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Although Snark Week has me about to keel over, I promised you an Actual Research post reviewing Maria Theresia‘s (2017-19) costumes:
Starting with our second Snark Week, I’ve picked a shitty frock flick to recap, because I love sharing the blow-by-blows with you. This year, I asked you to choose what film/series I should recap, and the clear winner was Maria Theresia (2017-). This is an Austrian-Czech miniseries about Empress Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Empress and empress/queen of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Transylvania, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherlands, and Parma, beginning in 1741 and reigning through 1780. The series had two (LONG) episodes in 2017, two more in 2019, and apparently a further two more are planned. I’ll recap the four existing episodes this week, and on Friday I’ll do some actual research and talk about what the production got right, and where they messed up, in the costumes.
Given my level of exhaustion, and the fact that they were the focus of my recaps, I’m going to restrict myself to talking about the women’s fashion. The series has a few quick moments in the early 1720s, then jumps forward and spends most of its time in the 1730s and 1740s, so that will also be my focus.
Now, the problem is that 1. the early 18th century isn’t as well documented as the later (no fashion magazines existed, fewer surviving garments, and portraiture tended to show more mythical/allegorical/formal styles than the more relaxed portraits of the late 18th century), and 2. this is an era of distinct regionalism in fashion, which starts to blur in the late eighteenth century (see: fashion magazines created, among other trends) — what was worn in Central Europe was slightly different from France or England or Sweden or Spain or Russia, and all of those were slightly different from each other too. So I’m going to try to focus on the Austrian/German area, but back to that poor documentation issue, I may need to pull from French sources sometimes. Sorry!
Also important to know is that there were strong distinctions between the formal, often regulated clothing worn for court functions (and those varied from court to court, so what was worn in Versailles wasn’t necessarily what was worn in Vienna), and the clothes worn for unofficial occasions (which could span “hanging out at home on the couch” to “fancy party”).
Let’s look first at court dress in early-mid 18th century Austria/Germany and compare it with the costumes show in Maria Theresia. Then we’ll look at less official dress.
Court Dress in Maria Theresia
Despite all my cautioning about differences, women’s court dress in the mid-18th century followed a particular look, which was based on the dresses worn in the late 17th century:
The dresses were made of three main elements:
- A cone-shaped bodice that was boned and made with stiffened materials (so it was both a fashion garment and a corset in one), with a just-off-the-shoulder neckline, front point, back closure, and lace sleeves:
- A petticoat worn over side hoops whose width varies depending on the exact period and the formality of the occasion. Sofia Magdalena’s dress is from her wedding, so her hoops are huuuuuuuuuuge. The petticoat is the “underskirt” in the big image above.
The train, which is what we would call an “overskirt.” It opens in front, and is pulled back to varying degrees over the hoops, and then extends a few to a gazillion feet in back.
Here’s some examples of Austrian/German court dress from the 1730s-40s:
Now, let’s look at some of the court style-dresses in Maria Theresia and get more specific. One problem is that I’m not entirely sure WHEN they meant something to be a court dress and when they didn’t, so in some ways this is going to be “times Maria Theresia got the court dress right”:
The one dress with the main problem is mom’s court-dress, which has a high-low overskirt, which 1. didn’t exist and 2. would make it a jacket, not a dress:
With the switch (to more money? more time?) in episodes 3 and 4, the main court dress passes the “okay given they had a budget” test:
Fashionable Dress in Maria Theresia
Alright, this is where things get a lot harder … back again to the issue of limited documentation. Here’s a brief rundown of fashionable dress options in the 1730s-40s, from least cutting-edge to most:
Okay, it was called the “robe” in France, I’m not sure what they called it in German-speaking areas. It’s a cone-shaped bodice, generally with support built-in like the court bodice, but comes up higher on the shoulder. It can be worn with one or two skirts (if two, the overskirt would be split in front). Sleeves are elbow-length, initially cut into shape, then later with a pleated cuff. Some closed in front, especially when they were worn over a stomacher, and some closed in back with the same hidden lacing you see in court gowns.
There’s a lot more of these:
Fitted Jacket-Style Bodices
Cut similarly to the robe, but with a short skirting attached to the bodice hem.
These are basically missing from Maria Theresia.
Styled like men’s suits on top, but worn with skirts:
The show has a number of these, although their’s are usually proper riding habit jackets worn over other styles of gowns instead of with their own matching petticoat:
Called the robe à la française in France and the sacque or sack in England, this was open in front over a stomacher, with vertical pleats along the front edges; in back, it had structured pleats that went from neck to hem:
There’s a lot of these in Maria Theresia:
Specific Nitpicks in Maria Theresia
Now, let’s do what Snark Week does best!
Sewn-In Stomachers (and Petticoats)
I complained a lot about sewn-in stomachers, and got a few questions about them. Let me break it down:
The way one wears a stomacher-ed gown is to first put on your stays (corset), hoops or hip/bum pads (if worn), underpetticoat, and petticoat. Then, the stomacher is pinned or basted to the stays (in the 1770s-80s, there was a style where the stomacher could be sewn to the gown, in which case it split center front). THEN the gown is put on, and pinned or basted to the stomacher/stays at the front edges. Check out this video from the National Museums Liverpool for a live demo; scroll back if you want to see the stomacher being pinned into place:
The problem with the costumes in this production is the stomachers are often sewn into place, with the gown opening in back, which is ridiculous. As I outlined in my back-lacing rant, there’s no need to open a gown in back if it already opens in front, as it would to show the stomacher. It also just LOOKS clunky, as there’s clearly no overlay of the gown. Why would they do this? It’s probably easier for the dressers to have everything sewn together, there’s less margin for error or continuity problems.
Things got a lot better in episodes 3 and 4, except I want to know why this black contouche’s stomacher looks laid on top of the gown rather than vice versa:
Not Enough Corsets
Stays (the 18th-century term; “corset” is 19th century, but it’s a shorthand more people understand) seem to come and go in this production. Particularly in episodes 3 and 4, you get some lovely bodice silhouettes like this one:
I’ve pretty much never seen actual boob shapes under a gown/corset in the 18th century, except for some outliers in the very late century. Yes, especially in the first half of the century, support for the breasts and torso could be build into the gown, like in the court gown and robe. But the resulting silhouette should looked “corseted” and smooth; and if support isn’t build into the gown, separate stays should be worn.
That’s why all these boobs annoyed me:
Okay, so they did generally PLACE the trim in the right spot — center front of the bodice or occasionally along the side fronts of a contouche/française. But the aesthetic just SO wasn’t 18th century. I get it, they’re trying to do a lot without a lot of money or time, so these modern equivalents save both.
Okay, so yes, as everyone knows, white hair was super popular throughout the 18th century. What is frequently misunderstood is the fact that this was done by applying powder — lots and lots of powder — to the hair. Yes, white and grey WIGS existed, but these were primarily worn by men and still had powder applied. Unless a woman was losing her hair, they nearly always wore their own hair, and most often it was powdered within an inch of its life.
So I could have accepted the shitty white wigs in episodes 1 and 2 IF I were supposed to believe it was the woman’s own hair. But given how MT kept switching between white and blond, and the fact that we see her natural brown hair on her wedding night, this was a big no for me.
Things got better in episodes 3 and 4 when they started using the actress’s own hair. But the problem is the hairstyles they used — while actually quite pretty — were more late 1750s through 1770s than 1730s-40s. Don’t believe me?
Instead, in episodes 3 and 4, we get hair more like this 1772 style:
And, to say for the thousandth time, 18th-century women did not wear full wigs IF they could avoid it. They wore hairpieces, sure, which they worked their own hair into for a natural look. So every time you see a scene like this, join me in scoffing:
Anachronistic Gown Styles
And finally, there were a number of gown styles worn that were decades too early:
There’s tons more I could say, but I’m about to keel over from Snark Week exhaustion, so I admit defeat and won’t be discussing the coronation gown. I’m sorry!!
What questions do you have, and information can you share, about women’s fashions in the 1730s-40s and the costumes of Maria Theresa? Weigh in in the comments!
Under the picture of Sofia Magdelena it says Coronation Gown and under your Detail pics it says Wedding Gown. I believe both are in existence, so I’m going to believe it’s a typo due to extreme weariness. So far I’m enjoying the comparison.
Thanks for doing this, Kendra! I feel like I learn so much both in snarky and more serious takes. :-) I really want to read about the construction of these things now. Thinking of going mid-18th C for a cosplay next fall so I’m all eyes! Kudos!
Wow what a marathon! And so interesting to read your analysis of why one’s reaction to these things is almost visceral. I see something else that’s more of an overall approach issue including and beyond the specifics here. The colour palette is wrong. The pink wedding dress is a cool based modern pink, not the rich warm, soft pink of a naturally dyed colour, and the constant use of 80s electric blue hurts my brain. The difference between this and the deep greeny navy in portraits is just..ungh. So this gives the whole thing a 1980s school production vibe. And then as well as the hidjus sewn in stomachers, all the sewing and cutting has a pedestrian quality to it that just feels like costume hire dresses made from a simplicity costume pattern. The Grandma’s living room curtain brocades are everywhere. They don’t sit right, don’t read anything like silk. They lack silk’s vibrant personality in the way it moves. I understand budget constraints as it is a huge productiom and I imagine not much is for hire from this era, hence the zone front invasion, but so much could have been done to improve things – spraying the white nylon laces with cream or gold spraypaint gives them a rigidity and robustness that looks far more authentic. Doing this to all that white bridal trim on the blue gown would have helped. Obvs before it was put on.
Well as always could hav been worse, could have been MQODenim.
I saw some of the gowns from Series 2 live, and as I recall, Maria Theresia’s gowns (plus riding habit) were all silk (at least some were duchesse, I recall), while some of the lesser characters were not. And yes. The colour palette of some of them was pretty offending in real life as well. :P
P.S. At least some of the brocades allegedly came from a factory in Italy that specialises in historical fabrics. So they may have made the mistake of trusting them implicitly and using fabrics that were not clothing fabrics. Because lack of easily available info (see my elaboration below).
Will you look at the panniers on that coronation/wedding gown! Good thing the ceremony, whichever it was, took place in a cathedral with BIG doors!
Fantastic rant! I learned sooooo much. Appreciate the video very much. Now get some rest.
It doesn’t seem that the costumes were made to appeal to modern aesthetics,and it is easy to find referenced portraits which makes it crystal clear that the designers tried,though the results are not that good.The fabrics and lace were horrible,and budget for those things could have made it much better as in the latter episodes.
Thank you so much! See, I had no idea what a stomacher even was, or how you were meant to put it on, until you linked that video. I may be a mad history enthusiast but like I said, mostly in the ancient world and not really a clothing expert, so you need to explain these things like I’m five. Greatly enjoying snark week!
Re the shape of the boobs not being visible: I’ve had to read a fair amount of 17th- and 18th-century porn (you KNOW you’re a costume geek if you read an account of the Marquis de Sade’s trial for hiring a clutch of prostitutes and accidentally poisoning one with Spanish fly, and all you can remember is what he and his manservant were wearing), and it’s noticeable that it’s quite rare for the writer to refer to ‘breasts’ or any plural slang term; instead you get ‘her bosom’, singular. It really seems almost as though the randy male of the era thought of the bust as a single phenomenon, since that how he normally got to see it.
Everything about this comment is glorious, and I would like to thank you for it. :D :D :D
On the subject of stomachers, shouldn’t they also be wearing jewelry stomachers (devant de corsage) on grand occasions? Those brooches they used seem awfully small and every day for an empress.
Many thanks for all these details here. Great work.
Is that dress with the sequin applique WAFFLE KNIT fabric?
I missed this by not being a regular reader! I actually saw the physical gowns from episodes 3 & 4 at an exhibition here in Czechia and have photos! (Some of them, including that riding habit which I was admiring in real life for having gotten it mostly right.)
… I’d have to upload them somewhere. But I have photos if you’re interested. :-)
As a former costumer I see 3 huge problems 1) overall badly fit gowns 2) non historicaly built gowns, and 3)cheaply rendered gowns and hair. And they all come down to dollars ..
The fit can be a situation that actresses cause in spite of a designers best intentions. If an actress refuses to wear stays, who do you go to? The producers don’t care about historic accuracy they care about keeping to budget and to schedule ($). Making your star comfortable may accomplish both of these. Over and over in your view the most successful looks are those worn by larger actress, ladies that are perhaps more sensitive to looking their best. Perhaps these ladies literally spent more time in fittings and were willing to have themselves tighter laced to achieve the cone shape, and KEEP it tightly laced all day of shooting. recall the revealed back lacing that you noticed. What I noticed is that it had been loosened at bust line level) Remember actresses are expected to work in costume between 13 to 18+ hours a day, even the most dedicated reenactor rarely maintain that many hours for a day let alone a shooting schedule of 2-3 months 5-6 days a week. Keeping the production moving becomes the mantra. If that means loosening things, that’s what it means. And sloppy looking gowns are the result.
There is no excuse for badly researched production. Historic pattern books have information that puts you on the right road to making a gown so the only reason could be $$$. In their defense, can producers afford to spend the money to create a court gown that takes 100s of hours to recreate accurately? reenactors lovingly do this for themselves, we do it to make it perfectly, but we do it for free. if you have a budget too small to make 500 1730-40s court gowns that is the producers fault. Details go out the window, so you look for ways to cut corners. Can we reuse the same pattern a few times? or you just fail the period to save fabric and hours.
“Cut the tabs/ robing, no one will know” I can hear the sentences in my head. A dream project that you look forward to, can turn into a nightmare because of budget.
As to badly dated styled wigs. Well that is very frustrating for costumers, we can suggest a look to hair stylists but they make their own mistakes. If they are turned on by the big hair of 1780s; well a cooing whisper in the actress ear in the chair and 1780s hair is what you get, failing the entire look.
I’ve been a professional and a reenactor I hate bad work but can sympathize with their challenges.
I also feel like part of the problem here is that here in Czechia we’re a bit behind on “historical accuracy” in costume, especially for this particular era, so actually as more or less the first local undertaking that made an effort at 18th century this isn’t too bad and a huge improvement over previous local attempts at the era (I don’t even know what the last previous attempt at the era was – but almost certainly it would have been a fairy-tale, which is never subject to the same rigorous historical scrutiny)… It’s still a bit of a disaster for those who know, but at the same time, I can see where they made an effort and where their challenges lay, and it isn’t just budget (although in a way, budget probably plays a role even in this). It is like so:
The costume designer is Czech. There’s a lot more info available in English – even in terms of museum garments to view online; definitely in terms of correct construction techniques and pattern shapes. Far, far less in Czech. I can imagine it may have been quite a project for the costume designer just to research and find out what sources to use, considering this was probably his first foray into the era; I’ve been looking into historical costuming for years and years now, and I’ve seen how little there is easily available in Czech, especially if one wants to know the practical aspect of “how do I make this thing so that it looks like that” rather than just “look at these paintings and read this general account of the era”. And how only in the past couple of years the situation is slowly improving e.g. in terms of online colletions (and there’s still next to no 18th century, compared to how many extant dresses there are in foreign collections). And that may well be one of the reasons the costuming improved in the second series – more time to research, get his hands on resources, and learn from mistakes.
They also proudly used brocades from a factory in Italy that makes historical fabrics – which also felt maybe more like furnishing fabrics to me. So overall it felt rather like “they definitely made an effort but there’s room for improvement that could be solved with more easily available Czech research into the era in the future”.
18th century is super-popular with costumers elsewhere but around here… costumers / reenactors focus on earlier eras, SCA-style basically. Or later (Regency / Napoleonic). 18th century is a bit of a blank in Czech costuming circles and only now starts being done seriously here and there, probably under influence from abroad… So this must have been, on the whole, quite a shot in the dark.