Monday, March 5, 2012

The Naughty Side of 18th Century French Fashions

I continue my series of antique French Fashion plates from the time of Maire Antoinette with a few examples of some of the more extreme fashions of the day. Most of us modern ladies think of historical clothing prior to the 1920's as being very conservative and buttoned up; however this is not always the case.  Low cut bodices were very much in fashion for much of the 16th - 19th Centuries.  Strange how it was permissible to expose so much of ones bosom in public yet exposing ones shoulders would have been too risque'.

Many fashionable women in the late 18th century even went so far as to expose one or both nipples on occasion; or their bodice was cut so low that with the slightest movement a nipple might make a surprise appearance.
Now mind you the woman would act just slightly shocked at the occurrence but it was well known that by wearing gowns of that "cut" it was bound to happen.  I can just image the men of the day placing bets as to when Madam X's nipple(s) would appear during a ball or supper.  
It must have been hilarious to watch.

French Fashion plate from c1780 showing an exposed nipple
 Above is a French fashion plate from the 1780's showing just how low fashionable 
bodices had come.  There is no question that the ladies nipple is indeed exposed.
This is not a solo fashion plate.  I have several that show exposed nipples from this same time period and others where a majority of the breast is exposed even if the nipple is not obvious to see.  

This extreme fashion was not only in France but to some extent in England and other progressive European countries.  Not all women went as far as to expose their nipple(s), others chose only to allow the areolae to be visible and those more modest, would allow the bodice to come just to but not quite expose the that much of their charms.  

Any way you look at it, showing cleavage or one's décolletage was an acceptable fashion statement of the day.  The question was not would you show cleavage but "how low will you go"?


I thought it would be interesting to post about some of the more daring fashions from this time of Marie Antoinette (the late 1770's through the late 1780's) that show how low the bodices could be.  Some do not blatantly expose the nipple(s) as seen in the above engraving; however in many of them on closer inspection you realize just how exposed they really are.

Extreme "Naughty" French Fashions
Exposed nipples are shown in these fashion plates

Both nipples are exposed in this fashion plate (they are very pale but they are there)
A slight lean over to the side and her left nipple is exposed

Age did not seem to matter either - both nipples are exposed but she does wear a scarf.

Both nipples are in plane sight in this fashion plate

These could be "exposed" 
if not they are very close to giving a peep show

Looks like her left nipple is exposed to me

Same here - her left nipple appears to be peeking just above the lace

This time I believe there is a hint of nipple above the lace on her right breast

 "Exposure" is just a question of time
With a deep breath or a slight turn - everyone would be in for quite a surprise.

Almost exposed but not quite.

Just below the lace - so don't breath too deep if you don't want all revealed

She looks as if she is tugging up her bodice but it's too low to hide for long

Widows Weeds with a bit of flash, because there isn't much keeping her in that bodice

Just dare me!

Just a bit of lace keeping her charms under wraps

I say she is a good candidate for a possible show and tell session later in in that gown

Hidden behind a scrap of lace - but not for long by the looks of it

Looks like she is loosing/winning the battle with her right breast

I still love historical fashions yet I can't say that I would have been very comfortable exposing myself in any of these gowns.  I probably would have dared to go fairly low but I would not wished to risk putting myself "all out there" if you know what I mean.

Still I wanted to have a bit of fun with one of these fashion plates and chose to make the last on into a png and then proceeded to play with colors.  Here are an assortment for you pleasure.

The original turned into a png file
Toned down version of the original
Blue and Teal version
Teal and Blue version
Olive and Blue version
Blue version
Teal version
Olive version

Brown and Olive version

Brown version
Olive and Brown version

Purple two-tone version

Purple version

I hope these "flashy" fashion plates from the late 18th century
have given you a few grins and giggles; as they have me.

Till the next set of fashion plates from the late 1700's...

For more information on Décolletage see HERE

Portrait of Princess Lamballe with exposed nipples 
can be seen HERE with an interesting discussion about it HERE

And if you find this subject "titillating" you might also enjoy viewing a few other blog post like those found at  Isis' Wardrobe - HERE or "The Naked Child in Art" from found HERE


  1. WOW!! These are gorgeous Fashion Plates!!! I love 18th century fashion! Thanks for sharing! xo

    -pamela :)

  2. Thanks Pamela - I think these are a riot myself and it really brings to life just how wild the "olden days" could be.


  3. Hello,

    Gorgeous fashion plates!!! Beautiful colors!!!! Very nice work!!! Yes, it is true that it was not always the case! It has always intrigued me that even with this mode, the rules of etiquette were still so stilted.

    Thank you so much for sharing such beautiful things.

    1. Thanks Sylvie -

      My guess is not many who have these plates would post them but I found them too intriguing (especially where historical fashions were concerned) to keep them hidden away.

      I thought it would be fun to explore this "naughtier" side of fashions since it is not widely known that exposing ones "charms" in such a way was a very acceptable fashion for the masses. One would think you would only see such fashions in brothels or a Cyprian's ball when in fact the general public including the aristocracy had no qualms in appearing in what we now view as a risque form of dress.

      Yes, you are correct that it was more of a you can "look but not touch" rule. Since all other forms of etiquette were to be followed. I'm also going to guess that only married ladies and widows would have dared to bare this much in public. I just can't picture a debutant being so bold but then again truth is often stranger than fiction.


  4. I just love your fashion plates! Court life must have been one big contest to see who could get the most attention! If I remember my historical reading, poor Princess de Lamballe was the dear friend of Marie Antoinette who escaped with the Royal Family, disguised as a wealthy woman with children, and the king and queen were her servants. They were caught and she was beheaded. Her date of death said 1792 under the picture, so it must have been her. How sad!

    1. Hey there derrydown -

      I'm so glad you are enjoying the fashion plates. I find them fascinating myself. Ya, you are probably right. I'm sure court life had a lot of "one upping" the next person. That's probably how the bodices got to be so low to begin with.

      The "Terror" aka French Revolution was not a good time for the aristocrats or any one on friendly terms with the Royal family.
      Princess de Lamballe was loyal to the Royal family till the very end - first by returning to Paris to continue her service to Marie Antoinette during a time when she knew it could mean her death. And again when she was actually given a chance to avoid execution if she would take an oath "to love liberty and equality and to swear hatred to the King and the Queen and to the monarchy". Princess de Lambella said she could do the first but not the last. With her refusal to take the full oath; she was immediately taken and thrown to the crowds where she was killed within minutes.

      So sad but true.

  5. There's so much cleavage today, sometimes we have the same problem! However, I'd much rather spend my nights losing track of my "charms" in one of these crazy-fancy dresses than in a boring modern gown. ;P

    1. Hey Missy Hayes - Too funny!

      You'd be a braver gal than I. As much as I love these fashions, I'd still want my "baubles" tucked safely away. So if I ever go back in time I better remember to pack some super-strong, double-sided tape to keep "the girls" under wraps because these gowns are definitely an accident waiting to happen. Then again I'm sure only the most daring of ladies would have purchased them to begin with.


    2. From what I understand modern ideas on shame & social taboos when showing the female breast in public did not exist in the western world for much of the time from 1300 to the late 1700s (perhaps later). These ideas are not innate. The fact that there is shame from showing breasts in this era is an historical oddity. The puritans would have been confused by it. In the west of is mostly from the last 150 year. Different locations & eras have different social ideas. A similar taboo also exists in all post "Sharia" (roughly 7th century or so) Islamic nations.

      The bare female breast simply did not mean the same thing. In fact it tended to convey ideas of purity & nobility. A noble woman of station in eras when Extreme Decolletage was common (1400 to 1780) would have been insulting her husband (especially in the 15th & 16th centuries) if she refused to wear the fashion. The insult having to do with what it meant socially (it would have been a statement of her lack of fidelity to him).

      If a young woman of station in the 1500s to the late 1600s in continental Europe, or the 1600s in England, was past the beginning of her courting age (about 15 years old ) one of the first things that would have changed in her clothing (in the transition from child to adult garments) was the exposure of the breast. Had she not exposed ALL or nearly all of her breasts whenever wearing anything vaguely formal or at a formal occasion, it would have been a statement that she was impure (had suckled children) & am insult to the honor of her family. In a later era such as in these fashion plates, the same basic rules applied, although slightly less flesh showed.

      I am certain that there was enjoyment on seeing the lovely & well decorated figure of a beautiful woman in these styles, but again recall that the social messages were different, there was no shame, & no explicit message of sexual availability either. That idea (that skin automatically means sexuality & quite probably sexual availability) is the result of a strong societal nudity fetish (in the true psychological sense of the term 'fetish') & it is one that is fairly new in history, & most strongly held to in certain cultures such as the post Sharia Islamic world (post 7th century) & the west (more strongly in the USA & the UK) during the last 150 years.

      The Ancient Egyptians (for instance) went for 3000 years wearing clothing that was very see-through (the higher your position in society the more sheer your clothing was) & they also practiced body depilation (ie Brazilian + the rest of the body in some eras). For 1500 years (the old kingdom) the Egyptian women had as their common garment, a dress that started underneath the breasts. In India, before the bad results of later period British contact (when it was ruler-ship) the women tended to wear very little over their breasts. In Japan before they lost WWII, the women went topless on hot days. There are still parts of the world where people don't wear much clothing.

      More & more of the western world is coming to understand that having unequal requirements in clothing for men & women is sexual prejudice & illegal, & to comprehend that regulating that people must be clothed goes beyond the bounds of reasonable governmental power, which is why nudity is falling off of the law books as an offense in some places. In New York one can now legally do anything in the nude that is nonsexual in public that one would normally do, although not all of the police act appropriately & honer the laws. Some still cite women for being topless in public which has been legal for some time. Their actions are an example of how people who have a nudity fetish coupled with sexual shame & discomfort issues, tend to force their ideas onto other people even if taking action means breaking the law &/or risking their job as a police officer.

    3. Again, you are a wealth of knowledge "Random Ponderings". Thank you for enlightening us on the subject in question. Historical facts can be so fascinating.

      You really should do a series about this on your blog with pictures and the historical documentation so all of us could follow along. I'm not seeing where you currently have any posts on the blog "Random Ponderings" so this would be a most intriguing beginning should you decide to do so. If you do have another blog other than "Random Ponderings" please reply where it can be located since I'd love to drop by and visit.


  6. What gets me, and I have spoken at length on this topic, is that from the 14th to 18th century women's breasts were VERY exposed in the majority of quality fashion. Queen Elizabeth I wore extreme decolletage into her old age (entire or near entire breast exposure) to the annoyance of teh Venetian ambassador who complained about it in letters home. The entire 1600s had women on the continent and in the UK of all stations of life (not just the nobility and wealthy) wearing extreme decolletage gowns that exposed all of both breasts. This trend continued in lesser form into the 18th century and beyond in some cases (as your plates chow - and thank you for them).

    My point is that our view of history comes from three sources - libraries, museums and movies - and all three of these have CENSORED for some time in most of the easily available sources. As such most people had no idea what women really wore from roughly 1400 to 1880m until quite recently. In my earlier years I did a great deal of fashion research (including from the Dictionary of Fashion and such publications & books of "plates"). Years after this I found out that some of these sources (most of them) had 'cleaned up' (taken out the pink bits) of what we were allowed to see from the original plates, washing out the colors and/or retouching the breast area so that you could not see any nipple details. This is a form of "fig leafing" that was applied to both early 20th century sources and also to old paintings (which occasionally get restored with all those strange out of place pieces of foliage in front of the reproductive bits, or painted out nipples fixed).

    Later in life I finally saw uncensored versions of some of the same plates (not retouched).

    We have the odd situation in which historical costume dramas get AWARDS FOR ACCURACY and yet have not one nipple shown at times when no lady of station would have gone out in public without her breast in far more open view. In fact from what I have read, there were several centuries in which the bared female breast was a symbol of purity (showing that a woman had never suckled a child) and as such the moment a young woman was finally of courting age he decolletage dropped a great deal until she got married (after which that sort of cleavage was shown mostly in more formal settings).

    Yet were have all these movies where the female actors will gladly drop their clothing for sexual reasons at length, but not one breast is shown simply because it was the fashion of the time and people thought very little about it = because THEY were not from 20th century America. And unfortunately it is these inaccurate movies from which most people learn what was worm in the past.

    1. Thanks so much for you input Random Ponderings.

      As the old saying goes - "truth is stranger than fiction."
      I knew it was more fashionable to expose one's breasts prior to this "Georgian" period of fashion plates; however I still have a hard time wrapping my brain about it as a normal mode of fashion. Then again I'm sure it's all about what you are use to and if it is a common enough occurrence people would become desensitized to it; causing it to be less titillating than what we think on seeing it today.

      I still find it to be more of a "show" piece when the dress just barely conceals and there is the chance of one "popping out" then if the dress outright exposes the nipples. And I think this was a fun game being played by lades in the late 18th and very early 19 century where fashion is concerned.

      I do find it a treasure when you can find fashion plates and paintings that show these "baring" fashions and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to share them, so I'm glad you enjoyed seeing them too.

      If you want to see and actual piece of clothing that exposed the breasts from 1780 you can see it here at This Caraco is at The Hague Museum in Holland from what I can tell. And there is no doubt that one's "charms" would be in full view with this costume.


  7. Hi there,
    I find this blogpost really interesting and witty! Would you by chance know the name(s) of the painter who painted these plates?


    1. Hey Zoe - I'm glad these risque girls gave you a good giggle. The images are real French Fashion plates from the 1700's and they were later collected and reprinted several times over in the 1800's and even into the very early 1900's. This set is from a vintage bound book titled "Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français 1778-1787")The artist and engraver can be seen printed on many of the fashion plate if you are looking for that specific information.

      I gave a bit of information about Gallerie des Modes fashion plates on several of the posts in this "Georgian Series" one of which can be seen here -

      and it reads as such...

      A bit about "Galerie des Modes et Costumes Francais"

      In the late 1700's two print sellers in Paris decided to sell fashion plates of current fashions and costumes of the time. They dubbed this plate series "Galerie des Modes et Costumes Francais" and started selling these plates sporadically from 1778 till 1787.

      Over the years there have been several book published containing variations of these designs. Some are black and white only versions of the fashions, others are less crisp colorized versions and then there is my favorite the 1912 version by M. Paul Cornu.

      In 1912 many of them were re-worked and sold as a 4 "folio" set.
      The images I'm displaying above are from the more modern 1912 version...


  8. I found this post when I was doing a research on bare breasts in the 17th and 18th century and I found it very interesting! I hope you don't mind that I linked back to you.

    1. Hi Isis - I think there are a lot of us who find this fashion subject entertaining and I'm glad you were able to include my post in the mix for your blog article. I found it most entertaining and I enjoyed all the images and links you included. Fascinating! especially the info on the young girl portraits.

      I've posted links to both your blog post at and the "The Naked Child in Art" from at the bottom of my post. I hope others who visit my post will click the links so they too can continue to enjoy the subject further.

      Thanks so much for letting me know about your post and I'm glad you enjoyed my post as well.


  9. Hi Evelyn,

    As far as I remember from my trip to Stirling Castle four or five years ago the ladies of the Scottish court wore dresses that exposed their breasts.

    Nothing accidental the dresses only came up to below their breasts.

    My source of information was the information panels there at the time. I presume they are still there.

    1. Hi there and thanks for the additional information 0c3991a4...
      I had a lot of fun writing this post but I've found the public interactions and "comment" section even more enjoyable due to all the informative input. I hope you have had a chance to read the the additional comments since many of them are quite informative and entertaining. I can only imaging the shocked surprise of visitors to the castle when they see the paintings showing these ladies of Scottish court. Fascinating!

      Thanks for sharing,

  10. I barely noticed the nipples with those gigantic hats, which I believe are a bit exaggerated. (I'm reading Les Liaisons Dangereuses & was wondering what contemporary fashion was like.)

    1. Hey pkd - I'm glad you found these images of use. I think these fashion plates can be of interest in understanding how the views of body exposure has changed over the years. Many Historical portraits were later altered to "cover up" these ladies charms but the fashion plates tell the real story of what was a la mode for that time period for us to continue to enjoy and make of it what we will.

      Thanks for the reply,
      Evelyn aka EKDuncan