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18th century court dress

18th century, 18th century court dress, underpinnings

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning: Paniers!

Trystan asked a very good question on my last post about court dress:  “A lot of the fashion plates make the skirts look more round than the flat rectangular shape seen in the extant gowns. Is this just artistic license or were there different styles needed different under-structure shapes? Bec. some of them look almost like there’s a round hoop worn under the gown, not side panniers, or maybe some weird cross-breed between the two. Or maybe it’s the same panniers with really fluffy petticoats that round out the look. Or again, artistic license!”

This is a great question, because (besides a shift and stockings), the first thing one needs under a French robe de cour, and many other 18th century court gowns, is a panier or hoop (also called “hoop-petticoat” in English; incidentally, panier translates as “basket”).

So what did French court paniers look like?  Were they different from regular paniers, or paniers worn in other countries? Did sizes and shapes change over time?  I can’t answer all these questions, but I can tell you what I’ve found out so far!

The 18th century hoop was probably invented in England, where there are references as early as 1709 (Chrisman).  They begin appearing in France in about 1718-19.  Initially, it was a rounded dome shape; from 1725-30, it was more shaped like an oval bell with a circumference of about eleven feet.  It was in the 1730s that the fronts and backs flattened to create the shape we think of when we think of the 18th century panier (Boucher).  According to François Boucher, “There were all sorts of paniers:  funnel-shaped paniers à guéridon, dome-shaped paniers à coupole, paniers à bourrelets flaring out at the foot of the gown, paniers à gondoles which made women resemble ‘water-carriers,” and elbow paniers, on which the wearer could rest her elbows, and which the 1729 Mercure describes as being more comfortable than paniers à guéridon.”  Amalia Descalzo writes that the elliptical hoop of the 1730s was called “paniers à coude” or “à commodité (74).  Most historians agree that full paniers (as opposed to the shorter, knee- or thigh-length hoops, or pocket hoops) went out of fashion in the second half of the eighteenth century except for court wear.  In 1765, Diderot’s Encyclopédie wrote that the style of the panier “lasted a long time, and is not yet passed” but was falling from fashion; “One goes today in town & to the theater without panier, & one does not wear them anymore on stage…”; however, the 1785 Encyclopédie Methodique complained in the 1785 that the panier “reigns at the theater, where it is seen in all its ridiculousness on the dancers” (the court gown was frequently worn by actresses and dancers, a fact which surprised me!).

Thus, the main occasion in which French women wore paniers in the second half of the century was for the robe de cour, under which it was required.  Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes that the size of the court panier fluctuated with fashion, the rank of the person wearing it, and the solemnity of the occasion.  She argues that in the 1740s, it grew very large following general trends, but stayed enormous when more modest paniers came into fashion.  She cites the grand duchess Maria Feodorovna of Russia, who was presented at Versailles in a panier of six aunes (24 feet or 8 yards); and the Cabinet des Modes (1786), which noted that while large paniers were not frequently worn for fashionable wear, they were worn at court.

The 1785 Encyclopédie Methodique gives the most information about court paniers:

“The English paniers are those that are worn under court ensembles & under theater costumes; they have a height of ¼ ½ or 7/8 [aunes?] and their width is three or four aunes.  They are lined with baleen, and more commonly in cane as it is less heavy.  This cane is a small reed from India that is cut on both sides to make it more square; it is covered with strips of fabric that are sewn to the skirt with which they form the panier.  This skirt is made in taffeta, but ordinarily in toile legere [canvas?].  The English paniers have three coudes [elbows, see below].

“The name coude [elbow] is given to a portion of cane or baleen that is only placed on the side of the skirt, and precisely in the elbow, & which is attached by its two ends, one in front, the other in back, on the first row of canes that entirely circles the panier [in other words, the arching canes on each top corner].”

“There are some paniers à l’Anglaise or paniers de Cour, of a lesser size than those indicated previously; these ones do not have but a row of cane underneath three elbows, the others [the bigger paniers? something else?] have two.

“The name coude is given to a small panier which has no more than two elbows on a sole row of cane that supported and ended the panier; it was the height of fashion, and it is passed now like a thousand other things.”

So what did French court paniers look like?  Unfortunately, none still exist, and I have yet to find any images of specifically French court paniers!  Luckily, there are two 18th century Swedish court ensembles, with paniers, that still exist:

The pattern for Lovisa Ulrika’s panier and entire ensemble (yay!) can be found in Norah Waugh’s Cut of Women’s Clothes… weirdly placed in one of the glossy photo inserts, underneath the photo of the dress. My memory is that there’s a pattern of Sofia Magdalena’s panier out there somewhere, but I can’t remember where — am I crazy?  Remind me if you know either way!

Thanks to Andrew, who found these two c. 1760 paniers:

There is also this English panier that seem helpful.  English paniers were known for being more boxy than French, but this doesn’t seem to follow that rule:

Because there are no extant French court paniers, I wanted to find another way to get some information on sizes and shapes.  I was inspired by American Duchess’s post on panier proportion to do something similar, except with paintings (I’m not convinced that museums always know exactly what shape and size hoop should go under a given skirt; I’m sure the Livrustkammaren has made reproductions of the extant Swedish court paniers to support the corresponding gowns, but other museums have to made educated guesses when working with dresses that do not have a surviving panier).  I decided to focus on images that I thought were trying to be relatively realistic, and so avoided fashion plates as those always seem exaggerated to me.

In order to examine silhouettes, here are a bunch of images of French court dress with my bad Photoshop annotations.  First, I outlined in red what I thought was the general side silhouette of the panier.  Then, I wanted to compare sizes, so I marked the width of the waist in green, and then copied that shape to see how the measurements of the panier compared.  Being a tall girl and so interested in height vs. width, I also marked in blue the height of the wearer, and compared that with the hem width of the panier.  The big problem, of course, is that nearly ALL of the images I’ve seen of women in court paniers show them standing at an angle (if you know of any full face images, send them my way!).  So that means we’re dealing with perspective, and so nothing is going to be spot on.  And, of course, we can assume the painter is A) flattering the sitter (probably tinier waists than reality!) and B) tweaking reality to suit their own, or the subject’s, taste.

The overarching lesson that I get from this is that yes, there is definitely variation, but also that it seems that all the French court hoops have an curved/arched top corner (using the “elbow” canes) and some degree of flare on the side (from a little to a lot).  There is also some degree of downward slope (from a little to a lot) starting at the waist (only “Presentation of the portrait of Maria Antonia of Austria” has a completely horizontal side).  None of them have the squared off corners and vertical lines seen under English court dresses.  Despite references in the Encyclopedie (above) to knee-length hoops, I’m not seeing any of the silhouettes that you’d see wearing that kind of hoop (of course, it could be that shorter hoops were worn for less formal occasions; having your portrait painted in court wear is obviously the most formal).

Hoops of the 1720s-30s were definitely narrower overall than those that came later.

Looking at the later images, it looks like the narrowest are those seen in “La Dame du Palais de la Reine” (1789), “La Dame de Cour” (1776), and the Carmontelle images (“Mademoiselle d’Azincourt,” “Mademoiselle Lani,” and “Portrait de Mademoiselle Sophie d’Arnoult”); these vary from just under the width of the waist to just under twice the width of the waist (before they start to go into the elbow curve).  The hem width of the panier appears to be equal to about 1/2 to 3/4 of the wearer’s height.

The 1730s-40s portraits of Marie Leczinska are all 1 to 1.75 of the waist width (before beginning the elbow curve), and a lot of flare from the elbow to the hem — although none have as much flare as the extant 1751 Lovisa Ulrika paniers.  The hem width appears to be about 3/4 of the wearer’s height.

The 1770s-80s images of Marie-Antoinette are all almost 2x the waist width (before beginning the elbow curve).  The 1775 & 1778 images show a lot to a medium amount of vertical flare.  The 1783 image has far less vertical flare, but there’s still a little bit there.  Hem width is 3/4 to just under the wearer’s height.

And then there are the slightly weird outliers, like “Naissance de Louis-Xavier-François,” which shows a pre-teen/teenage girl (probably Marie-Therese, Marie-Antoinette’s eldest daughter) wearing quite small hoops… and “The Royal Family Around Louis Joseph,” in which nobody seems to be wearing any hoops at all!!  Make of THAT what you will!


Francois Boucher, 20,000 Years of Fashion

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, “Le Grand Habit et la Mode en France au XVIIIeme Siecle,” Fastes de Cour et Ceremonies Royale

Amalia Descalzo, “La Permanence du Panier dans les Cours Europeennes,” Fastes de Cour et Ceremonies Royale

Encyclopédie Ou Dictionnaire Raisonné Des Sciences, Des Arts Et Des Métiers, vol. 11, 1765

Encyclopédie Methodique, 1785

Norah Waugh, Cut of Women’s Clothes



18th century, 18th century court dress

18th Century French Court Gowns – Basics

I thought it would be helpful to those making 18th century court gowns for next year to do some posts about the basics.  My interest in 18th century court wear is in the French styles, so I’ll mostly be blogging about those, but I’ll try to include some info on what was worn in other countries (and link to your posts about these topics, so please feel free to post away!).

By the 18th century, women’s court dress had become standardized, with women wearing clothing that was different from the current fashion.  The styles were based on fashionable attire from the late seventeenth century, which King Louis XIV preferred.  This style remained required for formal court occasions until the end of the eighteenth century, when things changed… but that’s another post!

So what did French women’s court dress look like for most of the eighteenth century?  The grande habit was composed of three elements:  the grande corps or corps de robe, the jupe, and the queue.

The Grande Corps/Corps de Robe

The “formal bodice” or “dress bodice” was a boned bodice (in other words, no separate stays — the boning was built into the bodice) with a high off-the-shoulder neckline and a pointed, tabbed waistline.  The sleeves were elbow length and made up of pleated lace, with short wings on the top of the armscye.

Swedish Queen Sofia Magdalena's wedding dress (1766) is based on the French style. Here you can see the essentially 17th century cut of the bodice, and the pleated lace sleeve.

Interior of Sofia Magdalena's corps de robe, showing the boned foundation | image via

The Jupe

The “skirt” was wide and worn over huge paniers.  I’ve seen references to “medium paniers” and “large paniers,” so obviously there was some room to maneuver (ha ha).

Wedding dress of Edwige Elisabeth Charlotte, Queen of Sweden

The Queue

The queue was an immensely long train, separate from the skirt, that attached at the waist.

The train on a doll's French court costume at the Fashion Museum, Bath | image via

As you can guess from the Swedish dresses, French court dress provided the prototype for court dress across Europe… but some countries (most notably England) wore different styles.  More on those, and the fiddly aspects of the French styles, in the coming weeks/months!  This is just a primer.


Fastes de Cour et Ceremonies Royales:  Le Costume de Cour en Europe, 1650-1800

20,000 Years of Fashion The History of Costume and Personal Adornment by Francois Boucher

Isis’ Wardrobe:  How to make a robe de cour in six weeks and hopefully not go crazy, part 2

15th century, 16th century, 17th century, 18th century, 18th century court dress, 19th century, 20th century, exhibitions

Another Digital Exhibition: Royal Danish Costume

Kongedragter is an online exhibition that features one outfit for each Danish king or queen, from Frederick II (1559-1588) to Margarethe II (1972-present).  Unfortunately, Margarethe’s is the only female outfit included, but still… if you’re into men’s costumes, there’s some really nice stuff in there!

If you’re like me and don’t speak Danish, click on the photo of a king/queen from the top right thumbnails. Wait a second and the clock will turn into an image of an ensemble, which you can then zoom (magnifying glass), rotate! (loop-y arrow), and get info about (“I”).

18th century, 18th century court dress, books, court dress, exhibitions

18th c. Court Costume Book Now Available

If you’re interested in buying the catalog for the 18th century court costume exhibit discussed below (Fastes de Cour), it’s now available at the cheapest price here from Yes, the interface is all in French, but the layout/buttons are exactly the same as the English language version, so it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out — and you can sign in to your account and it will pull up all your info. (Random site note: adding tags to this post to see if those are useful; if so, I’ll eventually go back and tag older entries too.)

18th century, 18th century court dress, court dress, exhibitions

Court Fashion Exhibit at Versailles

If you don’t live anywhere near Paris, be depressed with me that you are missing what looks like one of the more fabulous costume exhibits ever: Fastes de Cour: Le Costume de Cour en Europe, 1650-1800, currently on exhibit at the Chateau de Versailles. The website is fabulous, I’ve just ordered the catalogue, but I am still depressed. I am even more depressed to miss the symposium in early June. Do check out the website. Make sure you zoom the pictures. Le sigh.