Rose Bertin: There is Nothing New Except What Has Been Forgotten

Rose Bertin: 18th-century fashion icon. Explore the trailblazing style and enduring legacy of this legendary couturier.

By Agathe Damas-Hottinguer

Updated 08:37 pm EDT, September 1, 2023

Published 07:07 pm EDT, April 3, 2023

Photo Credits

Model, Styling & Make-Up: Damien Lenore
Photography: Ricky Cohete

Rose Bertin was enviously called “la Ministre des Modes” by her contemporaries. She was a fantastic designer, artisan, and glamorous businesswoman. It was no mean feat for Rose to stay relevant in this competitive world of politics and fashion. Still, by managing her finances and relationships, she excelled during some of the most turbulent decades of French history. Rose Bertin willed herself to be the first celebrated French fashion designer and brought celebrity fashion and haute couture to the forefront of popular culture.

Photo Credits

Model, Styling & Make-Up: Damien Lenore
Photography: Ricky Cohete

Before the twinkling lights of the royal courts beckoned, Marie-Jeanne Rose Bertin was the daughter of bricklayers, carpenters, and their wives. She was always uncertain as to whether this was something to be proud of or even a detail to be divulged, but it remains true.

Born in 1747 to this humble family, from the first, her father’s earnings were not enough to offer formal education to Rose or her younger brother Jean-Laurent. Nonetheless, Rose received modest tutoring, which only ignited her ambition. It isn’t surprising to learn that Rose was a precocious and determined child. Rose stated that she had preternatural feelings about achieving her dreams from her youth.

When she was six years old, Rose heard about a passing fortune teller who had been jailed because of debts. She searched out the fortune teller, against her father’s wishes, to reinforce her dreams of grandeur. One evening in the dark, Rose delicately padded through a decrepit prison. Her creative eye would have seen the once beautiful château through the filth as she slipped from shadow to shadow. The malodorous air must have shocked Rose’s nose with its damp hint of misery, madness, and unwashed bodies. 

But eventually, she found the shackled fortune teller dressed in clothes that had already turned dark with grease and sweat. In lieu of money, Rose brought a tribute of dishes with succulent food to be traded for insight into her future. The captive visionary took Rose’s tiny white hands between her filth-encrusted fingers. She portentously declared in a quivering voice, “Vous atteindrez une grande fortune et porterez un jour une robe de cour!” Perhaps not the most glibly packaged prophecy ever spoken, but Rose heard the words and was immediately enraptured. These trite words had a powerful impact that drove Rose to eventually dominate the fashion industry of the ancien regime and even influence the murderous revolutionary bureaucracy and the dissolute court of Napoleon.

Photo Credits

Model, Styling & Make-Up: Damien Lenore
Photography: Ricky Cohete

At the age of nine, Rose was eventually apprenticed to Madame Barbier, a dressmaker in Abbeville. She stayed and studiously learned her craft until 1770, when Rose moved to Paris. Although Bertin quickly gained admiration and envy at the courts of Louis XV and Louis XV, she started off working for La Pagalle, a French fashion designer and a Marchande de Modes (fashion merchant) who owned “Trait Galant” a shop frequented by the aristocracy. La Pagalle, a successful designer in her own right, was almost casually eclipsed by her protégé, who quite briefly was her partner before becoming a competitor. Rose’s practically immediate success was attributed to her excellent relations with the Princesse de Conti, the Duchesse de Chartres, and the Princesse de Lamballe, who later, in 1774, introduced Rose to Marie Antoinette, her most famous customer. However, according to Bertin’s records, she had over 1,500 clients, including French and European aristocracy, actresses, and even the Queens of Sweden, Spain, and Portugal. Rose was not the only modiste working for the French court, but she was the most prolific.

In the 18th century, Marchandes des Modes were not typically seamstresses or tailors. They were instead stylists who focused on trimmings and ornamentation that would be added to an existing gown or skirt. In this world, the surface design was more important than the dress’s silhouette or age. Many dresses were almost invisible under the plethora of feathers, flowers, lace, ribbons, and other ornamentation. The trimmings were often more expensive than the cloth from which the dress was made. Rose made a definitive change to the prevailing style by slimming the volume and weight of her dresses and decreasing the emphasis on panniers. In more formal designs, Rose added trains which helped to emphasize the richly embellished metallic threads, sequins, and glass stones that would have sparkled by candlelight.

Rose’s fierce nature induced her to open her first shop in the unfashionable Quai de Gesvres. This neighborhood was owned by an aristocratic family but had very dicey attributes, with a narrow wharf squeezed in by townhouses and the Rue de Gesvres. The quai superficially welcomed walkers during the day but was riddled with brigands at night. Naturally, Rose learned from her missteps, and in 1772, she relocated and established her dressmaking and millinery shop, Le Grand Mogol, on the chic, luxurious rue Saint Honoré. Rose’s flair for fashion was evident. Within a year of her arrival on Sainte Honoré, she was already selling to that epitome of elegance, Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse du Barry who was the last maîtresse-en-titer of King Louis XV of France.

Bertin’s noble patrons prolifically bought her dresses and sang her praises which became of note to the newly arrived Marie Antoinette. Before long, Rose became a favorite of Marie Antoinette and met her twice weekly to discuss the Queen’s dresses; thereafter, almost every dress Marie Antoinette commissioned was created by Rose. One can imagine the slyly smiling courtiers genuflecting to the naturally social and vivacious Marie Antoinette. She was a true social butterfly who loved parties, gambling, and the most extravagant fashions available. The royal couple threw parties that lasted all night, sparing no expense rich food, wine, clothes, wigs, and hats. Rose Bertin was born to live in this moment.

Photo Credits

Model, Styling & Make-Up: Damien Lenore
Photography: Ricky Cohete

Years earlier, Marie Antoinette came to la belle France as a charming, naïve archduchess. One can imagine this smiling fourteen-year-old child looking in confusion at the simultaneously salacious and tradition-bound court of Louis XV. Sweet fumbling Louis Auguste would have been just as bewildered as Marie Antoinette. She must have thought, “What now?” Sex was out of the question at that time since neither child had a clue what to do. In addition, she was considered an outsider and an enemy. Of course, she turned to superficial delights such as clothes, music, and food. And here, ambitiously clever Rose Bertin saw her chance. How could she not? There was a young girl who needed to create a shield of sumptuous grandeur to protect her from the malicious wolf-eyed court yearning to tear her down. Rose provided the haute couture required to give Marie Antoinette the confidence to stand firm and hold herself apart as a leader of France.

With Marie Antoinette’s support, Rose Bertin became the first celebrity fashion designer; consequently, her work established France as the epicenter of the fashion industry. One of her most effective sales tools was the fashion doll called “la pandora.” The pandoras were like traveling salesmen used as a marketing tool or a diplomatic gesture. The miniatures could demonstrate changing fashion trends and extend goodwill from one ruler to another. Sometimes a collection of Pandora was sent out for the details of the coiffure alone, which was ever-changing and increasingly theatrical in the French and English royal courts. It was a cost-effective way to communicate visually, regardless of language barriers. 

The Pandora could also be used in shop windows or dressed to show clientele the intended look and specific details before making a finished piece. The “Parisian” Poupée, another name for the Pandora, was used for demonstrating the current fashion de mode in full detail, which could then be copied by shops, another couturier (shades of fast fashion), or a tailor. Full-sized human-scale figures were also created for unique customers. Rose made one in the queen’s measurements, and these adult-sized dolls became used as an early type of the store mannequin used today. Later with the rapid onset of fashion magazines, pandoras became less necessary and then obsolete due to their high cost compared to print images.

But what if you could not afford a court gown from Rose Bertin? Like all well-established brands, Rose also offered hats and other accessories. Her hats were remarkable, with some combining tulle veils, satin, velvet, rosebud branches, and feathers. According to other sources, Bertin also developed the pouf in conjunction with Monsieur Léonard, a hairdresser who had made a name for himself by creating hairdos for actresses and noblewomen. The pouf was an elaborate hairdo built on scaffolding made from wire, cloth, gauze, horsehair, fake hair, and the women’s natural hair. Some poufs boasted a miniature still-life either expressing sentiment (pouf au sentiment) or commemorating an event (pouf à la circonstance).

Because the dresses worn at Versailles were such lavish confections of extravagance, Rose would create a miniature example of her designs on a Pandora doll before finalizing a commission to ensure that all understandings were in place. Once the dresses had been worn, admired, and coveted at the Royal Court in Versailles, the Pandora dolls imitating the current styles would travel around Europe, where they were shown to an aristocratic clientele eager to emulate the latest fashions from France in their own wardrobes.

With little surprise, Rose Bertin exerted a significant influence over the era’s fashions, constantly launching new trends. When the marchandes de modes of Paris were incorporated in 1776, Bertin was elected as the guild’s first mistress. In this post, she earned the right to dress the life-sized fashion doll that toured the mercantile centers of Europe and beyond, advertising French fashions. By 1778 Bertin had grown so powerful at court that the press dubbed her France’s ministre des modes, or “minister of fashion.” The unofficial title underlined Bertin’s position as a trusted royal adviser and a representative of France to other nations.

Photo Credits

Model, Styling & Make-Up: Damien Lenore
Photography: Ricky Cohete

Le Grand Mogol was now a known tourist spot back in its day. Where if one waited, eventually, the royal couple might pass by with a smile, as well as the dozens of sycophantic nobles chasing Marie Antoinette. From the outside, the windows were framed in lavender and yellow marble. As you entered, you passed by two gargoyle-like bookkeepers keeping tight control of finances, especially the credit extended to the perennially overextended aristocrats. Occasionally, in her main rooms, Rose presented to the public dozens of her gowns worth millions of dollars in today’s currency before being sent off to her foreign customers. Bertin certainly knew her worth; she once told a client, “What, Monsieur, would you pay a great artist no more than the cost of his paints and canvas?”

As the reign entered its final denouement, Rose Bertin’s more casual and innovative creations for Marie Antoinette created a scandal. After giving light to her children and possibly tired of her courtiers’ endless competition for attention, Marie Antoinette retired more and more to the Petit Trianon, a private neoclassical pavilion within the grounds of Versailles. The queen desired rest, and in keeping with the new “mode deshabille,” Rose created simpler yet elegant dresses made of muslin. These intimate, stripped-down dresses caused an uproar in bourgeois society. In an exquisite royal portrait of the French queen, painted by Vigee Le Brun (also a client of Rose Bertin), Marie Antoinette is depicted wearing a simple, unstructured dress made of white muslin, tied at the waist with a ribbon sash. Her hair is also styled informally, loosely curled, and adorned with a beribboned straw hat. This design, called “the chemise á la Reine,” was created by Rose Bertin in 1781. This portrait caused the fickle public to be offended and outraged that the queen would dare to pretend to be a commoner while thousands of her people were starving due to food shortages. Although Rose’s new style was mocked and called “underwear as outerwear,” the chemise-style gown was readily adopted by English and French nobility.

But darkness gathered, and the mobs rose. Eventually, economic and communal woes allowed the histrionic revolutionaries to rip society apart and almost drown the country in blood and spite. As thousands of prisoners under Louis XVI were released from prison, other newer and more noble prisoners were executed and exiled. The vivacious and often thoughtless nobility started to disappear or die. One by one, the amusing, ridiculous, bewildered, and suicidally blind aristocrats blinked out like lightning bugs in a storm. Rose’s business was deeply affected, but even after the royal family was placed under house arrest, Bertin continued to deliver outfits to Marie Antoinette. However, a more modest dress style was now the order of the day. The Queen’s last dress on the day she was transferred to the Conciergerie prison was from “Le Grand Mogol.”

But Rose Bertin had never shied away from risk and demonstrated her loyalty as a friend when “La Reine de France” was about to die. Marie Antoinette Josèphe Jeanne de Bourbon was considered the glory of France such an achingly short time before her execution. She was ridiculously misunderstood for being an arrogant degenerate that laughingly wore transparent silk shifts while flaunting scandalous piercings and painted nipples. Nothing was further from the truth. Yes, she was bored and incredibly foolish. But Marie Antoinette never deserved the fate of losing her life on top of losing her gentle, ineffective husband to the guillotine, her remaining son to sickness, and her remaining daughter to exile.

Rose Bertin was defiantly there as a witness to the final moments of Marie Antoinette. Although an opportunist, Rose had the courage to pay tribute to her patroness as she moved silently, pensively, to her death. It was unusually warm for October, but Rose would have seen Marie Antoinette stand there shockingly pale, dressed in wispy white cloth and her prematurely silver hair wildly shorn underneath an anemic white bonnet. Marie Antoinette might have mused, “In my heedless haste to possess something beautiful; I had not considered the consequences. My covetousness had destroyed the very thing I had so curiously, passionately, impetuously adored.”

Rose was said to have held back her scalding tears for fear of being denounced and treated as brutally as her dying patroness. After the execution of Marie Antoinette, Rose Bertin fled to London to escape the Reign of Terror.

But this was not the end of Rose Bertin’s fashion ambitions. She was made of more potent stuff, and she patiently waited for the murderous Jacobin Club to slaughter thousands and burn itself out in a final orgy of horror. She waited for the Reign of Terror to end with the fanatical Maximilien Robespierre’s death. Perhaps befittingly, he was led up the same stairs as the late naive Marie Antoinette. But unlike her fragile last walk, Robespierre was dragged to the guillotine with a broken pelvis and a torn jaw with bone, blood, and teeth dripping down his hideously ruined face.

Rose Bertin waited as his ruby-red blood soaked into the Place de la Concord and swiftly returned to France. But how did Rose Bertin survive? She was infamously known as a supporter of the ancien regime. Naturally, Bertin hired a lawyer who claimed that she had been absent legally since she left the country for business purposes on a legal passport from July 1792. She was thus declared free to return and resume her business.

Nonetheless, Rose’s business never fully recovered but continued on a smaller scale. Her diminished business was due partially to inflation and partly because her patrons were in severely reduced circumstances after the French Revolution. It is ironic to note that even in the twilight, Rose still attracted customers such as Joséphine de Beauharnais, Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily, and Maria Luisa of Parma. As Rose retired more and more to her estate in Épinay-Sur-Seine, she continued to receive orders from royalty which made her think, “If Princes remembered me, then time could not have quite obscured my fame.” She had other consolations besides these, such as her warm relationships with her nephews, one of whom lived a few steps from her house while the other supervised her business in Paris while she was in the countryside.

She also continued to correspond with her old customers, many of whom were still in her debt. Rose, however, never unduly pressed them for payment. On the contrary, she tried to help them as far as her means allowed. La Comtesse de la Tour once stated of Rose, “Mademoiselle Bertine sometimes came to visit me; and knowing my circumstances, so far from asking me for money, she volunteered to come to my assistance, an offer which I refused, not knowing when I should be able to repay her.”

The last portrait we know of Rose showed off her complex and eccentric character as she posed with a cavalry officer’s helmet on her knees. She presented herself as a coquette in a white dress bedazzled intertwined with gold and jewels and a bare, amble bosom.

As Rose neared the end of her life. She rarely went to Paris and, even in winter, lived at Épinay her retreat and solace. Claude-Charlemagne Bertin, one of her nephews, posted her obituary when she died on September 22, 1813, on a hazy golden autumn afternoon in Épinay-sur-Seine. Two days later, the bells tolled at the Église Saint-Médard d’Épinay. The crowd that followed Rose’s coffin was chiefly composed of the villagers she had spent the last years of her life with and amongst whom she had won more friends than not.

It would be a grave mistake to dismiss Rose Bertin as an amusing historical figure whose career was ephemeral, like a shooting star. Rose lived in a world where women were considered chattel and almost sub-human in intelligence. In addition, eighteenth-century France had nausea-inducing economic instability, with nobles and clergy evading most of the taxes, which meant that public expenses fell upon the popular classes only to increase their misery. Capitalism was at its most raw during this period, with monopolies, nationalistic trade laws, and precocious royal edicts interrupting modern Galbraithian efficiency. Yet even within this daunting environment, Rose Bertin created a magnificent career. Her creative brilliance and business acumen encased her as the first legitimate celebrity designer of haute couture. Modern-era designers like Westwood, Mugler, and LaCroix directly referenced Rose in their work. Which brings us to consider why is she still relevant?

Rose Bertin rose from practically nothing to enormous influence from a cultural and economic point of view. From a final perspective, Rose should make us sigh and smile. I imagine her standing to the side of a brilliantly light ballroom shimmering in the golden light of a thousand fat vanilla-colored candles. She is considering the room as she is cast in a pale grey shadow dressed in one of her pastel embroidered court dresses looking like she is enveloped in silk adorned with rose, mint, and sky blue flowers. Rose would have smiled because there would have been dozens and dozens of her couture dresses twirling in a wild, exuberant dance. Her legacy impacted the next 150 years, and today even without knowing it, most of the modern fashion world is still dancing to the tempo she set.

Discover More