Round gown, ca. 1798
White cotton with polychrome wool crewel embroidered trim
The simple style of white muslin dress first appeared and was popularized in France by Marie Antoinette in the 1780s, when her friend Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire, imported the style into England. These early dresses acquired the title of chemise à la reine, and a wonderful example can be seen worn by Mme Lavoisier in the 1788 portrait of herself and her husband (1977.10).
The French Revolution called for a complete contrast in dress to the elaborate silks that had gone before, and plain white muslin dresses were considered an appropriate style, evoking as they did images of unadorned classical beauty. In the latter years of the century, waistlines rose to extremely high levels and the wide sashes that had previously been worn around the waist disappeared. All ruffles and flounces were renounced in favor of a severe, clean line.
The light, transparent qualities of this style called for a change in undergarments. Corsets, or stays were now replaced by unboned canvas or cotton drill bodices, and for the first time women took to wearing drawers; adapted from male garments, these consisted of two tubular legs open in the center and attached to a waistband.
Until 1806, these dresses retained a small train at the back, supported by pom poms stitched below the waistline. After this date, hemlines began to rise and color was gradually reintroduced, with printed cotton fabrics being a popular choice. Silk was still worn, although it tended to be in plain colors; it was popularly used for the pelisse—a long coatlike garment—or the spencer jacket. This was a small jacket finishing just below the waist with long sleeves reaching to just above the knuckles.