How To Dress When Visiting Versailles – An 18th Century Fashion Show

While many of us are stuck at home, it seems like the perfect time to dust off my blog and dive back into sharing my love of history with all of you. Today is International Museum Day, and it saddens me that I have no idea when I’ll next step foot into the museums that I love. Since we can’t visit any museums at the moment, I thought I bring one to you.

A few years ago, I went to see the Visitors to Versailles 1682-1789 exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art with my friend Virginia. Some of the items really caught my eye, and their images are preserved in photos on my phone, along with their accompanying placards. So here is a mini curated glimpse of the fashions from that exhibition for your viewing pleasure. Best of all, you don’t have to deal with any crowds to see these lovely creations.

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As evident from the title, this exhibition focused on what is was like to be a visitor to Versailles. For those of you that don’t know, Versailles was the royal residence of the Bourbon kings from 1682 until the French Revolution and was considered the most magnificent court in Europe. I was surprised to discover the palace and its gardens were unusually public and allowed anyone who was decently dressed to enter. This open strategy was politically calculated, drawing on the long tradition of granting French subjects access to their ruler. From the moment Louis XIV transformed his father’s simple hunting lodge into the ultimate architectural expression of his absolute rule, travelers of all kinds flocked to see the king in his extraordinary setting.

This exhibition explored the experiences of various types of visitors and inhabitants of the palace. It quickly became evident that visitors had vastly different types of encounters with the royal family and the spaces they inhabited, depending on their rank and the reason for their trip. One part of the exhibition I found most interesting was devoted to how one dressed if you were going to Versailles. And if you were coming from outside the country, you had a bit of catching up to do first.

In 1782 John Adams, the American minister to France and future president of the United States, wrote these words of advice to anyone traveling to Paris: “The first thing to be done in Paris is always send for a tailor, peruke [wig] maker, and shoemaker. For this nation has established such a domination over fashion, that neither clothes, wigs nor shoes made in any other place will do in Paris.” Many foreign visitors to court exchanged their plain clothes for fashionable, richly embellished French attire. Pre-embroidered panels ready to be cut and sewn to the client’s specific measurements allowed for quick transformation. What these French artisans could do with fabric, hair, and leather are truly amazing. So sit back and enjoy this eighteenth-century fashion show.

Let’s Hear It For The Ladies

Ladies riding habit, British, 1770

This riding habit is an example of what a British woman would wear when traveling. Leaving the woman’s feet exposed, the riding costume’s shorter skirt allowed for greater freedom of movement, making it suitable for travel. The pleated and flared skirts is paired with a fitted jacket, tailored like a man’s. For a visit to Versailles, the owner would have changed from her unadorned riding outfit into an elaborately trimmed robe a la francaise with a full skirt over a wide hoop. For presentation to the king and other ceremonial occasions at Versailles, women were required to don a grand habit, or formal court gown with a train, which could not be used more than once without substantial alterations.

Robe a la francaise , French, ca. 1770-75

The above dress was made of silk faille with cannele stripes, brocaded in polychrome floral motif, trimmed with self fabric. This style of dress is characterized by free-flowing back pleats that extended from shoulder to hem, the robe a la francaise had been largely abandoned by the 1770s, except at court. A woman conveyed her status not only through the display of rich textiles but also through her elegant negotiation of the cumbersome hoop under the large skirt, a learned skill intended to give the impression of natural grace.

Formal Ball Gown (robe paree), French, 1780s

This ball gown is attributed to Marie Jeanne “Rose” Bertin (1747-1813). Showing the refinement of French eighteenth-century court dress, this richly embellished ball gown of silk stain was a luxury few could afford. The metallic threads, sequins, and glass stones would have sparkled by candlelight. The petticoat, originally worn over a large pannier (but subsequently altered to a slimmer style), increased the volume and weight of the dress and in combination with the train, made it difficult for the wearer to dance or move freely.

The Men Would Not Be Outdone

Suit of wool broadcloth, British, 1755-65

This plain wool suit, exemplifying the British preference for simple, informal menswear, may have been worn by a gentleman traveling to France in the 1760s. Once in Paris, the visitor would have augmented his wardrobe by acquiring more lavishly trimmed attire in the latest French fashion. Part of the dress code for gentlemen was the habit a la francaise, consisting of a coat with matching breeches and a coordinated waistcoat, combined with a smallsword and a tricorne hat (mostly worn under the arm).

Suit (habit a la francaise), French, 1780s

The above coat and breeches are made of voided silk velvet with faille ground, embroidered in silk. The waistcoat is made of ivory silk satin with silk embroidery. Stitch lines on the left breast of the coat, in the shape of an eight-pointed star, suggest that the unidentified wearer of this formal French suit had received a chivalric honor (possibly the Order of the Holy Spirit). For that reason it is likely that this habit a la francaise, adopted as court dress throughout Europe by the 1760s, was worn at Versailles.

Suit (habit a la francaise), French, 1780s

Count Axel Fersen the Younger must have struck a fine figure at Versailles in this fashionable suit with exquisite floral embroidery. A member of an influential Swedish aristocratic family, Fersen first visited France on his Grand Tour (a trip taken to further ones education) in 1773-74 and met Marie Antoinette. Over time, they developed an intimate friendship.

Smallsword, French, ca. 1769

Smallswords were an essential component of the dress code for all gentlemen visiting Versailles. This particular smallsword belonged to a member of the Garden du Corps, the premier cavalry unit charged with the protection of the king and household. Drawn from the aristocracy and distinguished by their courtly manner, members of this group would have been a common sight for visitors to Versailles. The use of precious metal suggests that this sword was intended for an officer.

Coat from the grand livery of the royal household, French, 1770-1780

Finally, this coat did not belong to a visitor at Versailles but to a servant of the royal household. The red, white, and blue uniforms that were used by the members of the royal household at Versailles clearly stood out. Each livery consisted of a justaucorps (knee-length coat) of blue wool lined with red-dyed serge or silk worn over a waistcoat and breeches. The colors of the braids and matching buttons on the coat defined a person’s rank among the staff, which included pages, lackeys, coachmen, grooms, sweepers, and floor-waxers.

I have a few other things that were featured in this exhibition that I’ll post next. I simply wanted to give the beautiful fashions their own time to shine. My next article will feature a few of the famous visitors to the royal palace and some gifts they received. If you haven’t yet subscribed to this blog, now is a good time. It’s a great way to make sure you don’t miss the next feature or any of my upcoming articles about some other cool museum exhibitions I’ve attended.

Note : All the information provided with the images are taken from the placards written by the curators of this exhibition.

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