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Embellishment Killed the French Aristocrats — Now It’s Back

Covering yourself in gems and gold is in style again! What could go wrong?

Photo: Giampaolo Sgura/Trunk Archive

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Embellishment is what got the French aristocrats killed. Well, okay, not just embellishment. There were a lot of financial excesses typified by Rococo aristocrats that didn’t endear them to the disenfranchised populace. Behaving like filthy rich jerks who openly hated peasants is what got them killed. However, covering their clothing with gems and glittering gold threads didn’t help.

And the aristocrats embellished everything. Styles before the revolution were known for their excessive adornment. You’ll see foppishly dressed aristocrats (sometimes called "macaronis") wearing jackets covered with bows, gems, lace, ruffles, and tons of gilded or silver thread. That kind of embellishment looks great! It telegraphs wealth from a mile away! The poor did not appreciate that, since they were starving and wearing rags. The people who ultimately rose up against the aristocrats referred to themselves as the "sans culottes," meaning that they wore workmen’s pants, not fancy lace breeches.

Marie Antoinette. Photo: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Following the French Revolution, the directoire style became popular. While once powerful women and men had garments that would appear as bedazzled as your great aunt’s favorite sweatshirt (if only your great aunt had Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry collection to work with), after the revolution, anyone in power adopted far simpler styles. Men wore work pants and suit coats. Inspired by the Roman Republic, the women dressed in plain white muslin gowns generally cut with an empire waist. A powerful woman went from looking like this to looking like this (all of the pictures of women from this period look like they’re your surly teenage daughter who hates having her picture taken, but this one looks that way the most.) It wasn’t chic to look too elaborately adorned anymore. Simplicity was the essence of power and elegance now.

This basically remained the rule for the next 200 years. The post-revolutionary period in France is the divide in history where people go from looking, more or less, like they’re in a costume drama to looking, more or less, like they could pass if they were dropped into modern society.

That’s not to say that clothing was never elaborately embellished in the next hundred years, but it was confined largely to the theater. Showgirl costumes, for instance, which were intended to be eye-catching, were covered with crystals, gems, and ruffles. (Here are some great examples.)

Showgirls circa 1930. Photo: Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

Those who wore that much elaborate adornment outside were considered to be at least a little eccentric — like your great aunt who has bedazzled all her sweaters with her cats’s names. Don’t get me wrong, I love that (and so do the felines Meow, Whiskers, and Bernice), but it wasn’t the style adopted by the wealthy and powerful. They, perhaps at least still a little mindful of the lessons of the revolution, tended towards understated, elegant pieces.

There was, however, a brief foray into extreme embellishment in the 1990s. During that time, brands like Dolce & Gabbana and Chanel embellished their clothing. That period didn’t last too long, though. It was stopped, either by the grunge movement or by Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy’s understated elegance, depending upon whom you ask.

And it didn’t resurface until right about now. Embellished clothing is having a huge moment. The Blondes, which make dazzlingly embellished bodysuits and garments covered with Preciosa Crystal components, note that "we sometimes refer to our clients as modern day showgirls." However, its clients are working with far more than a showgirl’s budget — one of The Blonde’s bodysuits retails for $7,500. The price point remains similar with a lot of Libertine’s beautiful beaded coats this season, which are covered in crystals and retail for around $10,000. Similarly priced are these Dolce & Gabbana outfits that feature dresses spelling out "I am a princess" in glittery thread and pearls.

Even Marie Antoinette didn’t go that far.

A 1993 Chanel fashion show. Photo: Rindoff Petroff/Castel/Contributor/Getty Images

The Blondes note that one of their inspirations is '90s high fashion. Styles haven’t been this decadent since the early '90s — and they might not have been quite that decadent then. At first glance, it might seem odd that this is the year when these trends are returning at a higher price point than ever.

But then again, the '90s also seem to have returned in the form of two presidential candidates. This race includes, bizarrely, a populist candidate who lives in a literal tower covered in gold, which is the actual kind of gaudy excess that got French aristocrats killed. Maybe his popularity with the common man seems to have given us permission to embrace things that might quite recently have been seen as a little over the top. We could just have decided that if a man beloved by rural America can live in a golden tower and cover himself with shiny fabrics, then we all can.

Perhaps, too, 2016 was the year when people became tired of the "less is more" philosophy that dominated the post-recession years. Maybe people grew tired of hiding their extravagant purchases in brown bags, an option offered by high-end department stores after the recession. The style pendulum that swung strongly toward understatement in the first half of the decade may be rebounding. Despite claims from one party that the country is falling apart, the uptick in the economy could be being felt enough for fashion to lend itself to frivolity.

Alternatively, it’s possible that the 2016 election has been so disheartening for just about everyone that we need a little bit of sparkle. There’s a chance when all this is over, the trend toward outsized embellishment will recede, and a new one will take its place. Maybe it will be pantsuits.