Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette

I didn’t know I was so interested in eighteenth-century French fashion until I read Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, but now I am a self-proclaimed French fashion and history buff. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell brings together a highly readable yet academic account complete with various impressive sources of one of the most extravagant times in the history of fashion. You will either walk away from this book deeply satisfied in your curiosities of French fashion and history or newly fascinated.

French fashion

Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2015. Hardbound, 352 pages, $60. ISBN: 978-0-300-15438-2.

French fashion during this period was much more than a way of dress; it was a catalyst that shaped the story of the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The advent of the fashion magazine helped spread fashion far beyond the noble court; magazines and traditional French fashion dolls spread trends rapidly all around France. [To find out more about the history of fashion dolls throughout Europe, read “Redesigning the Past” by John R. Burbidge in the January/February 2000 issue of PieceWork.] The widespread influence of fashion was intertwined with beliefs of the public in the eighteenth century. For example, as the book describes, when ambassadress Lady Mary Wortley Montagu returned from Constantinople in 1718, she brought with her an understanding of Turkish style as well as the Turkish practice of smallpox inoculation. Although at first hesitant, the people of the west eventually adopted these styles and practices by the end of the century. When King Louis XVI was inoculated in 1774, the marchandes de modes (milliners) of Paris created a headdress called the pouf à l`inoculation, which included a rising sun and a serpent to represent the event. Thanks to publicity of the headdress, inoculation became much more conventional in France, where it had previously been a subject of much suspicion.

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Vintage engraving of Marie Antoinette during the Reign of Louis XVI, 1788. Photo by duncan1890/iStock/Getty Images.

Fashion Victims is divided into four parts: Court and City, New and Novel, Fashion and Fantasy, and Revolution and Recovery. Court and City explores the ways fashions of the royal court influenced fashions of everyday French people. Marie Antoinette’s influence was far-reaching; many items available to common people were sold with a tag that read “à la reine,” in the style of the queen. [To find out about one trend Marie Antoinette propelled, read about muslin garments in “The Height of Femininity: Wispy Cotton Dresses” by Mary Polityka Bush in the July/August 2015 issue of PieceWork.] This section also describes the influence of the marchande de modes and the social archetype of petit-maîtresse, which translates literally as “little mistress,” and was basically the term for a fashion victim. The petit-maîtresse was concerned only with keeping up with fads, no matter how outlandish, though this term was not necessarily derogatory at the time.

The New and Novel section explains the evolution of fashion. At first, most people wore secondhand clothing. Even Marie-Antoinette had items renouvelé (renewed); she would buy new clothes several times a year but would have these items updated with more current trends often. During the reign of Louis XVI, however, occasions where etiquette demanded new clothes became more frequent. With the help of fashion magazines quickly disseminating news of updated trends, fashion became faster. It was also very important to most of the French to be nouveau (novel), which meant to follow all trends, no matter how ridiculous or unflattering.

Fashion and Fantasy describes the way current events were incorporated into French fashion. For example, after the United States gained independence from the British with the help of France, women wore coëiffure à la Belle Poule, extravagant headdresses depicting a ship in full sail. This trend shows the influence the American Revolution had on fashions of the time.

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Coëiffure à l’Indépendance ou le Triomphe de la libert, ca. 1778, a fashion plate depicting a coëiffure à la Belle Poule. Photo by By Moreau.henri /Wikimedia Commons.

The final section, Revolution and Recovery, explores how fashion influenced and was influenced by the French Revolution. François Dominique de Reynaud, Comte de Montlosier, a French politician and political writer, wrote an essay called “De la Mode,” which means “on fashion,” in the March 23, 1798, issue of Courier de Londres. He attacked “the century of fashion,” claiming it had destroyed society and tarnished morals and ideals of the time.

As the book says, fashion seems to have both defined and destroyed France in the eighteenth century. Certainly, the French people fell victim to the dress at the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Read Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette to be enthralled by excellent illustrations, images, and information. After reading this book, you will become a French history and fashion buff yourself.

Happy reading,

For more blog posts on French fashion, read “An Excerpt from: Gifts of the Sultan: The Fashion Influence of Tippoo-Saïb.”

For articles in PieceWork by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, read the following issues:

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