Fashion and Trade in 18th Century France –

This post combines photos of historic garments I saw in Nantes with information I learned in La Rochelle, as well as additional research I did after I returned home to the States.

Within walking distance of the train station in Nantes stands the Chateau des ducs de Bretagne, a 15th century castle built by Francois II, the last Duke of Brittany, and his daughter, Anne, who ruled twice as Queen of France (Charles VIII and Louis XII}. The chateau houses the Musee d’Histoire – 32 rooms covering eight centuries of Nantes history.

The Museum of the New World in La Rochelle is housed in the Hotel Fleuriau, a Parisian style mansion built between 1740-50, with rooms and salons furnished in the Louis XV and Louis XVI styles. The mansion was purchased in 1772 by Aime-Benjamin Fleuriau, who returned to La Rochelle after having made his fortune working on the family plantation in Saint Dominique.

These two museums presented France’s involvement in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade – a subject I was painfully unaware of. France ranked third in human exports behind Portugal and England. France went through Abolition twice – once in 1791-92, and again in 1848, after Napoleon Bonaparte had re-established slavery in the French colonies in 1802 at the behest of the merchants and ship owners in Nantes.

I visited both Nantes and La Rochelle, which were the top two French ports shipping slaves to the Americas and the French West Indies during the 16th-19th centuries. Nantes derived most of its wealth from the slave trade, which is still apparent in the Feydeau district, where ship owners built mansions with the fortunes they made from the slave trade and the import of New World commodities including indigo and cotton.

Fashions from Nantes

The first item I saw in the Musee d’Histoire was this embroidered parasol, which was fully lined. Unfortunately, the informational text is not clear enough for me to provide its provenance.

There were two garments here. This is a dress à la française, or ‘sack dress’ which I believe dates to about 1790. From what I gleaned from the V&A Museum, profiles for women started to slim down during this decade, and full petticoats and hoops were replaced by smaller hip pads. I don’t know much about this period but I was struck by the center front lacing, and the absence of a stomacher.

I was also surprised to see the box pleats on the back stitched to the bodice from neck to waist. I had always thought they were more free-flowing from the shoulders.

The dress appeared to be made from printed cotton, which had been forbidden in France between 1686 and 1759. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, printed cottons (chintz) were seen as a threat to the domestic silk weaving industry, so silk producers petitioned the government to ban them. Legislation was passed in 1686 prohibiting the importation and domestic production of printed textiles. For a more in-depth study on this topic, check out this BBC article: “The Floral Fabric that was Banned

In spite of the ban on trade, merchants smuggled the highly sought-after “indiennes” on board ships of the East India Company, and into the European market. When the ban was lifted in 1759, textile printers in Nantes including Petitpierre Brothers, Gorgerat and Langevin produced up to 26,000 pieces a year over the next 20 years for both the domestic and African markets.

The other garment here was a men’s suit which I believe also dated to the late 1700s. The coat looked like it was made from a twill weave wool with embroidery, probably in silk floss, with matching breeches. The unadorned white waistcoat appeared to be silk.

Both garments were shown together in a room furnished to the same period, which included items that were brought to France from trade with the Americas and Asia. The portrait in the background, painted by Negrini in 1757, is of Pierre Gregoire de Roulhac, Lord of Faugeras, who served as mayor and later Attorney General of the city of Limoges.

Fashionable Homes

This floral wallpaper imitated the printed fabrics that were forbidden. It is in the Museum of the New World in La Rochelle.

Here are a few of my favorite pieces from Nantes. The first, because I am a fan of Absinthe; the second showed the spices that were popular, and where they were exported from, although apparently I was more interested in the porcelains than I was in the spice map…

This plate shows the merging of the arms of two important merchant families in Nantes – Pierre Antoine Espivent de La Villesboisnet and Elizabeth Genevieve de Montaudouin, who were married October 12, 1750. It is white porcelain painted with polychrome enamels, produced by the Compagnie des Indies Decor in China.

Visiting multiple museums in an area has often provided me with deeper insight into specific topics than a single museum might offer. I found that to be especially true of these two museums, whom when combined, provided me a better understanding of how trade affected home and wearable fashion, and how deeply fashion was tied to the political and economic world of 18th century France.

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