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Exhibition at National Gallery of Canada highlights the evolution of the chemise dress
Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson, Madame Erneste Bioche de Misery, 1807. Oil on canvas, 117.5 x 91.5 cm. Purchased 1974 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © National Gallery of Canada.

OTTAWA.- The National Gallery of Canada presents, as part of its Masterpiece in Focus program, The White Dress, an exhibition that highlights the evolution of the chemise dress and the drastic transformation in fashion around the turn of the nineteenth century. Complementing the Gallery’s major summer retrospective of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), the Portraitist to Marie Antoinette, The White Dress offers a rich exploration of the trends and artistic movements of the time.

At the heart of this Masterpiece in Focus presentation are two portraits by Vigée Le Brun’s contemporaries – Scottish artist Henry Raeburn and French artist Anne-Louis Girodet. These magnificent works from the national collection – Jacobina Copland (v. 1794–1798), by Raeburn, and Madame Erneste Bioche de Misery (1807), by Girodet – can be seen alongside insightful drawings and illustrations, as well as stunning period dresses on loan from the Royal Ontario Museum and a private collector.

Scandal at the “Cour de France”
With the aid of a simple white dress, the exhibition unveils the world that portraitist Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and her sitters navigated at the turn of the 18th century. Although it may seem demure to contemporary eyes, Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress caused a scandal when it was exhibited at the Paris salon in 1783. Royal etiquette required elaborate formal dress. The notorious portrait depicting France’s queen in a simple muslin garment was seen as immodest and had to be removed from view. But more than a breach of decorum, nearly a decade before the French Revolution of 1789, the painting can also be seen as announcing the end of formality, luxury and all that was synonymous with the monarchy.

At the time, court gowns, made of ornately embellished heavy brocades, required structural undergarments – panniers, hooped petticoats, and whalebone stays (an early form of the corset) – for support. It was a style designed to inspire respect for the French monarchy. Marie Antoinette’s preference for the chemise dress was deemed not only a breach of decorum, but an act of treason: court dress was largely a product of the French textile industry – especially the silk looms of Lyon, while the white muslin was a foreign import from India and Britain. The Gallery’s Website presents a time-lapse video of Dr. Anne Bissonnette, Dress Historian at the University of Alberta, preparing one of the 18th-century muslin dresses for the exhibition in the Gallery’s conservation lab.

NGC Associate Curator to the Chief Curator, Erika Dolphin, is the curator of The White Dress: Masterpiece in Focus.

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