Chemise à la Reine: Underwear to Outerwear

Marie Antoinette
by Vigée le Brun, 1783

By the time Vigée le Brun scandalized the masses by exhibiting the Queen in what appeared to be her underwear in 1783, the queen and women of quality had been going en chemise for several years and not just in the privacy of their boudoir. Like oil and water, the classes didn’t mix and this was the first time the populace had been exposed en masse to the depravities of the aristocracy. Ironically, the shocking bit was the lack of formality shown by a monarch already famous for flouting tradition. The Queen (capitol Q) was shown without any of the outward symbols and trappings of her position, culturally naked, and appearing en negligée was taken as an insult to her position as mother of the people.
Le Brun was forced to remove her painting from the public eye, but like all scandals, they inspire more than they deter and the chemise gown became the symbolic frock of the 1780’s.
The earliest versions were formed much like actual chemises, consisting of four pieces of rectangular cotton muslin yardage and gathered at the neck, just under the bosom, and again at the natural waist, which was then belted with very broad silk sash and tied in back. Sleeves were full, and also tied at two or three places, stopping at or just below the elbow. This was frequently finished off at the neck with a double or tripple collar. By 1790 classical lines and revolutionary ardor had taken the beau monde by storm and women of fashion and culture appeared in portraits and the salons as idolized Roman matrons or Greek godesses. This was primarily achieved by losing the gathered waist and broad sash and the fullness of the sleeves. Sleeves were either close fitted into the armhole, and no longer than just above the elbow, or non-existant, a la toga. It wasn’t until the later Empire period that the poofy sleeve often associated with this style was introduced.

1794 Delivering a basket of food
to the Conciergerie prison, the last stop before the guillotine

As revolutionary sentiment reached a fever pitch (and mostly among the artistocracy, I might add), the pinnacle of outward expression of revolutionary fervor was the Roman simplicity and egalitarian nature of the the white muslin gown.
Initially quite modest by our standards, by 1791 the simple frock was every bit as daring as can be imagined. Up until 1800 it could be worn with or without short-waisted corsets. There are numerous portraits of young women of the demi-monde going bare-breasted or the semi-transparent. This effect was often enhanced by dampening the dress with water so it would cling to the figure like a classical statue. In order to preserve some semblance of modesty knitted knee length knickers would be worn… the first underwear maybe? And can be clearly seen in this Incroyable et Merveilleuse painting by Boilly.
Continued: For the most extreme and exotic versions of the fashion, please see the Incroyable & Merveilleuse gallery! (coming soon!)

Self Portrait 1781
Vigée le Brun
Madame du Barry 1781
Vigée le Brun
Cabinet des Modes, 1786
Chemise in spotted yellow
Source: Ribeiro
Princess Louise Augusta 1787
by Juel
Les Lavoisiers 1788
by Jacques-Louis David
La Marquise de Fresne 1789
Vigée le Brun
Self Portrait with Daughter
Vigée le Brun 1789
Madame Isabey
Jean-Baptiste Isabey
Portrait de femme
by Charles Paul Landon, 1793
Thérésia Cabarrus (later Tallien) in la Force prison awaiting the guillotine, 1794
Scéne de reproches
Michel Garnier 1794
Madame Seriziat
Jacques-Louis David
Imitation of Antiquity
Portrait of a Young Woman
circle of David
Gabrielle-Josephine du Pont
Léopold Boilly
A Painter’s Studio
Léopold Boilly
The Changing Silhouette
1790s Jean Baptiste Isabey
Miniature of young woman
1790s Jean Baptiste Isabey
Madame de Montalembert
Two Sisters
Anon. late 1790’s

Our English Cousins:

Angelica Kauffman
Lady Elizabeth Foster 1786
Sir Joshua Reynolds
Elizabeth Farren, 1790

2 thoughts on “Chemise à la Reine: Underwear to Outerwear”

  1. Hello – I am a writer, and I’m currently preparing a book about the French Revolution for publication. Some of the engravings and images on your website would be of interest for my book, so I am wondering if you could let me know their sources. There is no museum or photo agency citation, so I am not sure where to go to get permission to use them.
    Many thanks for your help in this.
    Best wishes,
    Jan Kelley

  2. Hi! I’m doing a history project on the chemise a la reine.I have to discus its’ detail,shape,texture,who,what,where and why.Can you help with information based on the afore mentioned?

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