The “Beau Monde” High Fashion of the 18th Century

On August 1, 1714, Queen Anne of Great Britain drew her last breath, and the first of a series of Georges ascended to the throne, marking the dawn of an extraordinary new era of exploration, invention, industry, and art—the Georgian Era.

As the rural economy shifted to an urban industrial one, huge advances in science, design and engineering brought wealth to a new class of merchants, businessmen, and financiers.

This nouveau riche “middling sort”, or middle class, imitated the lifestyle of the aristocracy. Looking fashionable was a full-time occupation, and a tall order—since the Georgian aristocracy didn’t do things by halves.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, England. Credit Blenheim Palace
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, England. Credit Blenheim Palace
Imperial pleasure palace Schoenbrunn, courtyard by Bernardo Bellotto, 1761.
Imperial pleasure palace Schoenbrunn, courtyard by Bernardo Bellotto, 1761.

Unlike the 17th century, it was parliament, not the monarchy, that held sway over governing the country.

Plush new town homes were built to house the politicians and their servants for the London season—corresponding to the sitting of parliament.

Park Crescent, London. Credit spudgun67
Park Crescent, London. Credit spudgun67

Fashion established the social pecking order. Aristocratic elites aped each other’s tastes, the middle class watched and learned, and the press fanned the public’s fascination with the glitterati.

This was the age of the Beau Monde.

Pleasure gardens, exhibitions and assemblies were open to all who could afford tickets.

Vauxhall Gardens by Thomas Rowlandson, 1785
Vauxhall Gardens by Thomas Rowlandson, 1785

At Vauxhall Gardens, London, a shopkeeper’s wife and daughters could rub shoulders with the landed gentry.

Men looked resplendent in their finery …

1760. British Suit. Wool, gilt metal. metmuseum
1760. British Suit. Wool, gilt metal. metmuseum

… a declaration of fashion on both sides of the Big Pond.

John Hancock by John Singleton Copley, 1765
John Hancock by John Singleton Copley, 1765

Men’s attire remained fairly static throughout the 18th century—predominantly coats, waistcoats and breeches—with stylistic changes to the fabric and cut.

Suits ranged from the elaborately embroidered silks and velvets of formal “full dress” to hard-wearing woolen garments more suitable for outdoor sport and country pursuits.

The 18th-century Beau Monde male wanted to look as fashionable as possible with seemingly little effort—exuding an air of “nonchalance.”

c. 1800. Man's ensemble. Silk cut and voided velvet on plain-weave foundation with supplementary weft-float patterning and silk embroidery. LACMA
c. 1800. Man’s ensemble. Silk cut and voided velvet on plain-weave foundation with supplementary weft-float patterning and silk embroidery. LACMA
c. 1755 Man's ensemble. Silk cut, uncut, and voided velvet (ciselé) on satin foundation. LACMA
c. 1755 Man’s ensemble. Silk cut, uncut, and voided velvet (ciselé) on satin foundation. LACMA

But it was women who really stole the show.

1750. British. Woman's Dress and Petticoat with Stomacher (Robe à l'anglaise). Brocaded silk satin. LACMA
1750. British. Woman’s Dress and Petticoat with Stomacher (Robe à l’anglaise). Brocaded silk satin. LACMA
Portrait of Elisabeth Christine von Braunschweig-Bevern by Antoine Pesne, 1739
Portrait of Elisabeth Christine von Braunschweig-Bevern by Antoine Pesne, 1739
Fan 1760s Netherlands. Credit KCI
Fan 1760s Netherlands. Credit KCI

Between 1720 and 1780, ladies wore imposing Robes à la Française (French Dress) and Robes à l’Anglaise (English Dress).

Derived from the loose negligée sacque dress of the early part of the century, Robes à la Française had an open funnel-shaped front—often with stomacher panel—and wide rectangular skirts of expansive fabric decorated with delicate Rococo designs.

c. 1765. Robe à la Française. European. Silk. metmuseum
c. 1765. Robe à la Française. European. Silk. metmuseum
1765. Robe à la Française. French. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1765. Robe à la Française. French. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1765. Robe à la Française. French. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1765. Robe à la Française. French. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1765. Woman's Dress and Petticoat (Robe à la française). Silk plain weave (faille) with silk and metallic-thread supplementary-weft patterning, and metallic lace. LACMA
1765. Woman’s Dress and Petticoat (Robe à la française). Silk plain weave (faille) with silk and metallic-thread supplementary-weft patterning, and metallic lace. LACMA
1760. Robe à la française. French. Silk plain weave (faille) with silk and metallic-thread supplementary weft patterning, and metallic lace trim. LACMA
1760. Robe à la française. French. Silk plain weave (faille) with silk and metallic-thread supplementary weft patterning, and metallic lace trim. LACMA
c1775. Robe a la Francaise. French. Silk bobbin lace. mfa.org
c. 1775. Robe a la Francaise. French. Silk bobbin lace. mfa.org

Obtaining such a silhouette took some hidden magic—an undergarment structure of panniers.

Panniers, 1750. metmuseum
Panniers, 1750. metmuseum
Panniers 1780. Credit LACMA
Panniers 1780. Credit LACMA

But, oh, what power the dress held over the male of the species …

Porcelain figurine dancer wearing a pannier
Porcelain figurine dancer wearing a pannier

The robe à la française compelled men everywhere to declare their love on bended knee.

The Declaration of Love by Jean François de Troy, 1731
The Declaration of Love by Jean François de Troy, 1731

Court etiquette demanded an altogether higher level of commitment to fashion. Size mattered. And one name stood out across Europe as synonymous with court fashion—Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette in a court dress worn over extremely wide panniers, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1778
Marie Antoinette in a court dress worn over extremely wide panniers, Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1778
1765 Robe à la française. Silk satin with weft-float patterning and silk passementerie. LACMA
1765 Robe à la française. Silk satin with weft-float patterning and silk passementerie. LACMA

You may be wondering, what’s the point? Well, the whole idea behind such width was to provide a panel where woven patterns, elaborate decorations and rich embroidery could be displayed and fully appreciated.

c. 1750. Court dress. British. Silk, metallic thread. metmuseum
c. 1750. Court dress. British. Silk, metallic thread. metmuseum
c. 1750. Court dress. British. Silk, metallic thread. metmuseum
c. 1750. Court dress. British. Silk, metallic thread. metmuseum

For the wearer of this little number, the only way to pass through doorways was literally sideways.

c. 1750. Court dress. British. Silk, metallic thread. metmuseum
c. 1750. Court dress. British. Silk, metallic thread. metmuseum
1755 Mantua. England. Silk, silver-gilt thread, linen thread, silk thread, hand-sewn. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1755 Mantua. England. Silk, silver-gilt thread, linen thread, silk thread, hand-sewn. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A variation on the Robe à la Française was the Robe à l’Anglaise, having a tight, fitted back, rather than the draped pleats of the Française.

1750. Robe à l'Anglaise. British. Silk.
1750. Robe à l’Anglaise. British. Silk.
1750. Robe à l'Anglaise. British. Silk
1750. Robe à l’Anglaise. British. Silk
1776. Robe à l'Anglaise. British. Silk
1776. Robe à l’Anglaise. British. Silk

Another popular style of gown in the 18th-century was the Robe à la Polonaise (Polish Dress).

Characterized by a close-fitting bodice and skirt gathered up into three separate puffed sections at the back, the polonaise was suspended by rows of little rings sewn inside the skirt, or sometimes ribbon ties forming decorative bows.

1780 Robe à la Polonaise. French. Silk. metmuseum
1780 Robe à la Polonaise. French. Silk. metmuseum
1780 Robe à la Polonaise. French. Silk. metmuseum
1780 Robe à la Polonaise. French. Silk. metmuseum

In the latter part of the 18th century, fashion became simpler and less elaborate. Spurred by modern Enlightenment thinking, the fashionability of Rococo went into decline.

1790s, American, silk. metmuseum
1790s, American, silk. metmuseum
French cartoon showing contrats between fashions of 1793 on the left and those of 1778 on the right
French cartoon showing contrast between fashions of 1793 on the left and those of 1778 on the right

Following the French Revolution, people began dressing for individual expression rather that social status.

In trendsetting France, out went the aristocracy and in came Napoleon’s first Empress, Joséphine de Beauharnais sporting the “Empire Silhouette”. High-waisted, with a long, flowing skirt, it was a look that would take Europe by storm.

Joséphine in coronation costume by Baron François Gérard
Joséphine in coronation costume by Baron François Gérard
1800 Empire Silhouette Dress, LACMA
1800 Empire Silhouette Dress, LACMA

The 18th-century Beau Monde was over … but the 19th century would see its own excesses.

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