Here on Closet Histories, we have arrived at my favorite of all time periods for clothing. Discovering the 18th century (through Sofia Coppola's 2006 film Marie Antoinette) in high school was the catalyst that kick-started my obsession with historic dress! I fell head over heels for the robe a la francaise and the robe a l'anglaise, for the large bergere hats, the romantic polonaises and dainty shoes! A monster was born, and I haven't stopped gushing over the 18th century since! That't why you may notice we will be lingering rather a long time here in the 1700's. Besides being my favorite period of dress, it is also the period I know the most about. We will be delving into extant examples, portraiture, accessories, and specific styles like never before!
Today we jump start our look into the 18th century by looking at both portraiture and extant gowns from the earlier half of the 18th century. We will look at the transition from the 17th centuries early mantuas into the styles mentioned above like the robe a la francaise and robe a l'anglaise.
|fig. 1 fig. 2 fig. 3|
It seems the lady in fig. 1 is wearing a much more "18th" century shape than the others. Her gown is more structured with a stiff conical bodice. These ladies are examples of how portraiture can show us that either; a) some women were more fashion forward than others, b) portraits were still painted in the looser more baroque style even though fashion itself had begun to move on, or even c) that these different styles coexisted during the transitional period. Which ever is the actual case, lets look at an early 18th century mantua so we can get a good idea of the gowns from the beginning of the century.
|fig. 4 - 1708, MET|
What does the MET have to say about this mantua?
"The mantua was a coatlike construction, with sleeves cut in one piece with the back and front. It was pleated at the shoulders and fell to the waist, where it was held in place by a sash. From there it was folded back into a bustle shape and worn over a matching petticoat. As the style evolved, the pleats at the front were reduced in number and the bodice was opened, with the torso now covered by a stiffened piece of fabric in the form of an inverted triangle, tapering into a narrow waist. This piece of fabric was known as a stomacher. Early examples are often intricately embroidered. While these gowns appear quite substantial, they were actually precariously fastened with pins to hold the stomacher in place.
Originally an informal style, and banned for its informality from the French court by Louis XIV, the mantua gradually became acceptable as formal dress and remained a popular choice for court dress in England until the mid-century. Its popularity was such that dressmakers were referred to as mantua-makers."
This magnificent survivor shows us exactly what an early 18th century mantua would look like. The silhouette is certainly striking, the skirt pieces held back into what almost looks like a bustle to modern eyes. The sleeves still have a level of that 17th century fullness, but the chemise not longer puffs out to form part of the sleeve. Instead there is a simple single lace ruffle at the sleeve cuff and neckline.
|fig. 5 fig. 6 fig. 7 |
|fig. 8 fig. 9 fig. 10|
Fig. 9 serves as a casual counterpoint to the princess, here Lady Smyth wears a much simpler gown for daywear of off-white silk. It looks like this gown is in fact a matching short gown and petticoat. Her sleeves are slimmer, though they still have puffs of chemise at the cuff. She also wears a belt and a blue ribbon at the center front of her gown. I particularly like her large straw hat with it's blue silk lining! Fig. 10 shows Mary Elizabeth Davenport wearing a gown of what looks to be blue velvet trimmed with white fur. The gown shows the progression from the earlier mantuas. Instead of the over-skirt being pulled back, it hangs over the underskirt in front. You can just see her pointed silk shoe sticking out from underneath her hem!
|fig. 11 fig. 12 fig. 13|
Fig. 12 again depicts Princess Amelia, this time in 1738 wearing another robe de cour. This time she wears a gown of blue silk brocade with those distinctive stomacher jewels we talked about back in the 17th century. I am not surprised this style of jewelry was still in style, they are stunning after all. I ratehr like the renaissance style "slashing" of her upper sleeve as well. Things always come back into style they say, it was even happening in the 1730's!
Lastly, in fig. 13, Catherine Havers shows us a less formal gown. It is hard to say from this portrait weather her gown is a robe a la francaise or a robe a l'anglaise. The difference is in how the back of the gown is pleated. The francaise hangs in large pleats from the shoulder and is also called a saque gown, the l'anglaise (or English gown) is pleated closely to the body following the conical shape created by the stays. Her blue silk gown is pinned along the front to a matching stomacher. Her stomacher, gown, and skirt are all trimmed with self fabric trim cut with a scalloped edge. She wears a large fur muff, a lace partlet of some kind (though by now the scarves/items used to fill in necklines are mostly known as kerchiefs or fichus), and a yellow hooded silk mantle. We will talk more about the distinction between the robe a la francaise and the robe a l'anglaise in a later post.
|fig. 14 - 1735-1740, MET|
Here is an extant example of a 1730's/1740's saque back robe a la francaise gown. This rusty brown brocade gown shows how the style was pleated in both the front and back to create the silhouette. The front pleats (called robings) were pinned to the stomacher though the MET has them loose here. Earlier saque gowns were looser, we often know them as Watteau gowns because the artist Antoine Watteau often included saque wearing ladies in his work.
|fig. 15 - 1740's, MET|
Here is another robe a la francaise, this one a little later in date and a bit more embellished. This gown is made of amazing ivory moire silk that has been hand painted with leaves and flowers in various colors. The sleeve flounces and front of the gown are trimmed with knotted net trim and fly fringe. This gown looks to close over the embroidered stomacher with laced cord but is probably pinned to the stomacher which has the cord attached to give the appearance of a front lacing garment.
|fig. 19 fig. 20 fig. 21 |
At this point we have fully arrived at the recognizable 18th century style. In the firm grip of the Rococo movement, gowns become the stuff that dreams are made of (or is that just me?). The last three ladies of today's post all wear beautiful silk robe a la francaise gowns. As you can see, not all of the pastel girly colors from the Marie Antoinette film were anachronistic. They may not have had hot pink (only possible through synthetic dyes), but the rococo gowns of the mid 18th century could still be gloriously pink! Each gown represented above has layers of self fabric trimmings, in ruffles, pleats, and bows. The new sleeve shape has been standardized to a slim elbow length sleeve with layered graduated flounces at the cuff. Lace sleeve flounces (engageants) were also worn, spilling out from underneath the gown's sleeve flounces. These lace engageants were removable to be worn with different gowns and for easy laundering.
Next time we will be talking about the layers of undergarments that made the shapes of the 18th century possible! Until then, stay curious my history loving friends!
All of the information for this post has been gathered from the textbook Survey of Historic Costume (5th edition) by Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eurbank, from the links above or my own knowledge. I want to share the resources I come across with all of you as much as possible. The portraits used to illustrate today's post are credited to either the museum where they reside (whenever possible) or the source where I found them, and are linked via their fig. # underneath. Again I repeat my disclaimer that I am not a historian, and if you have corrections or additions for this post, please begin the discussion in comments as I would love to learn more!
That was a long post, thank you so much for reading through to the very end :)
That was a long post, thank you so much for reading through to the very end :)