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Art Through Time: A Global View

Ceremony and Society Art: Court Dress

» British artist

Court Dress

Court Dress
Artist / Origin: British artist
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1750
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Blue silk taffeta brocaded with silver thread
Medium: Textiles and Fiber Arts
Dimensions: Length at CB (a): 49 in. (124.5 cm) Length at CB (b): 37 in. (94 cm) Length (c): 11 in. (27.9 cm)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Irene Lewisohn Bequest

European women’s fashion from at least the fifteenth through much of the eighteenth century was focused on creating a silhouette that was characterized by a narrow waist and fuller hips.

As the ideal size and shape of the waist and hips and the proportion between them changed over time, women sought to achieve those ideals through a variety of undergarments. Various kinds of hoops, in particular, were used to structure the lower part of the body. Popular during the Renaissance, farthingales, for instance, were round hoops worn under skirts to give them a cylindrical shape as they fell to the floor. In contrast, panniers, which came into fashion in the early 1700s, quickly evolved into oblong hoops intended to create a flat profile silhouette that when viewed frontally presented a wide, rectangular form.

This brocaded silk dress exemplifies the extremes to which panniers were sometimes taken by the mid-eighteenth century. This style of dress, with a corseted conical torso set over a skirt that could extend several feet horizontally, was closely linked to the French court at Versailles. Described as robes à la française, such dresses enjoyed popularity among British aristocrats who took their fashion lead from France. The impractical nature of such garb (a women wearing a dress like this might have to turn sideways to maneuver through a doorway) led on occasion to public lampooning. It also meant that such dresses were not adopted for casual wear. Rather, a costume with a pannier as wide as this one was reserved for the formal and ceremonial life of the court.

The social life of the nobility in both eighteenth-century France and Britain was defined in many ways by ritual and spectacle. One’s behavior in social settings was dictated by formalized etiquette. Likewise, one’s dress had to meet certain standards of decorum as well as fashionability. The way a person moved and the actions in which he or she participated were driven to an extent by the costume he or she wore and vice versa. A dress like this simultaneously announced the wealth, rank, and position (actual or desired) of the wearer, necessitated carefully orchestrated movement, and negotiated relationships between people in space.

Expert Perspective:
Andrew Bolton, Associate Curator, The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“When you come to formal and ceremonial clothing, it’s much more about spectacle and ceremony. So practicality is less a function of clothing than it is about showing off one’s wealth, showing off one’s position.

In the eighteenth century women had to, literally, had to bend from their hips in a way, the bottom of the waist didn’t actually get any movement. And it was reinforced by what you call a ‘busk,’ which, again, kept you more rigid.

And there was no practicality in that. That was really about trying to achieve an ideal form of beauty. The corset and the pannier are very much about trying to evoke an ideal form of beauty that was very much fashionable in the eighteenth century. Less about practicality and more about idealism.”

Additional Resources

Breward, Christopher. Fashion. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

“Court dress [British] (C.165.13.1a-c).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. 2006).

Koda, Harold, and Andrew Bolton. Dangerous Liaisons: Fashion and Furniture in the Eighteenth Century. Introduction by Mimi Hellman. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.

Mansel, Philip. Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Ribeiro, Aileen. Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe, 1715–1789. Revised edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Weber, Caroline. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. New York: Picador 2006.

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