Marie-Françoise Filleul,
Marquise de Marigny.
Alexander Roslin, 1767.
Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Words by Caroline London

In the 18th Century, there was a curious trend when men and women abandoned their finery in portraiture and instead chose to be painted in a leisurely state of undress. What could they have possibly hoped to achieve by being shown in such a manner?

In today’s society, comfort is king. Spandex and oversized sweaters are commonplace everywhere from the sidewalk to the runway, and sneakers have left the locker-room and soared to the top of the fashion industry. The new Air Jordans are as in demand as the new iPhone, while Adidas is teaming up with Chanel in what once would have been seen as an unimaginable collaboration.

Up until quite recently, being seen publicly in such casual dress was considered shocking. Throughout the majority of history, wealth and status were viewed as the most important traits a person could possess, and the most efficient way of exhibiting these attributes was through clothing.

If dress was so important in portraying wealth and status, portraiture was even more so. Only the upper class could afford to have a portrait done of themselves or their loved ones, and even then, many of them might only be able to afford one in a lifetime. Unlike today, where we all carry cameras in our pockets and post daily selfies for the world to see, in the 18th Century, a portrait was the only way to preserve your image for future generations. Naturally, the portrayal, including the clothing, had to be perfect. If that was the case, where did this trend of “dressing down”, known as ‘dishabille’, come from? To the modern eye, choosing to wear the 18th Century equivalent of loungewear and a robe is an odd choice, to say the least. In reality, however, those who chose this state of undress were making a strong statement of their position.

At the beginning of the 18th Century, the Enlightenment was booming. Thanks to new technology and scientific breakthroughs, the pursuit of knowledge was in high demand. Of course, one had to be very wealthy to have the luxury to pursue high levels of education and worldly intellect. Men began wearing silk robes in their homes in lieu of their typical coats and waistcoats to show that they didn’t have time to focus on fashion - they sought higher achievements, and had the means to do so. These robes, known as ‘banyans’ or ‘robes de chambre’, were inspired by those worn by the upper class in the West Indies, as well as kimonos, Turkish robes, and other forms of Eastern dress. Colonists adopted the style and brought it back to England and France. Upper class Western men donned the relaxed robes as the loose style was more conducive to studying than the standard tailored and restrictive suit.

Matthew Prior.
Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1699.
Courtesy of the Master and Fellows
of St John’s College, Cambridge.

Soon after this informal style rose to popularity amongst men, women began adopting the dishabille trend as well. The mid 18th Century saw the early sparks of the women’s independence movement. The Blue Stockings Society was formed to give women an opportunity for intellectual pursuits. Many women began to rebel against the domestic life to which they had been relegated, and sought education equal to that of men. As a result, they began wearing forms of dishabille, both in life and in portraits, to display their own quest for knowledge.

The dishabille styles for women ranged widely from banyan-like robes to simple loose gowns with unlaced stays (an early form of corset), or no stays at all. Unlike toilette genre paintings which depicted women in undergarments to show either realistic snippets of everyday life or seductive situations, dishabille was intended to show dress in the way of function over fashion. Most dishabille portraits show the sitter with a book or pen in hand to further emphasize this point. Of course, despite the intent, many saw women in such relaxed styles as shocking, and they were often condemned as immoral.

By the end of the 18th Century, the world changed, and fashion changed with it. Marie Antoinette introduced the plain cotton dress with her Petit Trianon fashion, and shortly after, the French Revolution solidified the rejection of opulence in favour of simplicity. Dishabille became nearly indistinguishable from the new loose and unembellished fashions, rendering it obsolete.

So the next time you take a selfie in your sweats as you settle in for a Netflix binge, take a minute to remember how important the luxury of leisurewear once was to so many.

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Opening spread of the paper version.