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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!