Tag Archives: 18th Century

That’s Really Going to Ruin Someone’s Whole Day

11 Oct

When I think of 18th century royal courts, lots of things immediately spring to mind: grand palaces done up as ornately as humanly possible, huge poofy dresses (panniers and bustles!), and staid, slightly inbred folks with awesome titles, like the Duke and Duchess of Whatnot and the Baron and Baroness Blah d’Blah. I’m sure Peterhof Palace, in St. Petersburg, Russia, once had all those things, but it also had something else up its proverbial sleeves.

Construction of Peterhof palace was begun in the early 18th century by Peter the Great (hugely surprising, considering the name and all). Good old Peter, who I’m pretty sure had a personality disorder (seriously, look him up, Pete could be one nasty dude), had some palace envy for the grand fountains he had heard about in France (he’d never been to France, but heard they were snazzy, so of course he wanted some for himself). Thus, Peterhof palace has over a thousand fountains, ranging from the very impressive Samson. fountain (meant to symbolize Russia’s victory over its rival, Sweden) to the devious trick fountains.

Two views of the Samson fountain. Upper: facing Peterhof palace (Grand Cascade). Lower: facing the Bay of Finland.
By the mid- to late- 18th century, the fountains and parks had expanded to its 1000+ fountain peak, and were impressing the courtly Russian masses (few). If you were a courtly lady/gentleman of the 18th century, stuffed into the overwarm entertaining halls for balls or dinners of state or kissing the Tsar’s feet or whatever, wouldn’t you want a nice refreshing walk in the gardens? Well, Personality-Disorder Peter is one step ahead f you. He thought it would be hilarious to have trick fountains installed throughout the park to drench unsuspecting courtiers (ah, those people of lower rank). One trick fountain looks like a circular bench, with an umbrella covering it for shade. As soon as someone sits on the bench, the “umbrella” starts dumbing out sheets of water, trapping people under it. Another one looks like a tree with benches and cobbles around it, but as soon as you step on one of the trigger stones, the tree starts shooting water crazily. If you try to escape by sitting on one of the benches, that might trigger a new fountain of water to come up from behind the bench, further drenching you.
Now, If I spent four hours being dressed and prepared every morning (early afternoon- courtiers weren’t morning people), I would be pretty ticked off that some hydraulic engineer with a peevish sense of humor thought it would be funny to drench me and all my court finery. That stuff is mostly silk! Think of all the rubles wasted just so the Tsar can have a laugh at his courtiers expense (Are you starting to see what I was saying about the personality disorder? He also was afraid of high ceilings and liked to have people killed on a whim)! Court dress is nothing to sneeze at. Take this ensemble, on Empress Elizabeth Petrovna:
Elizabeth Petrovna, by Ivan Yakovlevich Vishnyakov, 1743.
The powdered wigs, the arsenic-laden cosmetics, the crinoline and layers of silk! All of it drenched and ruined by these sneaky trick fountains at Peterhof. You’d be out of courtly commission for at least the rest of the day (and you better hope you don’t catch a cold- this is the 18th century we’re talking about).

Oh My, Don’t Your Hips Look…Wide

24 Sep

People wear a lot of strange things for fashion. While I’d like to think looking really weird for “fashion” is merely a construct of 20th and 21st century haute fashion, that of course couldn’t be further from the truth. While some weird things were caused merely by a shortage of technology (or maybe forethought?), like how shoes up until recently were the same for both feet (there was no “left” and “right”, just “shoe 1” and “shoe 1 again for shoe 2”), some things are just designed to look a little different.

I am thinking particularly about panniers, which is like a mini hoop skirt apparatus designed just to make your hips stick out. The front and back stay flat, which supposedly is to show off the swanky fabric of your dress. Panniers were popular in the 18th century. Once they become popular in the Georgian era and in the years leading up to the French Revolution, rich and fashionable women competed to see who could have the biggest panniers.

Eventually they got rather out of hand, and the panniers were so big that women couldn’t fit through doors. In some places, doors had to be widened to allow these fashionable ladies through. To solve the problem, some creative designers gave the panniers hinges, which allowed the panniers to be temporarily lifted in case fashionable ladies were in places without fashionably wide doors. The most extreme panniers (common enough in French court dress a la Marie Antoinette) were several feet long- on either side! Can you image being seven feet wide???

Marie Antoinette in court dress, 1779.
No wonder people thought she was crazy.


There is a scholarly article floating around out there that argues panniers empowered women of this period because it made them such a large and imposing sight standing next to men. I don’t know how much I buy this, but mostly because of the lack of evidence of late 18th-century famous empowered women…who wore giant hip bustles. I could be missing something though.

One final note: the word “pannier” comes from “panier”, which are the baskets/carrying bags that go on either side of a pack animal. How is it that looking like a taffeta pack animal was cool? Some fashionable panniers even had hidden compartments for ladies to store things they didn’t want to carry around. So…they kind of were like pack animals. Very fashionable pack animals.