A Scandal in Muslin: Marie Antoinette’s Little White Dress

British or American, Dress, c. 1805–1810, muslin, embroidered. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Gift of Mrs. Henry P. Kendall (976.199.34). With permission of the Royal Ontario Museum © ROM

In 1926, Coco Chanel launched the little black dress, which would soon become, said American Vogue, “a sort of uniform for all women of taste.” Nearly 150 years earlier, however, there had been a similar fashion revolution when Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun depicted the stylish Marie Antoinette in a simple white muslin dress.

Worn without stays or corseting, the dress was a scandal in its day. Not only was the simplicity of the dress unlike the lavishly beaded and embroidered gowns then in style, but it was also made of a semi-transparent cloth that could be somewhat revealing.

Although the dress worn by Marie Antoinette in Vigée Le Brun’s portrait is voluminous and rather frilly, by the end of the century, the silhouette had changed considerably, to a more columnar form redolent of Classical Greece. It was also adapted by the era’s “hipsters” who shocked polite society with virtually see-through versions of the gown that hugged the figure.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson, Madame Erneste Bioche de Misery, 1807, oil on canvas, 117.5 x 91.5 cm. Purchased 1974. NGC

Looking at the images from a modern point of view, it can be difficult to see what all the fuss was about. In the new exhibition The White Dress: Masterpiece in Focus, opening May 27 at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), the once-scandalous white dress is on full display in a thoughtful selection of images, accessories, and two stunning muslin dresses of the period.

“Clothing can be a wonderful entrée into any historical period,” exhibition curator Erika Dolphin told NGC Magazine. “In this case, it opens up all sorts of things about women in society, fashion, France, and the global trade in luxuries. I thought a Masterpiece in Focus exhibition about white muslin dresses and the fashion revolution they caused would be an interesting way to make the Vigée Le Brun exhibition even more accessible.”

At the time of Vigée Le Brun’s iconic portrait, Marie Antoinette was facing bad press of her own — in part for spending too much on lavish dresses. Seeking to appear more like a woman of the people, she had herself depicted in the infamous white muslin dress in Vigée Le Brun’s Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress (1783). The idea backfired, and the queen was not only scorned for appearing in a public portrait “wearing a chambermaid’s dust cloth,” but was also accused of mocking the dignity of the throne of France by appearing in such a downmarket outfit.

Henry Fuseli, A Woman Standing at a Dressing Table or Spinet, c. 1790–1792, pen and brown ink with brown and grey wash over graphite, heightened with white chalk, on laid paper, 47.8 x 31.6 cm. Purchased 1937. NGC

“When the Vigée Le Brun exhibition was being organized,” says Dolphin, “I remembered a costume collection I’d seen years ago in Manchester, England. They had some beautiful dresses made of muslin, and I remember thinking that muslin was not the kind of fabric you’d associate with luxury. But the muslin in these dresses is an ethereal, almost magical fabric, and the dresses are stunning.”

The exhibition covers the period from 1783 to approximately 1820. The highlights are the two muslin dresses — one from a private lender; the other on loan from the Royal Ontario Museum’s extensive costume collection. The dresses are from opposite ends of the period covered by the exhibition, as reflected in several paintings in the NGC collection. There are also several period illustrations and political cartoons from the national collection and the Art Gallery of Ontario, and a number of other objects, including accessories and an actual motorized pannier from the Musée des arts décoratifs in Paris, showing how cumbersome fashion had been before the advent of the little white dress. Visitors will also be referred to paintings in the Vigée Le Brun exhibition showing the impact of the style on society at all levels.

Henry Raeburn, Jacobina Copland, c. 1794–1798, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5 cm. Purchased 1962. NGC

“One of the other interesting things about putting together this exhibition,” says Dolphin, “was the fact that there’s a real art to creating a proper period silhouette. There’s a whole industry devoted to mannequins that have the correct historical posture. And even once you’ve found the right mannequin, you need to dress it, creating underlayers of petticoats and adding stuffing and so forth to create the proper profile.”

For the scandal that surrounded Marie Antoinette’s radical fashion faux pas, some of the blame must be laid at Vigée Le Brun’s door. Although the queen herself enjoyed dressing down in rural idylls at her beloved Petit Trianon, Vigée Le Brun also had a marked preference for depicting her subjects in natural dress. In her memoirs, she boasted of gaining her subjects’ trust in order to get them to dress as she preferred. It has even been said that Vigée Le Brun herself had a substantial impact on fashion, simply by the way she portrayed the great and the good.

“It’s a captivating period,” says Dolphin. “What’s particularly fascinating to me is that something as mundane as what we wear — what people wore in various periods — can lead us down all sorts of interesting avenues in history.”

The White Dress: Masterpiece in Focus is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from May 27 until September 25, 2016 in Gallery C218. The exhibition Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1755–1842 is on view at the NGC from June 10 to September 11, 2016 in the Special Exhibitions Galleries. 

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