Eighteenth-century masquerade ball gowns were the epitome of opulence, displaying wealth and glamour and celebrating women's improved status in society. No longer did women, these goddesses of the Age of Reason, need to hide behind their male counterparts. They revelled in their exalted standing, donning embellished, brightly-coloured frocks and attending fashionable masquerade balls -- those scandalous gatherings of courtiers so fondly remembered.
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The Gowns' Shape
Gowns of the 18th century were equipped with incredibly wide skirts, ensuring that a woman took up three times the space of a man. Women needed to walk through doors sideways due to the size of the fashionable panniers, which held the skirts outward in an exaggeratedly feminine shape. Additionally, the skirt often opened in the front to reveal a matching petticoat underneath. Early in the century, sack-back dresses, which sported yards of gathered material, were in fashion. They showed off how much a family could afford to spend on expensive silks for its daughter or wife and displayed it extravagantly at the back. However, during Marie Antoinette's time as queen, the sack-back gown fell out of fashion and was replaced by a fitted waistline to emphasise a woman's corseted stomach.
The neckline of the 18th-century ball gown was created by the meeting of the gown's shoulders with the stomacher. Necklines throughout most of the era were U-shaped and daringly low. They were named after Louise de Lavallière, Louis XIV's mistress, who was famous for enhancing hers with roses, bows and ruffles. Even decades after her death, ruffles were still used to adorn the bosoms of 18th-century women. Additional frills could be added to a woman's chemise to peek out over the neckline for a coquettish look.
The materials used for gowns in the 18th century were often intricately beaded or embroidered with botanically accurate flowers. Silk was the favourite, as it draped well and was lighter for dancing than fabrics such as velvet or linen. Using silk also showed off a courtier's wealth, as it was difficult to afford a bolt of silk. At the beginning of the century, the Mantua style, which consisted of two large pieces of material strategically pinned together, was prominent until Louis XIV banned it from court for looking too informal. However, those pieces were later used in the wide gowns worn in court throughout the rest of the century. Dressmakers still tried to keep the material uncut when creating gowns, as the material could be used for later fashions.
No ball gown was complete without complementary accessories, and the most prominent accessory was a woman's hair. Powdered and sky-high, hair was supplemented with padded coiffures and frequently adorned with anything from flowers to novelty items such as birds, fruit or little boats. When attending a masquerade ball, an 18th-century woman would disguise herself with an ornate mask adorned with jewels or feathers. She would pin the mask into her hair and enjoy a night of dancing and music -- perhaps behind the barrier of a fan.
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