Rose Bertin the First Fashion Designer and Celebrity Stylist

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Rose Bertin was born Marie-Jeanne Rose Bertin in Abbeville, France on July 2nd, 1747. At the age of nine she was apprenticed to a dressmaker in her home town. By the age of 16 she left for London to serve at Trait Galant a millinery and dressmaking shop kept by Mlle. Pagelle. Rose Bertin both created hats and performed dressmaking tasks, as well as working as a saute ruissea- a delivery girl who brought dresses to clients in their twill covers. It was when she encounted the Princess De Conti who adored Rose and helped her secure the trousseau for the kingdom’s richest heiress, the future Duchess de Chartres that Mlle. Pagelle proclaimed that Rose would be her partner. In 1770, Rose opened up her own shop and later in 1773 moved her shop Le Grand Mogol to the fashionable Rue Saint Honore. It was in 1774 that Rose Bertin became introduced to the young Queen of France Marie Antoinette. The Queen immediately began to patronize Rose Bertin and the young dressmaker began to consult with Marie Antoinette and help stylize her wardrobe for hours on end twice weekly where Rose Bertin would bring sketches, as well as fabric and dress samples. In addition Rose Bertin scandalized the court by stepping into Marie Antoinette’s private apartments and upsetting the traditional toilette in which royal ladies in waiting would attend to Marie Antoinette’s dressing. It was Marie Antoinette’s argument that her outfits and hairstyles required the assistance of an expert that caused the change. Rose Bertin spent several hours dressing and styling the queen each morning, even going as far as to rent an apartment in Versailles.

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Mademoiselle Bertin’s shop Le Grand Mogol featured grand windows adorned with yellow and lavender simulated marble. The windows featured displays that included displays of: hats, fans, shawls, parasols, dresses, silk flowers, gemstones, laces, ribbons, spangles and accessories. Framed oil paintings of the most illustrious clients hung on the walls. The elegant boutique featured gilded moldings, full length mirrors and expensive furniture amongst the grand display of luxurious dresses featured with the latest accessories. Rose Bertin also sold large bonnets, hats trimmed with flowers and feathers, pelisses, ties, collars, mantelets, guaze fichus, silk hankerchiefs, muffs, parasols, fans, belts, gloves, embroidered slippers, and a variety of shoes, including those embroidered with diamonds or a row of emeralds on the back called “venez-y-voir.” 

Rose Bertin was more than just the first celebrity stylist she was the first fashion designer. In addition she founded the first couture house and is the first designer to use the fashion sketch as part of the design process. Previously noble women selected the fabric themselves and then sent a note with an idea for the cut to the seamstress, dresses were not illustrated prior to construction previously. Now Rose Bertin not only designed her dresses she selected the fabric for them as well, while still offering her clients a wide range to choose from for each style, she then would make recommendations on which fabrics she felt were most flattering to her clients. She began creating designs independently before she even met Marie Antoinette. She designed Marie Antoinette’s clothing for France without any consulations and even created the first outfit that Marie Antoinette would wear on French soil where she was stripped and re-dressed at the border. Rose Bertin also designed and created Marie Antoinette’s sumptuous coronation gown which was covered in sapphires, additional gemstones and ornate embroidery. Rose Bertin created designs and the most popular ones were selected by Marie Antoinette.  Rose Bertin still featured designs not chosen by the Queen in her showroom which featured up to 280 dresses each season in a variety of fabrics and instead they were chosen by other leaders in fashion who popularized them. Fabrics in the eighteenth century included satin, velvet and taffeta, as well as silks that included ribbed, damask, brocade and moiré. The 1770s and 1780s saw a drastic increase in the types of styles of feminine fashion, including dress and accessories. Rose Bertin helped to usher in this change by being the first to design seasonal collections where fashion was changing constantly. Rose Bertin was also the first to grasp the importance of accessories. Rose Bertin enjoyed using pastel hues, sea-greens, lavenders, lemon yellows, lilacs, rose, pale pinks, bouquet motifs, apple greens, aquamarine and violet. Rose Bertin also gave her dresses creative names such as ‘honest composition,’ ‘stifled sighs,’ ‘masked desire,’ ‘Venus’ sigh,’ ‘indiscreet pleasures,’ ‘marked attention,’ ‘an unfulfilled wish,’ and ‘regrets.’ Rose Bertin continued to design independently after Marie Antoinette’s death on the scaffold when she launched the empire waist silhouette for fashion in the late 1790s which endured until the 1820s. Napoleon’s first Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais, a client of Rose Bertin’s, helped to popularize the style.

In 1776 the marchandes des modes became an incorporated guild and gained the right not only to trim dresses but to furnish them entirely. As head mistress of their guild Rose Bertin gained the right to dress the large fashion doll that had the features of the queen and traveled the merchantile centers of Europe. Rose Bertin would first design the dress with sketches, then she would construct a sample in its entirety of the dress including both the silhouette and the trimmings. Then for her most illustrious clients, such as Marie Antoinette and the Queens of Sweden, Spain and Portugal, as well as the Grand-Duchess Maria-Fedorovna of Russia she would sew the dress entirely for them herself. For her less illustrious European aristocrats and elite American customers Mademoiselle Bertin would assign the creation of the dress to couturieres that she subcontracted work to and the trimming of the dress (the hard part) to the marchandes des modes that she hired to work in her shop.

Rose Bertin and Leonard Marie Antoinette’s famous hairdresser also launched the popular hairstyle the pouf. It was first popularized by the Duchess de Chartres before Marie Antoinette adopted it and it swept across the nation and even beyond its borders. Poufs were built on scaffolding made from wire, guaze, cloth, fake hair, horsehair and the wearer’s own tresses. The Pouf was then covered in powder and wearers could wear a pouf au sentiment to express a feeling or a pouf a la circonstance to commemorate an important event to the client. These poufs were strewn with extraordinary objects including: flowers, fruits, diamonds, birds, vegetables, miniature theater stages and myriad ornaments. One morning Marie Antoinette wore upon her head an English garden with lawns, hills and silver streams. Her most famous and enduring pouf was when she wore a miniature warship of the Belle Poule after a French naval victory against the English.