Why Panniers are the Perfect Garment for This Year’s Met Gala

In the past, there have been moments of almost grotesque physical distortion in the name of seduction — Panniers, Bustles…It’s been a while since this kind of deliberately sly exaggeration was embraced.”

— Rick Owens, 2018.

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Example of a pannier gown from c.1755–60.

With the Met Gala now only two days away, I’ve been thinking more and more about what the attendees should wear. With my Met Gala content being made of such stellar stuff that one of my tweets was included in American Vogue’s list of “The Best Met Gala Memes of All Time”, I think I can propose my findings with some confidence:

The reputation of panniers are such that Rick Owens has described them as an “almost grotesque form of physical distortion in the name of seduction”. Owens then went on to muse that “it’s been a while since this kind of deliberately sly exaggeration was embraced.” I quite agree, in fact, I think it’s been far too long. In my opinion, there is no event more suited for a pannier revival than this year’s Met Gala, with its theme of Camp: Notes on Fashion, a title derived from Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on Camp.

At the height (or, rather, width) of their popularity, panniers necessitated women taking up around three times more physical space than their male counterparts. Many doorways had to be entered through sideways. For this reason, I believe they are the perfect garment to grace the red carpet of this year’s Met Ball. What is more deliciously over the top than taking up that much physical space? As Rick Owens said about the panniers in his FW18 collection, “when you are exaggerating shapes like that, they are bordering on the ridiculous, so you have to have a sense of humour about them… there’s a charm to that.” The charm of panniers lies in the juxtaposition of their seriousness and their ridiculousness. They were simultaneously the outfit of official royal portraits of archduchesses, queens, and princesses, as well as forming a vital part of Court Dress, which was the greatest level of formality fashion could reach. Yet, the inherent ridiculousness of their size, and the day-to-day complications that arose from heaving around such a gargantuan garment, were widely discussed and mocked by satirists of the day. In 1741, one gentleman noted that “I have been in a moderate large Room, where there have been but two Ladies, who had not enough space to move without lifting up their Petticoats higher than their Grandmothers would have thought decent.”

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An English Court Dress for 1750.

Panniers dominated court fashion of the 17th-18th centuries — from one of its earliest appearances, in the paintings of Velásquez, to its materialisation on the hips of its most famous wearer Marie Antoinette. Indeed, it is a rather amusing quirk of history that the pannier has become so synonymous with Marie Antoinette, for she played a large part in its demise in France. In the 1780s, Antoinette scandalised Versailles by abandoning the style, finding it too stifling, for the decidedly more freeing and floaty chémise a la reine. She later presented a gown in this style to her friend Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who then popularised the style in England. In Vienna, Antoinette’s brother, the Emperor Joseph II, went so far as to try and ban panniers, although it was an effort in which he found himself unsuccessful. It wasn’t just these Habsburg siblings who seemed to have grown tired of the cumbersome nature of court dress by the 1780s. All over Europe, clothing and hairstyles began to become simplified, in what historian Antonia Fraser terms “some shared Zeitgiest.”

Pre and Post Pannier: Both of these portraits of Marie Antoinette are by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, the left was painted in 1778, and the right in 1783. Here, we can plainly see how drastically the Queen’s style had changed within the span of five years. In the first she wears the large panniers of official Court Dress. In the second, the chemise dresses of which she was so fond have now been normalised to the extent that they appear in an official portrait — however, there were many who found this shift in style scandalous, so much so that this portrait of the Queen was removed from its debut exhibition because of an angry public reaction.
Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily, by Martin Van Meytens. Known as “Charlotte” to her family, she was the favourite sister of Marie Antoinette. In this portrait of Charlotte from 1770, we can see the extreme widths that panniers reached during their apex. The following decade would see their decline in favour of simpler styles.

After a couple of hundred years of being out of fashion, the panniers reappeared, in a reinvented ankle-bearing form, in the 1920s. In modern times, they have been interpreted by Jean Paul Gautier, Raf Simons for Dior, and Mugler. Luckily for us Gala watchers, this means that there are plenty of archival pieces for celebs to take inspiration from. The exhibition is heavy on items relating to the court of Louis XIV, where the pannier flourished during the Sun King’s final years, and where Met curator Andrew Bolton argues the term camp originates, so it’s inclusion on the red carpet would fit in perfectly not just with the theme of the exhibition, but with the era from which a significant portion of the exhibited items originate.

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A 1928 robe de style pannier gown by Boué Soeur

With Billy Porter bringing true flourish, style, and fun to the red carpet recently, my instinct is that he is my best hope to see a pannier descend the steps of the Met. Rihanna, the undisputed Queen of the Met Ball, is another contender — the long, stunning Guo Pei cape that she wore to the 2015 Met Gala shows that she is not afraid to really take up space on the Gala red carpet. Either way, I know both of them will undoubtedly be the stars of the night, and two of the approximately (and, to be honest, I’m being generous here) five celebrities who actually bother to follow the theme. That is to say, I don’t expect Kylie “My interpretation of Catholicsm is, for some inexplicable reason, the Matrix” Jenner to attach panniers to her hips come Monday evening. But, I would like someone to. There is just something so fun about the serious, stately intent of panniers, and the silliness of their actual, real world implications — i.e., having to walk through doorways sideways, and the inability of anyone to get more than three feet from you at the closest. In this way, panniers are the essentially the Showgirls of clothing — they want you to take them seriously, but the reality is they’re just too ridiculous to do so. But therein lies their campy charm.

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