Monday, June 27, 2011

The Newbie's Guide to 18th Century Ladies' Ensembles

A caricature comparison of French fashion, ca. 1794
When talking to friends who are new to fashion sewing or historical costuming, or even a customer who likes a particular aspect of a certain fashion era and not another, it can be frustrating on both ends trying to convey information pertinent to costume design and construction when one party knows the fashion lingo and the other doesn't. When discussing women's dresses of the 18th century, the many styles and variations can get confusing, especially since these differences can be very subtle. However, to assist those individuals who can't make heads or tails between a robe à l'anglaise and a robe à la polonaise, I have fashioned a "beginner's guide" (a pictorial reference) to basic 18th century gown styles. Please note that I have not presented an exhaustive representation of the many gown types and their variations, but just the basics with their characteristic details. It's a good start for any Newbie - :)

Robe à l'Anglaise (English Dress)
 The robe à l'anglaise is generally constructed of cotton or silk in a muted color, often plain, but sometimes in a brocade or with a minimal print; in any case, the gown is more conservative in its decoration than the robe à la francaise or robe à la polonaise. The noted characteristics of this gown are its tight fitted and closed bodice (which is laced, hooked, or pinned shut), long full skirt (no shoes, ankles, or stockings visible), and several box pleats that are stitched flat to the back of the bodice from the neck to the small of the back. Sleeves vary in design and length, ranging from a long and fitted sleeve to an elbow-length puff, lace, or cuff sleeve. A fichu (a light shaw-like covering) is often worn around the neck.

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Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe à l'Anglaise, ca. 1770 (front)

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe à l'Anglaise, ca. 1770 (back)


Robe à la Francaise (French Dress)
Also known as a Watteau, waterfall, sack back, or sacque, this gown was originally worn as a form of "undress" and neither the back nor the front of the bodice was fitted, but rather loose (see robe volant). By the 1770s, once the gown became a popular addition in the court lady's wardrobe, the front of the bodice was redesigned to be tight fitted and laced in the back behind the pleats. The remarkable characteristic of this gown are the highly structured box pleats, which are attached to the neck of the bodice and flow delicately down the back of the gown into a short train. This style was often decorated lavishly with puffs, bows, lace, ribbons, cording, etc.

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe à la Française, ca. 1775 (back)

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe à la Française, ca. 1775 (front)


 Robe à la Polonaise (Polish Dress) 
Polish peasants were the design inspiration for this style of dress when it was introduced to the French court in the mid-1700s. The design of this dress was to imitate (or parody) the peasant woman, whose skirts were hiked above her ankles with ties while working. The gown is noted for its tight fitted and closed bodice (typically hooked or buttoned down the center front, rather than pinned or laced at the sides to a stomacher, like the robe à la francaise), ankle-length under-skirt that exposes the shoes and stockings, and an over-skirt that is cutaway to the sides of bodice and typically hitched-up with ribbon or cord. 

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe à la Polonaise, ca. 1775 (back)

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe à la Polonaise, ca. 1775 (front)

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe à la Polonaise, ca. 1780 (back)


  
Chemise à la Reine (The Queen's Shirt)
Initially called a Gaulle (a name most likely taken from the Gaul people who occupied the geographical area of France in antiquity), the chemise à la reine was a style of dress that originated in England. Marie Antoinette introduced the gown to the French court in the late 1770s. The queen had always struggled with the restricting nature of the corset and the bulkiness of French fashion, and sought a more natural and less restrictive form of dress. The chemise à la reine is generally characterized by its one-piece design, light and sheer cotton or silk construction, low ruffled neck, and heavy flouncing at the edge of the gown. These gowns were usually white (although very light silver-gray, blue, or yellow were also known) and tied at the waist with a wide ribbon or cloth sash. 

Source: www.early-dance.de - Chemise à la Reine reproduction

Artist Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun - Marie Antoinette (The Muslin Portrait), 1783

 Robe Volante (Flying Dress) 
Introduced to the French court in the 1720s, and predecessor to the robe à la francaise, the robe volante is noted for its soft pleats or gathers that flow from the front and back of the neck of the bodice to the hem of the skirt. Worn over a chemise, corset, and panniers. 

Source: Kyoto Costume Institute - Robe Volante, ca. 1720 (side)

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe Volante, ca. 1730 (front)

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Robe Volante, ca. 1730 (side)

Chemise à l'Anglaise (English Shirt)
Due to the ban on silks and satins during the French Revolution (and the growing disdain for the court's excesses and lavishness), the chemise à l'anglaise became the mode of fashion in the 1790s. Similar in structure to the chemise à la reine, the chemise à l'anglaise is a one-piece ensemble, constructed of sheer cotton or linen, and tied just under the breast (rather than at the waist) by a satin sash. These gowns were generally white or ivory in color and typically kept basic, rarely ornamented with any form of decoration, except in the case of evening or wedding gowns.  

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Chemise à l'Anglaise, ca. 1799

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Chemise à l'Anglaise (pair), ca. 1795

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Chemise à l'Anglaise, ca. 1799

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art - Chemise à l'Anglaise, ca. 1800


*For more information and an excellent pictorial presentation of the styles discussed here, please visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Kyoto Costume Institute's on-line costume collections.

Happy sewing! :)

2 comments:

  1. Just wanted to say I found this quite helpful :) Thanks!

    ReplyDelete