Learn, Textiles & Costume

What do you wear under a chemise a la reine? 2.0

George Romney Mrs. Billington as Saint Cecilia, 1787

Five years ago I wrote a post about chemise a la reine (also known as gaulle) dresses, and what was worn under them based on how they are depicted in paintings of the 1780s & 90s.

Unfortunately that post is one of the ones that has fallen victim to the Photobucket 3rd party hosting debacle, so I pulled it.  I’ve had quite a few requests for it since.  I decided that as long as I was going to go to the effort of finding and replacing all my images, I should update the entire post.  I’ve learned a lot about chemise  and 18th century undergarments since I originally wrote the post – hopefully I can make more educated guesses.  However, the 18th century is still not my area of study and expertise, so my guesses are  just that, and not an expert opinion.  I’ve posted them to give people food for thought, and a jumping off point for more research of their own.

So what was worn under a chemise a la reine?  Obviously you’d start with a chemise/shift (basically a slip) as the base layer, but what about the support layer?

Did did women wear stiffer boned stays? Soft stays or jumps? Bust separating stays?  Or leave off a support garment altogether?

Did what a woman chose to wear under chemise a la reine change over time?  Was it based on the style of chemise, and the formality?

In an attempt to, if not fully answer those questions, at least shed some further light on the topic, I’ve looked at a couple dozen period paintings of women wearing chemise a la reine, and made my best guess as to what they were wearing under their chemise.

This post is entirely speculative.  These are paintings, and the artists may have taken considerable license in their depiction of the wearer’s figure, to suit their own taste, and fashionable standards.  Age and time have changed the shadows on some paintings, leading to an inaccurate depiction.  And in many paintings the posture, garments, and details lend themselves to multiple readings of what was worn underneath.  In making my guesses I simply hope to lead to further thought, inspection, and a robust discussion of late 18th century undergarments.

I’ve sorted the paintings by category of undergarment: stiffer boned stays; bust separating stays; au naturel.  The paintings are arranged chronologically within each category.

With some paintings I’ve attempted to find an extant example of the type of undergarment I think the sitter was wearing.

Stiffer bone stays:

My best guess is that the women depicted in the paintings in this category are wearing stiffer boned stays – not the fully boned stays common in the mid-18th century, but the so-called ‘half-boned stays’.

Stays of the 1780s & ’90s were shorter in the waist than their earlier counterparts, and often lifted the bust out, rather than up.

Madame du Barry by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1781 via Wikimedia Commons

I suspect Madame du Barry is wearing something like the stays below.  Other portraits of du Barry indicate that she was fairly full-busted.  The low neckline of these stays sits below the nipple line,  so would give the sharp lower-bust angle, with roundness above, shown in du Barry’s portrait.

However, because we see her torso in side view we can’t tell if there is a separation between her breasts, so she might be wearing bust-separating stays.

Stays, 1780s, Abiti Antichi

There is no mistaking that very upright torso and lifted cleavage.  The Princesse de Lamballe is wearing boned stays.  Lamballe was known as a bit of a prude in the French court, so a stiffer, more formal style of undergarment would match that assessment.  However, she was painted essentially topless, so standards of prudery may vary a lot…

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Martine-Gabrielle-Yoland de Polastron (1745–1793), duchesse de Polignac , 1783, Waddesdon Manor - National Trust

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Martine-Gabrielle-Yoland de Polastron (1745–1793), duchesse de Polignac , 1783, Waddesdon Manor – National Trust

Polignac was famously small and slight (she was nicknamed ‘Little Po’ in England).  Her portraits show a small busted woman.  This is the more formal of the two Le Brun portraits of Polignac in a chemise dress.  Her torso is quite erect, and there is no bust separation, so she’s probably wearing stays.

Antoine Vestier, Portrait of a Lady with a Book, Next to a River Source, ca 1785

Vestier’s lady, in her very fancy striped silk transitional chemise a la reine, has quite a confusing bustline and upper silhouette.  Her narrow torso and extremely erect posture, along with her compressed décolletage, definitely indicate stays.  However, there appear to be two separate dent lines along her bust: one right as her striped dress ends, and another an inch or two below it.  There is also the suggestion of a solid, opaque garment beneath the two sheer visible layers.  You can see the line where it ends on her bust.  Is it an overdress, or are we seeing the curve of stays like these?

Stays, Great Britain, 1780-1789 (made), Linen, hand sewn with linen thread, applied ribbon, chamois and whalebone, Victoria & Albert Museum, T.172-1914

Miss Kitty Calcraft, 1787, by George Romney, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, UT, 840002300

I’m having trouble figuring out what is going on in this portrait.  Is she holding something in the crook of her arm, or is the brown space behind her seen through the space created by her arm and waist?  That changes whether you see this as a chemise worn over relatively stiff stays, or one where her bust is very slightly separated.

Portrait of Anne Rodbard, Mrs. Blackburn, 1787-88, George Romney

Portrait of Anne Rodbard, Mrs. Blackburn, 1787-88, George Romney

This portrait of Anne Rodbard unambiguously shows her wearing stays.  The stiff prow-front line is the unmistakable result of something like the ones above, or the first pair I posted.

Jacques-Louis David, Portrait of Monsieur de Lavoisier and his Wife, chemist Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1788, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jacques-Louis David, Portrait of Monsieur de Lavoisier and his Wife, chemist Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1788, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The line of Paulze’s torso and bodice is quite rigid, and the way she is leaning on her husband is a comfortable, and instinctive, body position if you are wearing stays.  She’s most likely wearing something similar to du Barry, as there seems to be a fairly low inward curve at the turn of the bust, but she might be wearing a slightly longer pair, such as these:

Stays, England, 1770-1790, Silk damask, lined with linen, reinforced with whalebone, hand-sewn, Victoria & Albert Museum, T.909-1913

The beautiful details of Paulze’s outfit in David’s painting also give us another clue about undergarments: the pocket slit on her light gauzy chemise a la reine is falling open to reveal a silk under-layer, indicating that she’s wearing a full silk dress underneath, which would hide the lines and colours of her stays (possibly not if they were cherry red like the example above!).

Countess Anna Protassowa with niece by Angelica Kauffmann, 1788

This one was quite hard.  There is a faint suggestion of bust-separation, but that might just be the folds of the fabric.  Chemise a la reine do fasten up the front with a simple opening tied at the top, leading to extra folds to hide the opening  The way the chemise falls over the sash and then goes straight up from it looks just like what my chemise looks like over stays on me. Finally her very upright posture and the way her niece leans in to her suggest boned undergarments to me.

Lady Lemon (1747–1823) (Jane Buller) by George Romney, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975.1.235

I find Romney’s portrait of Lady Lemon to be one of the most fascinating depictions of chemise a la reine, at least when it comes to undergarments.  It might be a trick of the way the fabric is depicted, but there is a definite suggestion of a darker set of stays seen through the dress.  Additionally the former Miss Buller appears to have a very curvaceous figure. The painting accurately depicts how gaulles were not always the most flattering dress style on those blessed with tiny waists and full busts.  The effect isn’t particularly attractive, but does make it fairly clear that a stiff, low cut set of stays was worn under the dress.

Thomas and Anna Maria Jenkins by Angelica Kauffmann, date unknown

It’s hard to tell exactly what this dress is, but it’s most likely an open skirted chemise a la reine.  Notice the open front with the lacy petticoat.  Anna’s arm hides most of her torso.  There does seem to be a distinctly straight line of the back and a bust-cliff, indicative of boned stays.  The fitted back also suggests stays with a slightly raised waist.  Possibly something like this pair:

Half-boned stays, 1770s-80s, French, Museé du Costume et de la Dentelle

Anton Graff, Anna Maria Frederike von Taube, lady in waiting to Dorothea von Medem, 1780s, Rundāle Palace, Latvia

 Hana Marmota introduced me to Anna Maria Frederike von Taube.  It’s fantastic to be able to include more non-white chemises, more examples worn by not-so-young women, and more examples from outside of France and England. Von Taube’s chemise is silk rather than cotton, and has slimmer sleeves, indicating it’s more likely to be from the second half of the 1780s or later.   The heavier silk fabric rounds out von Taube’s torso, but the even gathers of her bodice, stiff  line of her wide sash, and her characteristic lean, heavily suggest that she is wearing boned stays with no bust separation.

Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), Portrait of Emilie Sériziat (née Pécoul) and her Son, 1795, Louvre Museum

Sériziat’s torso is quite flat and lifted, but still retains some roundness.  There is a very slight definition between her bust that might suggests she’s wearing something like the Bernhardt / V&A silk stays (see below).  More likely simply extra fullness at the front opening of the dress.

Softer stays & bust-separating stays

Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun, self portrait with a cerise ribbon, 1781-82

Le Brun’s portrait shows a very soft, rounded bust, and slight definition between the bust.  She might be wearing something like these soft stays.

Stays, England, 1780s, Silk taffeta, lined with silk, ribbon, © Victoria & Albert Museum, T.188-1961

They are very similar to the 1790 J.S. Bernhardt stays Kleidung um 1800 just researched and recreated.  Thanks to the slight point at the centre front, they provide bust separation and definition.


Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Portrait of Madame de Moreton, La Comtesse Moreton de Chabrillan, Marie-Elisabeth Olive (née Frottier de la Coste-Messeliére), Comtesse de Moreton de Chabrillon (1761-1807), 1782

This chemise might be worn au natural, but there seems to be some support to the bust, though it is too soft and round for full stays.  She might be wearing something very similar to Le Brun (above).  Alternatively, she might be wearing stays that provide full bust separation, such as these:

Corset (Stays) 18th century, American or European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art, C.I.41.94

Marie Antoinette en gaule, 1783, by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Le Brun’s famous and mildly infamous (because it showed the Queen in an informal dress) portrait of  Marie Antoinette is another very interesting and hard to interpret portrait.  It gives the impression of shadowing between the bust, and the sash is worn quite loose and soft.  Is the shadowing just the fullness of the front opening, or is she too wearing the same type of softer unboned stays that I posted above?  It certainly appears to be something that provides a slight breast separation and definition, as her dress is very full and gathered, and there is no extra fullness at the centre.

George Romney Mrs. Billington as Saint Cecilia, 1787

Mrs. Billington (Elizabeth Weichsel) as Saint Cecilia, 1787 by George Romney, 23.397

Mrs Billington’s portrait is another instance where the painting could either be read as boned stays with shadows created at the centre front by the opening, or softer stays that separate the bust slightly.  The roundness on the outer sides of the bust makes me think it’s the latter.  Billington was a noted opera singer.  She frequently combated unsavoury rumours about her personal life, so may have been trying to appear as respectable as possible.

Note the slight suggestion of pink in her skirt – either reflecting off the red around her, or indicating a pink underskirt.

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), Portrait of Empress Elisabeth Alexeievna of Russia, 1795, Castle of Wolfsgarten

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), Portrait of Empress Elisabeth Alexeievna of Russia, 1795, Castle of Wolfsgarten

This gown is more 1790s transitional round-gown than true chemise a la reine, but it provides a clear image of her torso, so I’ve included it.  As you can see, minor restraint, with slight bust definition, like the Bernhardt stays and V&A’s soft silk stays.

Au Natural or extremely low-cut bust separating undergarments

Angelica Kauffmann, Self-portrait, 1780-1785

Angelica might be wearing a very light pair of jumps, the type that divides the bust.  If she is, they are cut extremely low, to allow the entire curve of her breast to show, and her chemise is extremely fine, as her nipples are visible.

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), The Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT 1787 Yolande Gabrielle Martine, Duchess of Polignac, 1782

Polignac’s second, much less formal chemise portrait.  I don’t think she is wearing anything. Her bosom is very soft and round, and the plunging neckline would reveal most undergarments, especially anything that separated the bust.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, self-portrait with a straw hat, after 1782

The fabric is so soft across the bust, and the neckline is so plunging, that it doesn’t seem likely that she was wearing anything more than a chemise in the way of undergarments.  It’s possible that Polignac and Le Brun are wearing very low-cut stays like these, and their ribbons are artfully arranged to hide them at their cleavage:

Stays, England or France, ca. 1790, Cotton with silk embroidery, boning, and lined with linen, © Victoria & Albert Museum, T.237-1983

Stays, England or France, ca. 1790, Cotton with silk embroidery, boning, and lined with linen, © Victoria & Albert Museum, T.237-1983

Mrs Crouch (Anna Maria Phillips), 1787 by George Romney Kenwood House, the Iveagh Bequest, © Historic England

Mrs Crouch’s bust is quite low, round, and separate, making supportive undergarments unlikely.  Crouch was a famous actress, and she appears to be depicted either as the muse of theatre, or as one of the famous characters she played, so her garments may not be an accurate representation of fashionable dress.

Marie-Victoire Lemoine. Atelier of a Painter, Probably Madame Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), and Her Pupil, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Marie-Victoire Lemoine. Atelier of a Painter, Probably Madame Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), and Her Pupil, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Le Brun’s dress blurs the line between ‘ancient costume’ and chemise a la reine, so isn’t the most accurate case study.  It definitely appears to be worn sans undergarments though.


The full range of 1780s & 90s undergarments seems to be plausible options for chemise a la reine.

Softer stays seem to be more common in French portraits than English, though this was not a comprehensive enough survey to conclusively state that.

Examples that might be stay-less are often in the context of classically inspired semi-costumes.










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