Betsy Patterson Bonaparte
Aside from marrying into France's nouveau royal family Betsy Patterson Bonaparte was best known for her scanty gowns.
"Her appearance was such that it threw all the company into confusion and no one dar'd look at her but by stealth...Her dress was the thinnest sarcenet and white crepe...there was scarcely any wasit to it and no sleeves; her back, her bosom, part of her wasit and her arms were uncovered and the rest of her form visible. ...Several ladies sent her word. if she wished to meet them...she must promise to have more clothes on."---Margaret Bayard Smith
Shopping in a French market.
Young women wearing revealing new gowns,
an older woman on the left observes.
At her wedding: "All the clothes worn by the bride might have been put in my pocket. Her dress was of muslin, richly embroidered, of extremely fine texture. Beneath her dress she wore but a single garment."
Rake Aaron Burr liked the look. He wrote his daughter Theodosia after the wedding:"Madame Bonaparte passed a week here. She is a charming little woman...dresses with taste and simplicity (by some thought too free)."
It may be that Betsy's muslins were gauzier, perhaps dampened a bit more and thus more revealing than those of other young women following French fashion. But she may have merely been the most famous representative of a dramatic break with the past.
Les Marveilleuses---the marvelous ones---
The term was also applied to the revealing garment of the
marvelous set who wore them.
French women began the fashion for what we call Empire style after the French Revolution in the 1790s. Classical Greek drapery alluded to the idea of the Greeks as citizens of a free republic.The fashion was political and anti-revolution---red shawls and neck ribbons echoed the horrors of the guillotine. The look was most fashionable in the time of Napoleon, which is why it's called Empire.
A fop mistakes a fashionable woman for a prostitute... Some women wore "flesh-colored tights" under the dresses, but apparently some did not.
Detail from John Lewis Krimmel's The Quilting Frolic
shows an American woman in 1813 in a version of La Marveilleuse.
The older generation raised in paniers and quilted petticoats was shocked.
The fashion was popular subject matter for British and French cartoonists.
Dolley Madison about 1817 by Bass Otis.
But everybody wore the dress.
Although one (or one's Mama) could be discreet.
Detail of another Krimmel painting A Country Wedding shows how lace, ruffs and shawls covered up the details.
"Only to think, Julia dear, that our
Mothers wore such ridiculous fashions..."
Fashion began to change at the end of the teens and by the time of this 1857 cartoon a diaphanous dress was hard to imagine.For more about la marveilleuse: