Although the iconic silhouette of the eighteenth century is that of the rectangularly panniered (1973.65.2), conically corseted court dress, a simpler line of dress launched the era. The mantua, which dominated the beginning of the eighteenth century to the point that dressmakers were called mantua makers, was introduced in the late seventeenth century as a casual dress alternative to the heavily structured court dress required by Louis XIV. Initially more a robe than a dress, the mantua, in conjunction with the high fontage headdress, imposed a triangular silhouette onto the body. As the mantua became a more formal gown, the bodice took on new importance as a place of display for the stomacher, an inverted triangle of richly embroidered fabric. The placement of the stomacher atop the increasingly full skirts of the mantua created a narrow-waisted silhouette, which became increasingly extreme over the course of the eighteenth century.
Although the mantua remained popular into the 1750s, a new geometry was articulated for court dress that perhaps expressed Enlightenment interest in basic forms: triangle and rectangle. The triangle of the bodice was created by conically shaped stays that pressured the waistline to a small circumference while driving the bosom upward to bob about as a barely contained base for the spherical head (C.I.50.8.2). The rectangle at the base of this structure was created by panniers which were constructed with hoops, at first to support a bell-shaped skirt, but later drawn in with tapes at front and back into a flattened ovoid form. The width of the panniers (1991.6.1a,b) not only subsumed the flesh displaced by the stays, but also expanded to sometimes outrageous widths, making the waist even more svelte by comparison. This silhouette was also realized, albeit in less extreme proportions, in the popular robe à la française (2010.148).
By the 1770s, the silhouette of the skirts shifted away from the squared-off panniers of the robe à la française (C.I.61.13.1a,b). The robe à l’anglaise had developed as an alternative, supported by an understructure which gave a rounded shape, such as a bumroll. The polonaise gown, also developed in the 1770s, effected a more far-reaching though deceptively subtle shift in the eighteenth-century silhouette. In the robe à la polonaise (1976.146a,b; 1970.87), the waist remained small and pointed into very full skirts. The fullness of the polonaise gown was achieved through the voluminous drapery of fabric, most often via rings sewn on the underside of the skirt which were drawn up with cording to create puffs at the back and side of the dress. The puffs of fabric rested on full petticoats to create the still expansive base of the silhouette; its real shift was one of weight, giving as it did an overall lighter impression of the body within.
The lightness of the polonaise gown set the tone for the evolution of the dress for the remainder of the eighteenth century. The chemise, popular in the 1780s, was a lightweight gown made of very fine fabric gathered in at the natural waist by a sash. The chemise silhouette still emphasized the waist, but a waist unfettered by stays. In comparison to the court dress and the polonaise gown, the silhouette was columnar. The trend toward the columnar silhouette continued with the introduction of the round gown in the 1790s, which raised the waistline above the natural waist almost to the breasts (1979.20a-f).
By the end of the eighteenth century, a radically different silhouette was in evidence. Intended in imitation of classical Greek and Roman dress, the woman’s dress was transformed from hard geometric carapace into a soft, thin chemise of cotton or linen that grazed the natural female form and almost fully revealed the breasts. As noted by Richard Martin and Harold Koda in Bare Witness, “[t]he body was conceived of as a graceful neoclassical column like that of contemporary architecture, with articulation at the bust equivalent to a capital.” Although stays were not fashionable for the silhouette at the end of the eighteenth century, women whose bodies did not conform to the “natural” ideal obtained underpinnings to better achieve the columnar line, such as false bosoms and modified stays.
Glasscock, Jessica. “Eighteenth-Century Silhouette and Support.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/18sil/hd_18sil.htm (October 2004)