18th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: Madame Bergeret with bergere

Last week Elizabeth Hawes’ striped 1930s ‘Alimony’ dress elicited VERY strong reactions from almost all of you.  Most of you loved it (and when I say loved, I mean LOVED – I don’t think I’ve ever posted a dress that’s received as many hits and forwards and new commenters), and a few of you really, really hated it (no, 0 is not an acceptable rating.  It’s a scale of 1 to 10!).  I was a bit surprised by some of the comments, particularly about the colour, and wondered if some of you have really really strange colour calibrations on your computer screens!  The massive outpouring of love and the few strong reactions of loathing balanced out at 8.2 out of 10.

I (in case you haven’t guessed), LOVE the dress.  It’s what my 1930s alter ego wore to the gay gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled in 1938 Berlin.

This week I leave the obvious visual intellectualism of stripes behind for a visual intellectualism that is both far more subtle in its visible clues (at least to the modern eye), and far more obvious in its message, once you figure it out.

Here is Madame Bergeret in the ultimate rococo conceit – a robe de cour styled as a pastoralist shepherdess fantasy, with full sleeves that nod to a shepherdesses exposed chemise sleeves, a pale blue ribbon that foreshadows later 18th century zone fronts, a lacy neck frill, multi-strand pearl portrait bracelet, and, to complete the luxurious milkmaid look, a bergere (literally ‘shepherdess’) hat.  The hat may just be a fashionable accessory to underscore the elegant pastoral look, but it may also be a witty play on Marguerite Bergeret’s name, adding a little intellectual embellishment to the visual elaborations of the painting (more on this on Thursday).

Madame Bergeret, c.1766,  François Boucher

Madame Bergeret, c.1766, François Boucher, Collection of the National Gallery of Art

The whole painting is the epitome of mid-18th century rococo portraiture; indulgent and escapist.  Do you like Madame Bergeret’s outfit, or is it a little too precious and fantatical?  Does it say “I have taste and a sense of humour, and the money and status to indulge both”, or does it say “I have so much money and status I can afford a completely useless luxury gown that pretends to be a working woman’s outfit”?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10


  1. As an exemplar of its era, it’s really quite lovely and looks like it might have been one of the inspirations for Disney’s Cinderalla at the ball.

    At the same time, it makes me feel twitchy at the thought of managing all that ethereal billowing.

    On the whole, a positive impression moderated by unhappy practicality — 7.5 out of 10

  2. Sue H says

    I love it! Especially the huge sleeves, which I haven’t seen much in 18th century gowns before Chemise de Reine. So sleek, so satin, so so so 10/10

  3. I like it, and I love the straw hat with the ribbons that (nearly) match the ribbons on the dress.

    It’s not perfect, though. The neckline is a bit too low for elegance, and the sleeves and skirt a bit too foofy and shapeless. So, a 7.5 from me.

  4. I lvoe it personally! I don’t really look for the practicalities in these outfits (and I doubt they did either!) The dress is just delightful and beautiful. I’d feel like a princess wearing it!

  5. Elise says

    I adore everything–everything but the sleeves–and I’ll give it an 8 because the sleeves knock everything else out of proportion. But the rest—oh the rest!

    And for YOUR quote, Dreamstress: I (in case you haven’t guessed), LOVE the dress. It’s what my 1930s alter ego wore to the gay gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled in 1938 Berlin.

    Hahahaha! (sad, too, but) hahaha!

  6. This is a very, very nice dress. On someone else less slim than the very young Madame, the sleeves would have to be less boufy, or the silhouette would become too triangular or boxy, but otherwise, everything is perfect to my eye. The elegant satin does the talking – there is very little in the way of trim. The large-size version at Wikipedia (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ef/Fran%C3%A7ois_Boucher_-_Madame_Bergeret_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg) seems to show a hemline embroidered or bound with gold lace or gold-color ribbon; other than that the dress itself is plain. The blue ribbons give it just enough of a punch of color, and the artificial blossoms in Madame’s hair are just enough of a complement. Naturally, the hat brim, crown, and ties match. Yummy.

    At court, what a contrast this young womanwould have presented to the dresses trimmed with laces, ruches, flounces, embroidery, floss fringe, gimp… Wonderful.
    10 out of 10

    • You noticed the hem! I’ve been studying that as well.

      I don’t think the dress would have been actually worn at court – I think it’s more of a costume for the painting – an excuse to show taste and wit, but not something that would have passed muster for real court dress.

  7. This dress is strumming on so many happy references – almost every woman from a Western culture would have a dress like this in the memory of princesses and fairies. And the skirt, the skirt! It’s in the painting, which is so vivid it almost captures the sound of so much silk taffeta on the move. Those crumples and billows – my inner 7 year old wants to reach down and smooth my hand over that skirt as I am wearing it, and it reminds me of my darling 17 year old in her huge organza ball skirt dropping to her knees with a squeal as it billowed up around her then subsided. Over and again.
    So yup, it is a classic. And although it is meant to be pastoral or bucolic, I don’t see it, but it does mean a relief from so much embellishment in a era where maximalism was merely a starting point! I do like the cream and blue too. A bit Kitchen decor circa 1992, but of course this dress came first so that’s hardly fair! 🙂
    I give it an 8. For whimsy.

  8. I’m a sucker for an outfit with a sense of humour. I love the simplicity of this one, and the sleeves, and the bow on the front. I really like the colour too. 10/10

  9. Zach says

    I haven’t seen that much fabric since Princess Diana! I really like the dress, but there is something that is just making me cringe every time I look at the painting. I don’t know what it is! Maybe it’s the fabric. There’s just SO MUCH. I love the shape of everything, even the almost too baggy sleeves, so maybe it’s just my comparison to Di’s dress that has me cringing (I loved her to death, but that dress was just not to my liking). Other than that, I love the gold and blue trimmings, her neat little hat, and especially all of the flowers. I love flowers!

    Nine out of ten for that mystery thing that bugs me.

  10. Pretty, but too puffy for me. I think the combination of the sleeves and the bow make it just a bit too sweet.


  11. Daniel says

    What was said about the evocativeness is spot on – you can actually feel the fabric in this picture and get the most vivid sense of the textile. It’s very subtle and understated apart from the abundant use of fabric. I love the sky blue with the pearl coloured satin – pink would have been more expected. I do like how the trimming is kept to a minimum, and yet, the blue bow is quite large and statement size, yet not so large it’s ridiculous, ditto the unusual sleeves. The hat is absolutely adorable. On the other hand, it’s not a 10/10 by a long way, I would say it’s more of a 7.5/10 for me as while I like it very much, it does follow on from a Frock of Wowzers and it has a hard act to follow….

  12. Amie says

    I love this. The fabric of the skirt, luminous. It glows.
    The scale of her body to her arms is off and sort of bugs me. But everything else, I just sort of get carried away.
    I liken this to photo shopping of today. Of course, this young lady did not look like this, the artist helped her to achieve the day’s standard of beauty in both the physical beauty of her personal features, her dress, and her surroundings.
    Love it! 9.5/10

    • Elise says

      I agree that most of it is imaginary, but I remember forests in France looking almost exactly like the background in this painting.

  13. I’m not so keen on the poofy sleeves, but love the rest. To me it’s the princess at the ball type of dress, the one we all grew up loving with no concept as to what a pain the thing would be to actually move around in.

  14. It looks like something I should like more than I do. I like the puffy skirt and the flowers, but the overall impression is kind of meh for me. 6/10

  15. karenb says

    It’s more interesting to me as a painting…….the fabric looks so real,but I dont like the dress or the blue bow ( dont like big bows and low necklines together) . And I hate the neck choker thing. another thing I dislike. I prefer clothes to be useful and practical as well as beautiful.
    The flowers in her hair look pretty.


  16. Okay, there are a few things I like about the dress. I like the color and the blue ribbon trim on the sleeves. Other from that, I guess I can’t separate the context of the dress – the “I have so much wealth I enjoy pretending to be a shepherdess because basically societal cos-play” factor makes me cringe a bit. Also, that necklace/choker/collar thing is pretty awful. I think it makes her look strange. But the dress in an of itself is alright. The ridiculous amount of fabric it must’ve taken (for a single sleeve!) plus the kind of cos-play context makes me give it a 5/10.

  17. Elise says

    I have a question: Is there any possible way that this could have been a re-purposed 17th-century dress?

    • I’d say very, very unlikely. The skirt is so much bigger, and the cut of the bodice is actually quite different. However, you are on to something in that the details (low necklines, back laced bodices, full sleeves) that characterised 17th century court dress were essentially set into law by Louis XIV, and remained the standard until the French Revolution.

  18. ewa says

    Wasn’t it en vogue to play dress up as shephardesses among the rich folk? Were it not for those puffy sleeves, the dress would be a simple albeit elegant dress and the hat would nicely complement the whole outfit. I’m not a fan of the choker, though. I’ll give it a 7.

  19. I love it – I love bergeres, I love blue and white, I also like some peasant and ethnic echoes in fashion when done right, and I think here it’s done right, taking cues for the silhouette rather than anything else. (I may have hated it at its time for the pretense, but today I enjoy it…) It’s just a bit too bland in all that; I think it needs more blue to be perfect, more balanced in my eye. 9/10

  20. I love this dress. I love the color and the voluptuous skirts. It looks like one of those dresses you would just hear coming! I also love the detail of the blue bow at the bust whose ends wrap around to the back of the bodice.

    I give it a 10!

  21. It’s so cute! I love it, even the huge sleeves, they go nicely with the poofy skirt.
    I like the blue bow itself, but not the two ribbon lines underneath it.


  22. 10. I love it. I love the irony of taking a peasant or working class look and doing it up in exagerated style with luxurious materials. I would wear this, all of it. And I love seeing pictures of 18th century women with subtle hair.

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