Historical dresses

‘Fashion is not only about clothes or a type of applied arts, it also a social manifestation. Fashion is lifestyle, interior, resorts, pets. Fashion is everything that surrounds us.’ (Alexandre Vassiliev in his book ‘I Am Fashionable Today’)
Two exhibitions at the Rundāle Palace Museum – ‘18th Century Fashion’ and decorative art exhibition ‘From the Gothic Style to Art Nouveau’ have been supplemented with outfits representing relevant historical time and style, facilitating greater understanding of each period’s characteristics and enabling us to envisage people who once lived among the objects displayed in the museum. In recent years, several interesting samples of outfits have been added to the Museum’s collection.
Although the main function of clothing should be to protect the human body from the effects of its immediate environment, its aesthetic function also became highly important along the way. It is well known that people are often judged by the way they dress and not by what they do. Consequently, craftsmen whose job it was to design clothing have always held a significant place in the society. The art of fashion design relies on the skill to apply different materials, colours, shapes, patterns – a thousand nuances that are appreciated only by a perceptive and knowing eye. In this article, we will focus on two excellent examples of style and craftsmanship – one of these samples embodies the characteristics of the Rococo period in women’s clothing while the other is Art Nouveau.

Rococo style dress

Rococo style dress, also known as robe à l’anglaise. Circa 1770/1780

During the reign of Louis XV of France (1715–1774) there was a demand for magnificent representation outfits. Baroque was slowly being replaced by the Rococo period and outfits became more exquisite and lighter. Fine, elegant, graceful – these are the keywords of the Rococo period. Art was dominated by attempts to retreat from reality into the world of fantasy, participation in theatrical games and the growing popularity of mythical and pastoral narratives with titillating overtones. Insight into the taste and fashion of 18th century French aristocracy is afforded by the work of painter Antoine Watteau. He has depicted his contemporaries – graceful ladies and gallant admirers while they enjoy nature, music and flirt.
The Rococo outfits are characterised by coquettish playfulness and intricate relationship between decorative elements and the structure of fabric. The preferred colour pallet had also changed and now light pastel colours dominated the outfits. White and light blue were the most popular colours or a combination of green and rosy tones, always enhanced with gold, of course. Women’s outfits emphasised their beauty and figure. The impressive silhouette and cut of the dress more than ever depended on such basic components as the corset and dress pannier (French – panier). As was the fashion and etiquette of the time, the low-cut corset almost completely exposed women’s breasts by simultaneously pushing them up and thrusting forward while pulling the waist back. The top of the dress was designed to such immaculate proportions that still made the exposed breasts appear virtuous and bodiless. In the early 18th century the shape of pannier resembled a bell, whereas in mid-century its construction looked more like a trapezium. Costume designers added charming details to their handiwork: overskirt was often parted in front to reveal light and dainty frills of the petticoat; wide pannier accentuated a longline corset and its long pointed busk became known as a ‘guide to the alley of delights’. The Rococo period dresses instantaneously intrigued and distanced. The voluminous skirt concealed hips and legs, thus fostering imagination, while the pannier acted as a barrier that symbolised woman’s unattainability. Hidden under the volumes of skirt, women’s feet in satin shoes looked small and lovely. The contrast method was also applied to the sleeve design – a fitted mid-arm section with magnificent frills or cascades of embroidered fabric around the cuffs accentuated the delicateness of women’s hands and fingers. Thus, the Rococo dress cast a beautiful figure with narrow shoulders, slender waist and curvy hips.

One of the most popular dress types was the so-called French dress or robe à la française with a ‘winged’ or low cut back with loose box pleats. The back of a French dress was so expressive it captured the imagination of artists. Paintings by Antoine Watteau are a testament to the beauty of ‘winged’ pleats. No wonder these pleats have been named after him and regarded as Watteau pleats in fashion history. Another popular dress type, characteristic to the flourishing Rococo period, robe à l’anglaise or English dress displayed shallow pleats along the waistline adding volume around the hips while making the bodice appear slimmer with backstitches.

Rococo style dress in the ‘18th Century Fashion’ exhibition at the Rundāle Palace Museum 

The thematic exhibition ‘18th Century Fashion’, set up in the Duchess’ Apartments on the first floor, displays the so-called English dress (robe à l’anglaise) made around 1770/1780. The Museum acquired this dress in 2017 from the Villa Rosemaine antique textiles and costume shop in France. This dress was owned by de Pons de l’Oliverie family in Angoulême arrondissement and from 2012 to 2013 was exhibited in the ‘Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700–1915’ exhibition by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts) in Paris and Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) in Berlin.

The overskirt is made from silk taffeta. Its colour shimmers from pale pink to greenish grey. Its sleeves are voluminous and cuffs feature pleated and gathered frills. The corset boning is made of whalebone (baleen) held together by lacing. Very fine and diaphanous chiffon silk was applied to the finish of décolletage and cuffs. The dress was made by hand. It has a fitted corsage and its waistline is further accentuated by shallow pleats of the skirt that have been arranged in a particularly sticking way around the back. Petticoat matches the overskirt – made from yellow silk and decorated with sequins and floral motif in filling stitch. The original pannier has been lost.

Petticoat fabric of Rococo style dress before restoration

Petticoat fabric of Rococo style dress before restoration

When the Museum acquired this dress, it was soiled and crumpled. The survey of its condition revealed broken threads and fabric tears: chiffon silk was torn in the décolletage area and around the cuffs, sequins had fallen off and decorative elements in filling stitch were missing. During restoration and while the dress was prepared for the exhibition, it was washed, all tears and missing details repaired and lace details duplicated and mended. Lastly the dress was ironed. It is exhibited on a manikin that corresponds to the height of a present-day girl of 12 years.

Rococo style dress before restoration from the front
Rococo style dress before restoration from the back











Cuff of the Rococo style dress before restoration
Cuff of the Rococo style dress after restoration










Art Nouveau evening gown

During the interchange of the 19th and 20th century women’s fashion was significantly influenced by the Art Nouveau period, which held high the theme of femininity. Outfits started to feature decorative stylisation, asymmetric composition, irregular swirling forms and lines, vertically elongated proportions and light colour tonality characteristic to the Art Nouveau period. Plant, floral and geometric ornaments were used as a decoration. In the late 19th century the fashion of hair styles also underwent significant changes. All elements of one’s visual appearance now came together as a unified decorative ensemble and were subjected to a cohesive ornamental rhythm and a symbolically pictorial idea. Features of the Art Nouveau style remained popular in fashion until the end of the first decade of the 20th century.

Art Nouveau evening gown before restoration
Art Nouveau evening gown after restoration











A magnificent ivory colour silk evening dress made in France circa 1910 is displayed in a room dedicated to the decorative art exhibition ‘From the Gothic Style to Art Nouveau’ at the Rundāle Palace Museum. It is adorned with embroidered white, grey and black pearls in a flower motif and pearl tassels. The dress is cut with a heightened waist and triangle shaped décolletage surrounded by drapery with ajour and embroidered edges gathered on one side. It was fastened with hooks and clasps at the back. A label reading ‘P. Milhiet Avignon’ has been sewn on the inside of bodice.

Fastening of the Art Nouveau evening gown before restoration
Fastening of the Art Nouveau evening gown after restoration








The Museum acquired this evening gown in 2017 from the Jean-Marc Delvaux’s Auction House in Paris. It had tiny speckles of dirt, several missing pearl tassels, absent pattern elements from the pearl embroidery, torn lining of the gathered drapery, tears in the silk fabric around the waist and in the shoulder area on the back. All damages have since been repaired prior to exhibiting the dress.

Fragment of the Art Nouveau evening gown before restoration
Fragment of the Art Nouveau evening gown after restoration








Art Nouveau room in the decorative art exhibition ‘From the Gothic Style to Art Nouveau’

Written by: Aina Ābolniece-Āboliņa
Restorer at the RPM Scientific Restoration Department