Sexuality in Fashion: The Myth of Wet Dresses and the Muslin Disease

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James Gillray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the late 17th to early 18th century, upper class women’s fashion changed dramatically. For centuries, they wore multilayered complicated dresses that often changed their silhouette to something not quite natural. Women were a mystery from the waist down with voluminous skirts and undercarriage that ranged from the tubular cartwheel farthingale to the basket like hips of panniers. It was a time of revolution both culturally and politically. The taking down of the extravagant monarchy in France during the March on Versailles in 1789 brought on a period of “austerity” in fashion. Gone are the grand gowns bedecked with ruching, ribbons, lace, and furs. The new era gowns were often made of muslin a type of cotton fabric. There are other influences that shaped this new silhouette and style. It’s said that the rise of the chemise style gown came about because it was what the women wore while imprisoned during the revolution. The classical style of ancient Greece and Rome becomes extremely popular and is seen in the rising waistline, draping fabric, and Grecian inspired dress trim, accessories, and hairstyles.

Between 1795 and 1799 a new group of fashionistas take the simplicity of the classical style to extremes. With the revolution somewhat in the past, decadent fashion makes a return with the Incroyables and Merveilleuses of the Directoire period. The Merveilleuse wore lighter weight muslin, gauze or linen gowns that were sometimes quite sheer. They did away with the underpinnings and often just wore a pink bodysuit underneath to accentuate the appearance of being nude underneath. Necklines were low and skirts often slit up the side. They wore sandals or lightweight slippers with ties that crisscrossed up their calves to the knee. The dresses worn by the general public were already scandalous even though they were still worn with undergarments that included a corset, petticoat, and even underwear, as long pantaloons were necessary under the less structured dress. This was mostly because the dresses and lightweight petticoat revealed a woman’s figure more than it had in centuries. You could almost see the natural shape of a woman’s legs and posterior! The Merveilleuse would take this to the extreme showing more than a silhouette but the hint of skin.

Unfortunately, I read often about the wetting down of muslin dresses to further expose the body in all its glory. Stories of women coming down with pneumonia which could lead to death, otherwise known as the muslin disease, due to walking around in wet garments. Despite it being repeated on many websites, I could not find any evidence of this actually happening. It looks like many people have taken the words of harsh critics who thought the clingy dresses looked like they were wet down as truth. There are lots of scathing caricatures that exaggerate the style to make fun and criticize. Out of all the images I’ve seen none of them indicate that the dresses were wet in any way. And really, I wonder how long these dresses can stay wet, certainly not long enough to make it through an entire ball I would think. It’s more likely “muslin disease” was just the product of women going out on a cold wintery day with plunging necklines and semi sheer fabric to remain de rigueur.

The wet t-shirt style escapades of the Merveilleuse are decidedly unsubstantiated. It was a short time when women could celebrate their silhouette. This freedom of sexual expression in dress would be short lived. Napoleon would bring on the return of repression and take away the more egalitarian role women had during the revolution. It would be more than a century before the flapper would bring back a similar freedom of dress and sexuality we saw with the marvelous Merveilleuse.

Last modified: May 2, 2016

One Response to " Sexuality in Fashion: The Myth of Wet Dresses and the Muslin Disease "

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