By the end of the eighteenth century, heavy, thickly decorated gowns dropped out of fashion as lighter styles, such as the robe en chemise, became popular. In the 1780s English and French women began to wear sheer white cotton dresses with high waists wrapped with satin sashes. These dresses had simple straight silhouettes inspired by ancient Greek and Roman styles. Although the first of these dresses had elbow-length sleeves, many ruffles, and were worn with petticoats, the relative visibility of the female form beneath these thin gowns shocked the public. Upon seeing a portrait of Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793), who was married to Louis XVI of France (1754-1793), in a robe en chemise in 1783, some Parisians considered her to be without clothes. But fashion soon accepted the gowns, and women began to wear even more revealing versions of the robe en chemise. The neckline dipped low in front and the sleeves came to cover only the shoulders. These dresses remained fashionable into the nineteenth century.


Lister, Margot. Costume: An Illustrated Survey from Ancient Times to the Twentieth Century. London, England: Herbert Jenkins, 1967.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

[See also Volume 3, Nineteenth Century: Dresses]


The Incroyables (the Unbelievables) and the Merveilleuses (the Marvelous Ones) were part of a rebellious youth movement that arose during the 1790s, during the French Revolution (1789-99). The revolution had begun a tremendous upheaval in France pitting the poor and the middle class against the wealthy, and the government was very unstable. The Incroyables (men) and the Merveilleuses (women) were political young people, who were the product of an explosive time in history. They made their political statement by dressing in outlandish fashions that exaggerated and mocked the luxurious styles that had been worn in the court of King Louis XVI (1754-1793), who had recently been executed by the revolutionary government. Though many ridiculed the extreme fashions of the Incroyables and the Merveilleuses and called them immoral, they did remind people of the time before the revolution, when outrageous fashions had been more than a jest.

In the last decade of the eighteenth century, all of French society began to reflect the enormous changes brought about by the French Revolution. The style of dress changed immediately throughout society. The elaborate and ornate styles that had been popular earlier in the century were seen as part of the hated old system, where the rich could afford expensive adornment while the poor starved. Fine clothes were not only unpopular, they could be dangerous, as thousands of people thought to sympathize with the aristocrats were executed. A new style evolved that borrowed simpler fashions from Britain and ancient Greece, both societies that were seen as more democratic than French society. British country clothing, with its long jackets and leather boots, became widely popular. So did long, flowing tunics and gowns, such as the robe en chemise, that resembled the simple robes worn by ancient Greeks in the birthplace of democracy, or the principles of social equality.

Some young people began to rebel against this serious and repressed atmosphere. They began to wear clothing that was a comic exaggeration of the new styles, making them almost as lavish and ridiculous as the finery that had been worn by the nobility before the revolution. Young men, who were soon given the name Incroyables, because they looked incredible, wore a cartoon version of the English country suit. Skintight pants with extremely short vests, often made of flowered fabric, were topped with a jacket made so long its wide flared tails reached the ankles. The coat sleeves were so long that they hid the hands from sight, and the lapels were so large they often stuck out several inches beyond the wearer. The back of the bulky coat was bunched in folds, and the front was cut to look uneven when the jacket was buttoned. The jacket collar stood up high behind the head in back, and a huge cravat, or neck covering, was wrapped so high around the neck that it covered the chin and mouth. Incroyables cut their hair raggedly, and it hung long and shaggy on the sides of their heads, in a style called "dog's ears." They wore large, two-cornered hats, carried oversized eyeglasses, and often wore two watches.

The female counterparts of the Incroyables were called the Merveilleuses. The Merveilleuses exaggerated the Greek style, wearing loose gowns made of several yards of fabric so sheer that they were almost transparent. They often increased this "naked" look by dampening the cloth of their dresses to make them cling more closely to the body. Their simple, cropped hair was adorned with plumes of ostrich feathers. Both the Incroyables and the Merveilleuses wore large amounts of heavy musk perfume, which led some to call them "muscadins."

When the military leader Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) rose to power in France at the beginning of the 1 800s, he brought a more severe and simple style of dress, along with less tolerance for the outlandish behavior of rebellious youth, and the humorous styles of the Incroyables and the Merveilleuses disappeared.

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