Time Traveling Through Rare Books

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July 17, 2019

Time Traveling Through Rare Books

What were they wearing in 18th century France?

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Théorie de la Figure de la Terre, tirée des Principes de l’Hydrostatique 

Scientists don’t live and work in a vacuum (but spherical cows do!). They’re products of their time and space just as much as anyone else. Since the Wenner Collection covers 500 years of physics history, in many different countries and languages, we thought it would be fun to take a behind the scenes look at various aspects of history and culture when some of these scientists were writing. 

First up is Alexis Claude de Clairaut. His Théorie de la Figure de la Terre, tirée des Principes de l’Hydrostatique was published in 1743 in France. He was born in Paris in 1713 and died in 1765, thus spending his entire life smack dab in the middle of the Age of Enlightenment. 

Even as a child, Clairaut was no slouch, starting his studies in calculus at age 10. Throughout his career, he corresponded with mathematical giants of the era like Leonhard Euler and Daniel Bernoulli. He’s famous for his 1736 trip to Lapland (modern day Finland) to study the curvature of the Earth, which is what he wrote about in Théorie de la Figure de la Terre six years later. His research backed up Newton’s theories of gravitation while proposing a new way to measure the shape of the Earth.

But what else was happening in France in 1743? Lots of things, mostly related to Louis XV, the Enlightenment, and the War of Austrian Succession (what, you didn’t learn about that in grade school!?) but also the FASHION. The fashion was absolutely killer. So today we’ll be travelling back in time to the mid 1700s, to check out what people were wearing in the period Clairaut was studying and writing. 

If you know anything about 18th century fashion it’s probably from that episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor travels back in time and fights some clocks for the heart of Madame de Pompadour or maybe you watch a lot of Outlander? Time travel is fun and a classic of science fiction and fantasy. But for this little nerd's heart, the history is what's exciting. The clothes in those shows (and many other tvs shows and movies) are fantastic, but if anything the clothes in the 18th century were EVEN MORE. The clothes pictured here were not worn for every occassion, or worn by everyone in society, but generally fashion was not really concerned about minimalism. 

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Court dress,ca. 1750 (left). Mantua 1740-1745 (right)

Court dress,ca. 1750 (left). Mantua 1740-1745 (right) 

If you were the likes of Madame de Pompadour or some other royal-adjacent lady you might need to obtain a court dress. Women’s court dresses of the era were close to being as wide as they were tall. Panniers were worn under skirts to elongate and lengthen the hips, but since doorways and chairs stayed about the same size that meant a lot of time spent walking and sitting sideways. Though dresses like these were only worn at the most formal of occasions. 

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Panniers,1760–70

Panniers,1760–70

Met Costume Institute (Public Domain)

Underneath these court gowns and other wide hipped styles of the era were panniers. 

“From their introduction, panniers were a subject of ridicule. They were attacked, mainly by men, on a number of grounds: as unnatural in their distortion of the figure; as socially destabilizing when adopted by bourgeois women; and as an invitation for women to behave promiscuously, since their volume could obscure pregnancy. The charges had little effect on the pannier’s popularity.” (The Met)

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Robe à la Française,1740s

Robe à la Française,1740s

Met Costume Institute (Public Domain)

Opulently decorated and draped gowns like this Robe à la Française were majorly in style. Remember, this was before the French Revolution so everyone agreed that more was more. Baroque and Roccoco art styles of the era were over the top and intensely decorated and the clothes weren't much different. Everyday people did not wear clothes this luxurious or heavily decorated. It cost a fortune to dress like this and the same dress could be remade year after year and generation after generation. 

What makes this gown French in style as opposed to the also popular Robe à l'Anglaise? The Robe à la Française had a loose sacque back that was gathered in long flowing pleats, whereas the Anglaise had a back with pleats fitted close to the body. Slightly later in the 18th century the Robe à la Polonaise came into style (clearly using countries to dilneate dress fashions never went out of style) but that referred to puffed gatherings of the overskirt over a petticoat. 

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Robe à la Française,1760–70 (Left). Robe à l'Anglaise,1776 (Right).

Met Costume Institute (Public Domain)

Men’s clothes were equally colorful and opulent, if a bit less wide. Men’s suits of the 18th century usually consisted of a knee length coat with rather a full skirt, knee length breeches, a waistcoat, and silk stockings. Men often wore long wigs tied in the back.

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Suit,1740s

Suit,1740s

Met Costume Institute (Public Domain)

Did Alexis Claude de Clairaut wear something like this while researching in Finland? Almost definitely not. Like with books and manuscripts, we have only a small fraction of the clothing that was created almost 300 years ago. We must extrapolate from the records we do have, these garments, illustrations, written descriptions, artwork, and other materials to put together a bigger picture. And we hope that by getting a better understanding of what life was like in 1743 we can understand the work a bit better. If we understand all the smaller details the bigger picture gets richer and more complex, and that is what makes history so fascinating.