Alfresco Living

“You’ve come a long way down the garden path…Baby”
A retro look at Women’s fashion attire in the garden

By Ruth Carroll


Recently I was invited to a friends garden party.An event to celebrate the highly anticipated completion of her elegant English garden.

My first thought's....what am I going to wear??


Knowing my friends penchant for wearing "fashion tie-ins" to her theme parties, I wondered, what fun, while appropriate ensemble should I wear? As luck would have it, I remembered meeting a talented women's tees & tops designer at a local craft stroll.

Quickly I reflected upon what caught my attention about her designs..Her tees featured intricate, yet subtle botanical inspired artwork set off by rich background colors of eggplant, peach & olive. Instantly I knew these beautiful urban tees by stellarocco designs available at had solved my fashion emergency! With one of her soft & comfortable dandelion trio tees and a great pair of designer jeans, I'd created the perfect ensemble, & what better compliment could I pay my hostess than to wear a visual tribute to all of her hard work!

After I solved my "fashion challenge", being the consummate history buff, I started to wonder what women used to wear to garden parties & celebrations...the following is a whimsical & selective look at what some ladies have worn down the garden path, in the past.

18th Century Marie Antoinette, "milkmaids to haute couture", at the Petit Trianon, Versailles


Contrary to popular belief, Marie Antoinette didn't invent fashions, she promoted radical new ones through her public persona in a very contemporary, celebrity-culture way. Early on, the dauphine discovered that her court duties required unfashionably heavy dresses supported by excessively long, extra rigid corsets accompanied by thick rouge and stiff curls.

Once she became Queen, she steadily ordered the newest fashions from Rose Bertin, the leading Paris couturier, among them the "robe a la polonaise", with it's bosom-enhancing bodice and billowy ankle baring skirts, the ensemble crowned by a "pouf"- a three foot mountain of powdered hair accented with plumes, veils and other flamboyant objects. The most recent example of that "coiffed confection" was worn by Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola's mesmerizing," Marie Antoinette".

When Louis XVI took the throne in 1775, he gave Petit Trianon as a gift to Marie Antoinette. It was based on the Grand Trianon, a retreat area the King had enjoyed as a child.

Feeling the mounting pressures of life at the French court, and a need for escape, Marie Antoinette commissioned a complete overhaul for the Trianon Gardens. In order to bring them fully up-to date, she had them redesigned in the "English" style that had been brought to the foreground by writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In contrast to the formal, symmetrical "French" gardens that Versailles represented for a hundred years, architect Richard Mique's design for the Trianon gardens showcased meandering paths, hills and streams, and a small neo-classical Temple of Love. A mock farming village called, "Le Petit Hameau", ("The little Hamlet") completed this "rustic" area of the Versailles grounds.

Marie Antoinette's "natural getaway"


Created in 1783, the Petit Hameau, complete with a farmhouse, dairy and poultry yard, featured all areas traditionally associated with women. A woman of boundless energy and taste, she worked diligently to create gardens with artificial ruins, grottoes, cascades, pavilions and the newly fashionable, "delight in disorder" of the English garden. When visiting this "ersatz farm" this was a time for her to relax, while turning all this natural simplicity into a pretty spectacle, trooping out in groups, those that featured young people dancing in traditional costumes. This was her take on "the peasant life", which she played at with her favorites, where they dressed as milkmaids in simple gauze dresses tied around the waist with satin ribbons.

19th century Cremorne Gardens, London Fashions a la Victorian England

Cremorne Gardens was formerly a popular pleasure garden by the side of the River Thames in Chelsea, London England. Originally the property of the Earl of Huntington (c. 1750), who built a mansion there, the property passed through various hands into those of Thomas Dawson, Baron Dartry and Viscount Cremorne (1725-1813), who greatly beautified it. It was subsequently sold and converted into a proprietary place of entertainment, being popular, from 1845 to 1877.The gardens in Chelsea were new and exciting, an area that had been transformed from a farm into a pleasure garden in 1843. It boasted a monster dancing stage and landscaped attractions with discreet pavilions in dark corners. Any women seen in illustrations of the gardens after 1850, were more than likely wearing the colorful flamboyant dress of the prostitute, and would most likely be accompanied by a middle or upper class gentleman who could afford their services. Couples could also view firework displays, pantomimes and daring balloon ascents. It never however, acquired the fame of Vauxhall Gardens, and finally became so great an annoyance to some of the more influential residents in the adjacent neighborhoods that a renewal of it's license was refused; and most of the site of the gardens was soon built over. The name survives in Cremorne Road.

Victorian Ladies "Blooming Fashions"


Victorian women were very interested in fashion and fashion magazines. With the advent of the sewing machine by Isaac Merrit Singer in 1851, it led to the mass production of clothing, but many still had clothes designed by an exclusive dress-maker. Style was led by couturiers like Charles Worth, an Englishman who owned a salon in Paris.The quintessential female silhouette of the mid-Victorian period was a tight bodice blossoming out from the hips into a bell-like voluminous skirt. The Crinoline replaced large numbers of stiffened petticoats lined with horsehair which women had been wearing to achieve a fashionable form, despite their weight and discomfort. The amount of petticoats these women were forced to wear placed great stress on their pelvis, apart from being extremely uncomfortable they tended to be fire hazards as well.

A number of attempts at dress reform were made. In 1851, an American, Amelia Bloomer, came to England celebrating the merits of a sensible and not unfeminine costume known as "bloomers". She proposed that women should wear a simple bodice, a wide skirt reaching just below the knee, and underneath a pair of loose fitting trousers reaching the ankles and tied with lace. Partly due to this timely fashion innovation, it enabled women to feel more comfortable while enjoying popular leisure activities of the day, like gardening, Croquet and lawn tennis.

To be continued.....please join us, as our "journey down fashions garden-path" continues, from the 1920's to a special homage's to fashion icon Audrey Hepburn & her exploration of the "gardens of the world"....