Thursday, July 10, 2014

Daring Décolletage

 image: A portrait of Marie Antoinette wearing décolleté fashion attributed to Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty
The popularity of décolletage (or the exposure of a woman's chest, shoulders and back with clothing) in the 17th and 18th centuries may be surprising to some, given the popular culture belief that historical fashions were exceptionally modest by our modern standards. But contemporary fashion plates, paintings and even writings point to some pretty daring décolletage being popular (although not always well-received) in Europe during various periods of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The amount of décolletage a woman chose to expose could depend on several things, including her personal tastes and conception of modest dress, where the gown would be worn, as well as what fashion trends were in or out at the time.


 images: costumes studies by Inigo Jones for a production of the masque Oberon the Faery Prince, circa 1609. Via Reinette

Examples of more drastic décolletage, where the breast was exposed past the nipple, seems to coincide more often with costumes for masque performances, masquerades and balls, and the theater than everyday or court dress. The above early 17th century costume illustrations by Inigo Jones were designed for female performers in a court masque production of Oberon the Faery Prince. 

 image: 1770s fashion plate, via EKDuncan

Still, everyday fashions weren't excluded from exposing more than your run-of-the-mill décolletage. In the above fashion plate, the neckline extends far enough down that both nipples are (just barely) exposed. Although the fashion plate is from the 1770s, it was not the first time that 'everyday' décolletage went so low. Such low necklines sprouted up in the 17th century--and not in the midst of the royal court or evening masquerade balls! In the 1694 edition of Ladies Dictionary, the author lamented women coming to church wearing clothing with extremely low necklines: “If we cannot prevent this disorder, let us strive with him to make these women know how great their fault is in coming to church in such undecent habit, and if I may presume to say, so as it were half naked. Do you come to the house of God as to a Ball?”

 image: Marie Antoinette by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, 1785
credit: Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

 image: A miniature of Marie Antoinette, circa 1792
credit: (C) RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Versailles) / Gérard Blot

 image: A portrait of Mary Robinson by John Hoppner 

Although fashion plates depicting gowns where the nipples are exposed do exist, it is much more common to see paintings and plates where the neckline is just high enough to cover them--or where the neckline is supplemented through lace, shawls, fichus and other ornamentation to keep that area of the bust hidden away. In the above portrait of Marie Antoinette, the neckline on her court dress is low enough that it would be exposing much more without the help of the lace collar. The second portrait of the queen, circa 1792, features another low cut neckline. The portrait of Mary Robinson by John Hoppner shares a similar trait, with a kerchief/fichu covering what would otherwise be exposed by the very low cut of the gown.

In the late 1780s and early 1790s, the daring décolletage that had recently peaked (no pun intended) waned slightly, with popular fashions leaning towards dresses with higher necklines and dresses with low necklines combined with thicker shawls and fichus that gave the wearer fuller coverage.

Further Reading

Isis' Wardrobe: The bared bosom in 17th and 18th century art 
EK Duncan - My Fanciful Muse:  The Naughty Side of 18th Century French Fashions
The Hairpin: The 17th Century Breastoration

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