalogue, there is a fascinating article around appearances developed in Paris that reached the European elites, proving that fashion was also a matter of sociability.

The last part of the exhibition focuses on the representation of intimacy at the end of the 18th century. Do you consider this to be a turning point in our relationship with the body?
In fact, in just 80 years, the 18th century shifted from an artificial vision of the body to a natural vision. For both men and women, a playful and unpretentious perception of the body emerged. Unclothed portraits, portraits in shirts, bare busts, suggestive or even naughty gestures speak to a new sensibility around the body and the senses at that time. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

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