Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Welcome to Reading World's first guest blog. Laurel Corona, author of Finding Emilie, will tell us about 18th century fashion. You've seen the giant dresses and mounds of hair. You have been curious, haven't you?

Dress and Politics in Enlightenment France
by Laurel Corona

When I leaf through history books, or go to an art gallery and see portraits of men and women in white wigs and wearing the tight, constraining clothes of the Enlightenment era, something in my head says, “move on.” Maybe it’s a bit too much of the Founding Fathers in school, but they all seem so starchy, unfun, and, well, academic.

The more I learned doing research for FINDING EMILIE, the weirder they became. I discovered, for example that the panniers the women wore to balloon their skirts out like boxes over their hips made it impossible to sit on a chamber pot, so they wore huge numbers of petticoats and simply peed where they stood.  Ewww!!  And one reason that enemas were so popular was--well, do I need to say how difficult a major rumbling in the gut might make things?

I discovered also that tight and precise fits made it necessary to be sewn into gowns, particularly the sleeves, and that gowns were often varied by choosing different sleeves, or different outer or inner layers that would peek through or cover up a fabric one didn’t want to be seen wearing too often.  I wondered then about all these scenes of seduction from racy French novels of the time.  Surely a woman could not allow her sewn-in body to be bared. How would she get home with torn-off sleeves and ripped seams?  No quickies in a back room, that’s for sure, unless she just took off her panniers and lifted her skirt. How romantic! 

And then again, it seems as if the whole point of seduction was to leave men unrequited.  It was about teasing, about ardor, about hope and imagination. While she’s flirting, a parallel conversation must have been going on in the woman’s mind. How can I get this man into my bedroom after I’ve undressed?  Do I really want to take that risk? How attractive, rich, powerful, charming is he anyway?  My guess is the answer was often a flirtatious flick of a fan, a “come hither but stay away” reply, and not much in the way of action.

As I pored through source materials, I also discovered what social forces drove women into corsets, stomachers, busks, and panniers. In some respects I suppose it’s the same things shoveling women into push-up bras and body shapers today--an idealized body ours inevitably falls short of, and social pressure to make ourselves as attractive as possible.  But the extremes of dress at Versailles in the eighteenth century reflected something much deeper. Women’s gowns and hair were not only symbols of that culture but also actors in a complex story of social dominance.

Panniers became ever wider and skirts more voluminous in the years before the French Revolution.  Hair was piled higher and higher, with elaborate decorations perched on top. Such things were a contest of sorts, an opportunity to show one’s grace and breeding by the simple act of managing to wear such a thing at all.  Picture it.  You’re sewn into a dress in which you can barely move.  Your arms are encased in skintight sleeves, tipped with layer after layer of delicate lace just long enough to brush across the remnants of food on your plate, and overturn a thin porcelain teacup or delicate crystal glass.  Yet you must move your arms because it is ungracious just to sit there.  You must coyly offer a bite on your fork to the man next to you, or touch his hand to make a point. You must lean toward him, or toward your glass or plate from the hips because the rigging of your dress makes it impossible to bend from the waist or shoulders. Your hair style has doubled the height of your head and is weighed down with a headdress that feels as if it might be shifting, but you must tease and flirt without appearing stiff necked.

Madame de Pompadour's dress
Marie Antoinette
All of this is a test. How do you handle a dress like the one worn by Madame de Pompadour in the painting shown here?  How do you look relaxed in a hairdo like the one Marie Antoinette is sporting here?

 Can you float your way through a room filled with delicate furniture topped by precious porcelain decorations, without knocking anything over (a mere touch might do it) in a skirt so wide you had to turn sideways to get through the doorway?  Can you sit down gracefully, ballooning out the yards of fabric in your skirt just so--and even harder, appear relaxed while you converse, and then rise with no apparent effort to your feet?  If a gentleman offers you a hand to get up, can you lay it in his without grasping or tugging on it, to prove that you needed no help at all?

In this scene from FINDING EMILIE, the heroine Lili and her friend Delphine practice for their presentation at Versailles:

“And now, Mademoiselle du Châtelet, shall we try it again?  And please do not sigh this time.  A show of frustration is most unbecoming.” She lifted one hand in a delicate arc.  “Fluid grace.  Effortlessness.  That is your goal.”  She turned to Delphine.  “But first, Mademoiselle de Bercy, show us how you rise from a low couch.” 

Her eyes followed every move as Delphine stood up. “You are launching yourself upward. [...]To do it properly, Mademoiselle de Bercy, you must summon your strength by drawing your toes under you to support your weight, and come up using the strength in your upper legs, comme ça.”

Madame de Quesnay’s corset kept her back rigid as she tilted her body forward just a little from the hips. “From the thighs,” she said as she rose from her chair in one motion. “Mademoiselle du Châtelet, let’s observe you again.  Sit where Mademoiselle de Bercy just was, as if Monsieur were an admirer you are delighted to see.  Then get up from the couch as gracefully as if the air under your gown was setting you afloat.”

Walk to couch. Rotate hips to move panniers aside so I can land on my behind. Stick out left foot enough to help shift my weight to right foot but not enough for it to show from under my petticoats.  Weight on right foot, bend at hips, brace leg against couch and go down slowly. Voilà. Lili hit the seat with only a little bump.

“Quite improved,” Madame de Quesnay said.  “But you are showing far too much concentration.  Your lips had practically disappeared inside your mouth and that is, of course, most unattractive. Practice at home until you can get up and down as if you gave no thought to it.” Seated again in her fauteuil, Madame de Quesnay raised and lowered her hand in a fluid motion.   “Remember, you have no thoughts at all, except how pleasant it is to have the opportunity to converse with an attractive gentleman. Now, rise as I explained, and repeat the entire motion--down, then up.”

 Get up from the couch as gracefully as if the air under your gown was setting you afire, Lili thought, suppressing the urge to laugh. 

Except it wasn’t funny. In a world where impoverished hereditary aristocrats and wealthy bourgeoisie intermarried--the former for money, the latter for title--to fail to be effortless and gracious indicated poor breeding, a sign that, poor dear, you really don’t belong in society.  Lives could be ruined over a porcelain figurine knocked from a table, an indecorous laugh, a poorly received remark, a toppled hairdo. As Lili and Delphine prepare for Versailles, they know that their future depends entirely upon things that don’t--or at least shouldn’t--matter at all.

Thank you, Laurel!!

1 comment:

  1. How fascinating! I loved reading this post and it gave me so much more information about living in France back in the day, something I'm also looking to learn more about :)