Early milliner shops were like our department stores, selling all manner of fashionable items. The image of a milliner shop in Paris shows the costumes we have come to associate with the era of Marie Antoinette. After the French Revolution, fashions changes drastically, for the French citizenry did not want to be reminded of the recent bloodshed or the ancient Regime. The rage in fashion was an imitation of the classical dress worn by the Greeks and Romans.
The end of the 18th century witnessed a signal change in the style of women’s dress. The gown no longer consisted of two dresses, an under and an outer one. The formal styles which had prevailed throughout the century and brought into use stiff materials such as solid damasks, velvets, satins, and silks, were replaced by the fashion of the short-waisted clinging gown made of muslin and soft silk. This “Empire” mode characterized the dress of the first quarter of the 19th century. – The Encyclopedia Americana, Frederick Converse Beach, George Edwin Rines, 1902, “costume”
Parisians dressed in the new fashions were known as the “incroyables” (men) and the “merveilleuses,” (women.) These fashions were not at first admired and generally regarded as hideous. Caricaturists had a heyday making fun of these freaks of Fashion. British fashionistas shortly followed suit, as the cartoon by Gillray attests.
Macaronis turned into dandies, and gently bred ladies wore clothes so thin and diaphanous, that the shape of their legs showed clearly through the skirts. The muslin disease (catching a serious cold or pneumonia) lasted for as long as fashionable young women wore thin muslin dresses with bare necks and arms in damp and drafty buildings.
In some instances, nothing was left to the imagination. In the satirical image below by Isaac Cruikshank, the ladies are shown wearing next to nothing. Satire took many forms in the late 18th century. The Lady’s Monthly Museum featured a dialogue between a lady visiting Paris and a man milliner. His answer is hilarious.
Dialogue Between a Lady and A Man Milliner at Paris
“Citizen, I am just come to town: –pray, have the goodness to inform me how I must appear, to be in the fashion.”
“Madame, ’tis done in a moment; in two minutes I shall equip you in the first style. –Have the goodness to take off that bonnet.”
“Off that petticoat.”
“There it is.”
“Away with these pockets.”
“There they go.”
“Throw off that handkerchief.”
“Away with that corset and sleeves.”
“Will that do?”
“Yes, Madame, you are now in the fashion. ‘Tis an easy matter, you see.–To be dressed in the fashion, you have only to undress.” – The Lady’s Monthly Museum, February 01, 1801, pg. 126.
Definition of a man milliner: A man who makes or deals in millinery, that occupation having been at one time predominantly performed by women; hence, contemptuously, a man who is busied with trifling occupations or embellishments.
The days of the Revolution (1789 – 1799) brought in simple fashions. Corsets were discarded, the waist became short and the skirt clinging, and cheap materials were used. During the Directoire, the women adapted the classic style, borrowing from both Greek and Roman fashions. These costumes were scanty, and frequently were split up the sides. The dresses were often transparent and worn without chemises. The gentlemen of this fantastic period were styled “Incroyables,” “Unimaginables”; the ladies, “Merveilleuses” and “Impossibles.” The men wore an exaggerated copy of what had been previously called the English fashion.- Costume design and illustration, Ethel Traphagen, 1918, p 120.
A milliner could carry possibly a thousand different goods, becoming the forerunner of the modern department store. At this point, the term “milliner” was tied to the Latin word “mille,” meaning thousand.
The 18th Century milliner might have offered a thousand goods but all shared the quality of being fashionable accessories. Wares could include shoes, jewelry, table service, clocks, hosiery, fabrics, shirts, aprons, cloaks, caps, hats, muffs and mitts. – The Millinery Shop, Colonial Williamsburg
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