Jun 24, 2020 in Art

French Fashion in the 18th Century


On the cusp of the 21st century, it is very fashionable among people of all social stations to follow canons of taste and vogue. A desire to follow the latest tendencies of fashion is, in a way, an instinct within the collective unconscious. Whereas some people obey the dictates of fashion because of sophisticated taste or simply because they can afford it, others see it as way of boosting their self-esteem and ostensibly promoting themselves to the top of social class. Even when individuals and, particularly, women choose an increasingly popular casual style, they nonetheless try to follow fashion within that style. What is more, when some individuals choose to ignore or challenge the latest dictates of fashion by adopting an alternative clothing style like a street style, they want these alternative clothing styles to be in vogue in their own right.

That said, the desire of low- and middle-class women to emulate fashion choices of women belonging to higher social strata for reasons of satisfy their pretensions to higher class is extremely persistent in modern world. It seems that all these obsessive desires to wear fashionable clothes are mere side effects of modern society – the society characterized by the rise of self-love and narcissism. Hence, it would be interesting to look at the diffusion of fashion down the social class in 18th century France – the paragon of fashion in the heyday of fashion. This task would be particularly interesting to accomplish in the light of the fact that women’s fashion in France was rather quaint at the time. Of course, I realize that lower-class women in 18th century France were concerned with more down-to-earth issues to a greater extent than they were concerned with fashion. Similarly, I realize that they did not have the means to follow fashion. Yet, some diffusion of fashion down the social class certainly existed. Overall, this research could provide valuable insights into our understanding of the links between fashion and class identity today. 

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Given the task as it is described above, I set out to investigate the diffusion of women’s fashion down the social class in 18th century France. In doing so, I will focus on class distinctions in women’s fashion in 18th century France, providing reasons for such distinctions wherever possible and appropriate. The overarching research question, therefore, is: How did women’s fashion penetrate lower social classes in France of the 18th century? It is also necessary in this context to note, in an important aside, that this paper will be with no bias against women. I openly acknowledge that modern men, just as French males of the 18th century, fall down before the juggernaut of fashion. 

To answer the preliminary research question, sociological analysis will be used. The greatest of value of applying this research methodology to the tasks of the proposed research project is that it can help to understand how different social groups view the same object, subject or phenomenon. In other words, sociological analysis seems to be a tenable choice for analyzing the diffusion of women’s fashion down the social order in 18th century France. Likewise, the application of this research methodology could shed lights on the links between fashion and class identity in 18th century France. After all, there is overwhelming agreement among sociologists that clothing can operate as part of class identity. Twigg adds that fashions diffuse down the social hierarchy “as they are successively adopted and abandoned by elites, and as lower groups take up the style”. Based on these theoretic assumptions, the proposed research paper will explore class distinctions in women’s fashion in 18th century France, focusing on competitive class emulation as the engine of fashion. Finally, it should be noted that this research project will be based on secondary research, meaning that no primary data will be collected for its purposes.  

To provide a glimpse of the topic under investigation, the proposed research project will proceed with a review of pertinent literature. To this end, I will delve into the wealth of secondary sources dealing with the chosen topic, selecting the most relevant of them and synthesizing the findings in the form of a literature review. It needs to be emphasized that I will try to synthesize common threads from research in a coherent fashion within this literature review section instead of providing a blow-by-blow description for each source. General overview of each source used is presented in the annotated bibliography section of this proposal. 

Literature Review

Although few, if any, of the consulted sources discuss the problem of women’s fashion diffusing down the social status in 18th century France, many cast light on this problem indirectly or cover at least some aspects of the problem. Indeed, there is a wealth of research into women’s fashion in 18th century France. Similarly, there is a plethora of research studies explaining the links between fashion and identity, including class identity. The task at hand is to synthetize these bits of information into a coherent mosaic of the relationship between social class and women’s fashion in 18th century France. The review of literature below will focus on three major themes: the theoretical links between fashion and social class, the history of fashion in 18th century France, and the links between women’s fashion and social class in 18th century France. All this is to set the stage for a full-dress discussion of the diffusion of women’s fashion down the social class in 18th century France.

Theoretical Links between Fashion and Social Class

Although many commentators, including Twigg and Crane, aver that clothing is no longer designed and worn to convey class distinctions, this is not necessarily the truth. It appears from personal observations that clothes can still be used by both males and females as a means of class distinction. Back in the 18th century, on the other hand, the consulted authors overwhelmingly agree that clothes were chosen and subsequently worn to emphasize class distinctions. Even before the 18th century, clothing was actively used as a non-verbal representation of a person’s social class and status. Thus, in The Canterbury Tales, written sometime in the late 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer employs description of clothes to distinguish among classes. Thus, Chaucer uses Doctor of Medicine, who was “dressed entirely with taffeta and finest silk”, as an embodiment of wealth, contrasting him to the yeoman “dressed in a coat and hood of green”.

By the 18th century, the links between fashion and social class further solidified. A common thread from the reviewed literature suggests that had been driven in the period between 14th and 18th centuries and beyond by the need of social groups to express the uniqueness of their identity. Entwistle further explains that people belonging to the higher echelons of powers have always found it easier to express their uniqueness through clothing. Indeed, adopting the latest whims of fashion has always been expensive, thereby serving to exclude lower strata of society. Kennedy, Stoehrer and Calderin agree with this point, adding that it is only when fashion changes that the hitherto fashionable clothes become available to people of lower social station.

Because they could not gain entrée into the leisure society of soignée women through the culture of high fashion and original clothes, many sharp dressers have historically sought to gain this entrée with the help of imitation clothing. Yet, there is consensus among the consulted authors, the more popular an article becomes, the faster it falls out of grace of social classes and, hence, out of fashion. The same rule, perhaps, worked in 18th century France.    

History of Women’s Fashion in 18th century France

By the 18th century, France had already earned the image of a fashion capital in Europe – the image it still holds and fondly cherishes today. For example, Chrisman-Campbell argues that sophisticated fontanges and splendid dresses worn by French noble women inspired women in other parts of the continent at the turn of the 18th century. France’s reputation as a fashion capital is not surprising. Indeed, Louis XIV, a monarch who wore red heeled shoes and ruled France until 1915, introduced a system of trade guilds, which set fashion standards and produced fashionable garments, not least because he thought this had a positive impact on the monarchy’s economy. Under the stewardship of Louis XIV and his successors, women’s fashion in France became very fluid and whimsical and styles were evolving at a rapid pace. What was stylish one year could easily come out of fashion the next.

Although fashion changed rapidly, some garments and elements of ornament – including falbalas, poufs, panniers, chemisettes, etc. – persisted throughout much of the 18th century. Falbalas, for example, were wide bands of pleated fabric worn over skirts that frilled out during movement. Iconic poufs – with their flowers, feathers, laces, ribbons and jewelries – very also popular throughout the century. Panniers were, essentially, the same as farthingales of the previous centuries, both designed to extend the width of the skirt. Yet, unlike farthingales, new panniers of the 18th century had a different form.

DeJean explains that French women preferred large and often extravagant wigs for much of the 18th century, oftentimes putting unexpected and outright bizarre objects into these wigs to make them look unordinary. Chrisman-Campbell agrees with this point, adding that hairdressers sometimes had to use ladders to get to the top of the wig. Yet, extravagance was beginning to give way to simplicity by the end of the 18th century. The ever increasing popularity of aprons among designers of haute couture and other trend-setters meant that fashion was moving towards simpler styles. The French Revolution of 1789 finally changed French women’s fashion beyond recognition.

Links between Women’s Fashion and Social Class in 18th century France

Kristin Lee pointedly summarizes conventional wisdom when she argues that the concept of fashion signifies a “move away from clothing as a necessity to clothing as a presentation of identity”. That is how it was in France of the 18th century. Indeed, as it appears from the previous discussion, France stood at the fore of fashion industry in the 18th century. While high fashion remained an incestuous industry in 18th century France, women belonging to lower classes nonetheless found ways to enter the inaccessible and largely symbolic world of haute couture. And symbolic it was. According to Lee:

In eighteenth-century France, fashion operated within a symbolic public sphere. Changes in styles and attitudes toward dress were symptomatic of broader shifts in society… clothing was an effective way to impart a personal self-representation to the public. It showed a sense of identity and self-fashioning that spoke not only of societal ideals but also of individual desires.

One could conclude from what has been stated above that French women of lower classes sought to emulate fashion choices of noble women, not least because of the symbolic associations attached to these fashion choices. The timing for the reinvigorated interest of lower-class women in fashionable clothes was just right, as lower-class groups rose to challenge the sartorial strictures of the sumptuary laws across Europe in the 18th century. These sumptuary laws sought to compel the lowest echelons of society as well as other social groups, such as courtesans and lepers, to wear only particular clothes, so that they would be easily recognizable. However, as Chrisman-Campbell notes, these laws were never truly effective.

Unable to afford dresses that would correspond to the latest vicissitudes of fashion, women hailing from poor families – essentially, the vast majority of French women in the 18th century – searched for other ways to stay in fashion. Chrisman-Campbell argues, for example, that flea markets were popular and even women of noble extraction did not recoil from wearing secondhand clothes. Yet, these flea markets were, of course, aimed at poorer women. Likewise, Delpierre explains, because wealthy ladies had many servants and because they clothes became outdated too rapidly, these ladies simply bequeathed their outdated garments to their servants. Indeed, servants often sported garments that their masters had been recently wearing.

Things improved for lower-class women towards the end of the 18th century, as simplicity became all-the-rage in French women’s fashion. For example, the ever-growing popularity of aprons in the wake of the 1784 premiere of The Marriage of Figaro play meant that lower-class women could approach the status of nobility through fashion, as aprons were readily available even to them. Likewise, a 1783 portrait of the queen completed by Vigee le Brun also promoted simplicity in fashion. It incurred the wrath of the aristocracy, as they were loath to embrace simplicity. Members of lower classes, on the other hand, greeted this development, as they could easier emulate the styles of the wealthy. The popularity of cotton, for one, was a welcome news for women of lower strata, as it ensured greater durability of garments – an important condition for poorer women.


This paper has shown that the links between fashion and class identity or, more specifically, between clothing and class identity manifested themselves in different ways in 18th century France. At the turn of the century, sartorial strictures of the sumptuous laws enforced throughout Europe prevented lower-class French women from wearing the same stylish clothes that noble women wore. However, these sumptuary laws were inadequately enforced and soon upturned altogether. Yet, women of low social station still had difficulties in following the latest tendencies of fashion. Indeed, as fashion changed rapidly, they could not afford new clothes. Even so, women of all ranks sought ways to stay in vogue. In the 18th century, secondhand clothing markets were popular and female masters often passed their outdated garments to their servants. Likewise, the growing popularity of simplicity towards the end of the 18th century also made the world of fashion more accessible to low-class women. And so the diffusion of women’s fashion down the social class occurred in 18th century France. This research proposal has also shown that French women aspired to wear fashionable clothes not only because they wanted to be stylish, but also because they realized that latest trends of fashion had considerable symbolic value attached to them. Indeed, dress was a potent way of expressing a woman’s social class in 18th century France. It could serve to signify a woman’s economic status and social power, moral standards and propriety. It is not surprising then that many lower-class women sought to emulate the clothes of those belonging to higher classes – essentially, the torchbearers of fashion.

Based on these preliminary findings, the proposed research project will further scrutinize the diffusion of women’s fashion in 18th century France in greater detail. An important implication of conducting this research is that it could provide a benchmark for the analysis of links between fashion and class identity in modern world. After all, while contemporary street styles often blur class distinctions, these distinctions still exist in fashion. 

Annotated Bibliography

  • Chaucer, G 1996, The Canterbury tales, Penguin, London.

The book is, essentially, a collection of Chaucer’s writings produced back in the 14th century. Its value for the proposed research project is that it attests to the use of clothing as a means of class distinction as early as in the 14th century.

  • Chrisman-Campbell, K 2015, Fashion victims: dress at the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, Yale University Press, New Heaven.

Chrisman-Campbell’s treatise chronicles what the author calls the most extravagant and, at the same time, controversial periods in the history of European fashion – the reign of Louis XIV and his wife Marie Antoinette. The book is useful for the proposed research project in that the reign of the fashionable monarch and his equally fashionable consort overlaps with the timeframe that the proposed research project seeks to investigate. Chrisman-Campbell explores the female-dominated French fashion industry of the 18th century, providing rare but valuable insights into the country’s secondhand clothing market. As the author herself has explained in the introduction, her narrative “demonstrates fashion’s crucial role as a visible and versatile medium for social commentary” (p. 4). 

  • Crane, D 2012, Fashion and its social agendas: class, gender, and identity in clothing, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

The book traces the transformation of social significance of clothing over time, focusing on issue of class, gender and identity attached to it. Its value for the proposed research project is that it explains the differences in social significance of clothing today and two centuries ago. Some of the arguments raised by Crane are controversial, but this does not vitiate her scholarship.

  • DeJean, J 2007, The essence of style: how the French invented high fashion, fine food, chic cafes, style, sophistication, and glamour, Simon & Schuster, New York.

The book chronicles the roots of French fashion to the court of Louis XIV. The author dwells on the influences on French fashion as well as on trend-setting individuals of the time. The book is packed with illustrations, which aid the comprehension of the material.   

  • Delpierre, M 1997, Dress in France in the eighteenth century, Yale University Press, New Heaven. 

Madeleine Delpierre traces the evolution of the European dress, focusing on its roots in 18th century France. For much of the book, Delpierre scrutinizes French dresses of the 18th century from an aesthetic perspective. Yet, the greatest trouvaille to be gleaned from the book is Delpierre’s analysis of the economic and social factors affecting women’s fashion in 18th century France. 

  • Entwistle, J 2015, The fashioned body: fashion, dress and social theory, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken.

Writing with great élan, Entwistle articulates the links between fashion and social stratus as well as other related factors. The author also clearly outlines major theories surrounding the role of fashion in society.

  • Kennedy, A, Stoehrer, E & Calderin, J 2013, Fashion design, referenced: a visual guide to the history, language, and practice of fashion, Rockport Publishers, Beverly.

The authors explain multifarious elements that interweave to form the thick and rich tapestry of fashion. Like Entwistle, they set out to explain the theoretical underpinnings of the fashion world. Unsurprisingly, the significance of this book for the proposed research project is that it could describe the diffusion of fashion down the social class from the perspective of theory.

True to its name, Lee’s article dwells on the symbolism behind clothes in 18th century France. Although the article is focused mainly on the post-revolutionary fashion in France, it also includes pertinent information about women’s fashion in the early 18th century. 

  • Twigg, J 2009, ‘Clothing, identity, and the embodiment of age,’ in Powell, J & Gilbert, T (eds.), Aging and identity: a dialogue with postmodernism, Nova Science Publishers, New York, pp. 93-104.

In her short but rather informative essay, “Clothing, identity, and the embodiment of age”, which is part of Powell and Gilbert’s anthology Aging and Identity, Julia Twigg explores intimate links between dress and identity or, in broader terms, between fashion and identity. Twigg tergiversates to study the impact of age and other demographic factors on this pair. Yet, of particular interest to the proposed research project are Twigg’s arguments and ideas about the links between clothing and class identity. The bottom line of her essay is straightforward: “Clothes display, express and shape identity, imbuing it with a directly material reality”.

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