Last week we looked at the satire print “A French Family” from 1792 and the newly fashionable deshabille including the chemise a la reine. When it first arrived on the scene in England via Perdita (actress Mary Robinson), the garment was considered shocking, and strict husbands forbade their wives from wearing a dress that resembled an actual chemise.
The problem with the garment was very simple: it was made of thin cotton fabric, like a lawn shirt, and was bleached to resemble plain white chemises. It effectively placed the habit of the boudoir in a public sphere, and the ton couldn’t get enough. Not only was the fabric expensive, the cotton markets of Egypt and the United States were unavailable to England due to poor trade relations. Increased trade with India through the British run cities of Madras, Calcutta, and Bombay introduced cotton in the 17th century but it wasn’t until the 1790s that cotton was manufactured in English mills, making it accessible and, most importantly, cheap.
The fabric shown in the fashion plates below was top quality muslin that silhouetted women’s bodies in any kind of weather, and was particularly revealing in English weather. To the disgruntlement of many, taking a stroll through Hyde Park showed off heretofore unseen ladies assets–bosoms, bums and legs exposed in a family park. Oh, my.
It seems ridiculous today, but the clingy muslin dress was probably the 18th century version of a wet t-shirt contest. I’m going to place its shock factor somewhere between the modern bikini in the 40s and the modern thong in the 70s . Men drooled and old ladies clucked at the loose morality of youth. But everybody fashionable wore it.
Compared with Cruikshank’s print, in reality the fashion was far less shocking. The dresses hung closer to a woman’s natural form and must have seemed louche to those accustomed to panniers and peek-a-boo underskirts topped with yards and yards of fabric, but they were classical, simplified. They were also a life-saver in hot, humid weather, and, as Anatole France relates almost a hundred years later in his 1893 At the Sign of the Reine Pedaque, were still appealing to men and women, albeit in different ways:
Following a discussion of war strategies:
“It is a secret I may well confide to you since there is no one to hear me but you, some bottles, Monsieur, whom I am going to kill presently, and this girl here who is taking off her clothes.”
“Yes,” Catherine said, “my chemise is enough. I’m so hot.”
Remarked by an Abbe to the heroine Catherine who has just experienced a drenching by a rogue:
“. . . the chemise of mademoiselle here, which owing to the wine with which it is soaked has become but a pink and transparent veil for her beauty.”
“It is true that idiot has wet my chemise,” said Catherine, “and I shall catch cold.”