Portraiture offers a wonderful insight into the changes in fashion. In portraits, the person portrayed could choose how he or she wanted to be presented. An important status symbol was always a befitting wardrobe. Being on trend was something not everyone was able to afford.

The culmination of portrait painting was seen in the 18th and 19th century. During these centuries, the undisputed capital of fashion was Paris. The gown that was worn by all women in Europe was the robe à la française, which was invented at the French royal court. It consisted of three parts: a skirt, a stiffened bodice and the Manteau, that was worn above the other parts. The Manteau significantly changed its shape over time.
Our first painting is admittedly not a portrait. Rather, it belongs to the genre of fêtes galantes which was created by this same painter.  This work portrays a particular garment of that time - the Contouche. Here is the floor-length Manteau - mentioned above - worn lose above a skirt and bodice. Its main element was the elaborate drapery on the back.

JEAN-ANTOINE WATTEAU (1684 Valenciennes-1721 Nognet-sur-Marne) - Les deux cousines, 1717-18 JEAN-ANTOINE WATTEAU (1684 Valenciennes-1721 Nognet-sur-Marne) - Les deux cousines, 1717-18

Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson Marquise de Pompadour is probably the most famous mistress of the French King Louis XV. She often sat for portraits by the best painters of France, in this case François Boucher. For Marquise, a portrait represented her power and her good taste. By wearing beautiful dresses in these portraits, she became an advert for the finest fabrics of the French silk industry.

FRANÇOIS BOUCHER (1703 Paris-1770 ebenda) - Madame de Pompadour, 1759 FRANÇOIS BOUCHER (1703 Paris-1770 ebenda) - Madame de Pompadour, 1759

In the 1770's, the French court robe was as pompous as ever. The paniers - the amplified "substructures", which gave the skirt the shape at its hip, became increasingly wider and the woman of the world also preferred towering hairstyles. In 1778 the profligate Marie Antoinette sat for a portrait in an ensemble by Élisabeth-Louise Vigee-Lebrun. The queen had a pronounced a penchant for fashion and spent incredible sums of money on it. She gave her favourite dressmaker, Rose Bertin, the title of "Minister of Fashion.''

ÉLISABETH-LOUISE VIGÉE-LEBRUN (1755 Paris-1842 ebenda) - Marie Antoinette, 1778 ÉLISABETH-LOUISE VIGÉE-LEBRUN (1755 Paris-1842 ebenda) - Marie Antoinette, 1778

In England, the Robe á l'anglaise, was the preferred outfit of choice.

JOSHUA REYNOLDS (1723 Plympton-1792 London) - Mary Amelia Countess of Salisbury, 1780-89 JOSHUA REYNOLDS (1723 Plympton-1792 London) - Mary Amelia Countess of Salisbury, 1780-89

The fashionable Marie Antoinette finally longed for a simpler wardrobe. She changed her wardrobe to simple white robes of plain muslin. Of course she wanted to be depicted in these simple outfit. She was painted by Madame Vigée-Lebrun this time, en gaule. The portrait was shown at the Paris Salon in 1783 and caused outrage. The Queen painted in a shirt! An impossible thought! The painting had to be removed from the exhibition.

ÉLISABETH-LOUISE VIGÉE-LEBRUN (1755 Paris-1842 ebenda) - Marie Antoinette en gaule, 1783 ÉLISABETH-LOUISE VIGÉE-LEBRUN (1755 Paris-1842 ebenda) - Marie Antoinette en gaule, 1783

The triumph of the robe à la chemise (shirt dress) was unstoppable. The French Revolution also contributed to women's fashion becoming more simple. With the three-piece robe à la française, it was over. The shaping "substructures" had disappeared - women's clothes were now comfortable.

FRANÇOIS GÉRARD (1770 Rom-1837 Paris) - Juliette Récamier, 1802 FRANÇOIS GÉRARD (1770 Rom-1837 Paris) - Juliette Récamier, 1802

By the 19th century, wearing an extremely tight laced corset was mandatory. In the 1820's and 1830's, puff sleeves were the fashion.

JOSEPH KARL STIELER (1781 Mainz-1858 München) - Nanette Kaula, 1829 JOSEPH KARL STIELER (1781 Mainz-1858 München) - Nanette Kaula, 1829

With the introduction of crinoline in 1840, clothes were a sea of fabrics and soft colours. The French Empress Eugénie and her ladies-in-waiting appeared in crinoline dresses in this painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, one of the most popular portrait painters of his time. In the 1860's, the crinoline was voluminous, the width of a dress could measure more than six metres.

FRANZ XAVER WINTERHALTER (1805 Menzenschwand-1873 Frankfurt am Main) - Kaiserin Eugénie mit ihren Hofdamen, 1855 FRANZ XAVER WINTERHALTER (1805 Menzenschwand-1873 Frankfurt am Main) - Empress Eugénie with her ladies, 1855

Around 1870, crinoline disappeared from the closet to make room for the bustle, which gave the dress volume on the rear only. The front portion was relatively tight, which was initially considered to be improper.

PIERRE-AUGUSTE RENOIR (1841 Limoge-1919 Cagnes-sur-Mer) - Die Pariserin, 1874 PIERRE-AUGUSTE RENOIR (1841 Limoge-1919 Cagnes-sur-Mer) - The Parisian, 1874

At the end of the 19th century, the bustle was out. Clothes became narrower. As was the case fifty years before, voluminous sleeves were fashionable again. They were used to create the delicate effect of the narrow waist.

JOHN SINGER SARGENT (1856 Florenz-1925 London) - Cora Countess of Strafford, 1899 JOHN SINGER SARGENT (1856 Florenz-1925 London) - Cora Countess of Strafford, 1899

At the beginning of the 20th century, with the invention of photography, portraiture was coming to an end.

PHILIP ALEXIUS DE LÁSZLÓ (1869 Budapest-1937 London) - Kronprinzessin Cecilie von Preußen, 1908 PHILIP ALEXIUS DE LÁSZLÓ (1869 Budapest-1937 London) - Crown Princess Cecilie of Prussia, 1908

Here we are at the end of our little trip through the fashion of two centuries. Thanks to the most gifted painters of their times, we can take a look back at fashion history in great detail.

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