The psychological origins of fashion evolution

Nicolas Baumard, Valentin Truchard, Jeanne Bovet, Coralie Chevallier

In 1783, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s new portrait of Marie Antoinette was unveiled at the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in Paris. In the painting, often called Marie-Antoinette in a Muslin Dress (see Fig. 1), the queen is painted in a loose garment, with a sash wrapped around her waist fastened into a bow; she wears a hat decorated with ribbon and feather, that covers her undone hair. 







Figure 1 | Marie Antoinette en
Chemise by Vigée Le Brun (1783)




The portrait provoked a scandal: many were outraged that the queen was being portrayed in a chemise, a basic undergarment that all women wore. Such a pastoral costume was condemned as inappropriate for the public portrayal of royalty, and eventually, Vigée Le Brun was asked to remove it from the exhibition.

Importantly, it was the Marie-Antoinette's own decision to be depicted in this way. Vigée Le Brun was indeed already famous for her ‘natural’ and ‘sentimental’ portraits and it was the queen herself who chose Vigée Le Brun as her portraitist — Marie-Antoinette later helped her to be elected at the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Like many members of the court, Marie-Antoinette was moving away from the old aristocratic values based on rank and formality and embracing the new values of simplicity, spontaneity and sincerity. Her portrait is thus a testimony of the cultural shift that was taking place in France, not only among the Parisian philosophes such as Diderot or Rousseau, or even among the bourgeoisie, but among the elites in general, nobility included (Jones, 2014). 

This project aims to leverage the social representations of beauty in portraits and fashion to understand the evolution of social values in Ancient Régime France. While it has long been assumed that the French Revolution was caused by the class struggle between the rising bourgeoisie and the declining nobility (Lefebvre, 2015), recent advances in history have put forward the idea that the French Revolution was rather the product of a long-term cultural shift, from hierarchical and dominance-based interactions to democratic and trust-based interactions (Chartier, 1991). Documenting this shift in social values is thus crucial to understand the cultural dynamics of the French Ancient Regime and the coming of the French Revolution.

Costumes can be used to increase or decrease the apperance of some physical traits in humans. To re-use Marie-Antoinette’s example (Figure 1), her sash wrapped around her waist tend to decrease her wait-to-hip ratio, which for human females is a reliable cue of youth, a trait that is highly valued for males in many human societies (Bovet, 2019). In the same way, by increasing the size of the waist, the pannier and the crinoline aimed at creating the same visual effect: “belle taille, gorge haute” as 18th c. French people used to say (Bruma & Demey, 2018, p. 216).

Among males, costumes are often use to increase upper-body size, a reliable cue of physical formidability (Sell et al., 2018), a trait that is highly valued for males in many human societies (Frederick et al., 2007). For instance, in his famous portrait by Jean Coulet, François 1er displays a very large shoulder width, which suggest a high upper-body strenght. This is possible because the dress sleeves are stiffened by several layers of canvas, padded with cotton held in place by a network of topstitching (Bruma & Demey, 2018, p. 90). The long basques, and the chiquetades aim at creating the same visual effect by increasing the length of the upper-body (for the basques) and the size of the arms (for the chiquetades) (Bruma & Demey, 2018). This complicated ornement, the high skills and the amount of labor it requires, suggests how important it was for the 16th c. male nobility to appear this way. 





Figure 2 | François 1er by François Clouet


Fashion and beauty canons can thus allow for detecting and quantifying the traits (youth, physical strength) that are valued in a given society. Previous works have shown that, in more hierarchical and dominance-based societies, social relationships tend to be more violent, and inequalities higher. Thus, males need to display their physical strength in order to signal physical formidability to potential competitors (Spisak et al. 2012). In his Histoire de la beauté (2004), historian Georges Vigarello, for instance, report that, in the 16th c., a man is supposed to be dominant, “terrible et beau afin que combattant avec fureur il soit terrible à ses ennemis” (p. 29). 

In parallel, the concentration of wealth and power at the top of the society, and the de facto polygamous behaviours of top males (kings, princes, etc.) (Betzig, 1986), increases sexual competition between females, and the need to display traits related to fecundity and youth (Dickemann, 1979). This is visible in the way the 17th c. French nobility valued the size of the waist of the females of the high nobility: 

“Celle de la dauphine est “longue, ronde, menue, aisée, parfaitement coupée”, celle de la reine d’Espagne est dégagée, bien prise, esl côtés longs, extrêmement fine et menue par le bas, un peu plus élevée que le mediocre”, celle de Mlle de Bussy est “peu commune, bien faite, droite, aisée, parfaitement bien proportionnée” (Vigarello, 2004, p. 62)

In more hierarchical and dominance-based societies, we thus hypothesize that both males and females will use fashion in an agonistic way to increase respectively upper-body size (a reliable cue to physical strength) and waist-to-hip ratio (a reliable cue of fecundity in humans). By contrast, as the French society moved toward democratic and trust-based interactions, we expect that people will value less upper-body size and waist-to-hip ratio. 

In line with this predictions, historians of fashion report that the importance of upper-body size and waist-to-hip ratio tend to decrease from the 16th c. to the early 19th c. with, for instance, the disappearance of the farthingale, the robe à la française and the panniers, and the softening of the corselet (Delpierre, 1996, Vigarello, 2004). The decreasing importance of waist-to-hip ratio is also visible in the rising criticism against the ‘corps à baleine’ by physicians and writers. Rousseau, in L’Emile, write about the ‘corps à baleine’ that ‘it is not pleasant to see a woman's body cut in half like a wasp’ (cited in Bruma & Demey, 2018, p. 224). This shows that comfort and spontaneity have become more important at the eve of the French revolution.


françois 1er.jpeg