April 29, 2015

Closet Histories no. 4.8: The Robe à la Polonaise

Today we look into the curious case of the 18th century Robe à la Polonaise! Though the name polonaise is often given to any 18th century gown with the back skirts looped up into puffs, this is inaccurate! There is actually a distinction between gowns a la retroussée (pulled or looped up) and a robe à la polonaise. There are many extant examples of both robe a l'anglaise and robe a la francaise with their skirts "a la retroussée", their skirts pulled up by cords or pulled through the pocket slits. The distinctive features of the polonaise can be hard to spot for those not very familiar with 18th century women's dress.

Late 18th century fashion plate, Polonaise in taffeta with gauze trimmings.
Lets take a look at the fashion plate above. The gown is described as follows "Polish view from behind, it is taffeta trimmed with gauze." One must imagine that the Polonaise style gown originated or was styled after a Polish style of gown in order to have earned it's name. The polonaise was cut in a similar way to men's frock coats, the bodice and skirt cut in one (without a waist seam). The center back seam and two side-back seams terminate in inverted pleats in a similar manner to a frock coat. The bodice appears to be cut as a "zone" front, with the side fronts worn loose over a either a separate bodice/waistcoat or a false waistcoat or stomacher. The skirt is worn pulled up into three sections, though "puffs" sounds more fun!

Dress (robe à la polonaise) 1780, KCI
 In the above extant example from the Kyoto Costume Institute you can just see near the sleeve how there is no waist seam and how the fronts are not perfectly smooth against the body but instead are a bit loose. The skirt on this example is looped up quite high, right to where the waist seam would be, but you can see on the fashion plate above that not all polonaise skirts were this way.

Robe à la Polonaise 1780, Glasgow Museum
 We can see more of the distinctive polonaise details on this second example from the Glasgow Museum. The back view shows off the pleating around the waist. The front view is another great look at the loose front drape of the bodice section.

For more about the Polonaise, you must check out this post from DeMode Couture. Kendra describes the polonaise in detail, and is quite an authority on the subject after all of her extensive research. 

Now let's look at a few faux polonaise, which are actually robe a l'anglaise a la retroussée.

1775-, V&A
 This example, which the V&A describes as a polonaise, is in fact a robe a l'anglaise with it's skirts looped up. The bodice is cut separately from the skirt, and is fitted closely to the body unlike a polonaise.

Robe à la Polonaise 1780-1785, MET
This second example of a "polonaise" from the MET, is again, actually a robe a l'anglaise. To be honest, I am only including this second example because this gown is drool-worthy gorgeous. Hand painted silk in bright acidic yellow? Yes please!

There is one more french term for today though, and describes another way other gowns masquerade as a polonaise. A gown "retroussee dans les poches", in English? "tucked in the pockets". 18th century gowns have slits in the side skirt seams which are virtually invisible while the gown is being worn, but allow a woman to wear a separate pocket (like this one) underneath to store items in. A gown worn "retroussee dans les poches" has the skirt pulled up through these slits to "bustle" the back.

Dress (robe retroussée dans les poches) 1780, KCI
This example, again from the Kyoto Costume Institute, shows a robe a la francaise with retroussee dans les poches to great effect as the skirt is lined in a different fabric so we can see exactly how the skirt is pulled up through the pocket slits!

I happen to like the polonaise and its imitators quite a lot! I'd love to make one someday, they seem ultra feminine with their poufs of silk and rows of pleated trimmings. I think I would prefer to have an anglaise I could wear either dans les poches or with it's skirts down and smooth.

What do you guys think of the polonaise? Too frilly, or just right?

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 were sourced from Pinterest and can be accessed here.. 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!


  1. Thank you so much for this article! There is a lot of confusion about this type of gown, and I think it's great that we're all starting to differentiate between the types.

    There's been some discussion on Facebook about the waist seam, though - there are fashion plates referred to as Polonaise that do show a waist seam, but the gown still hangs open at the front and has the three partitions (the reason for the name "Polonaise" - it was a political division of Prussia into 3 parts in the 1770s). Colonial Williamsburg also produced a Polonaise with the waist seam. So it's confusing, but it's still not a Robe a l'Anglaise worn retroussee, with the bodice tightly fitted, as you say. Clear as mud, right?

    1. I didn't realize the polonaise was different until recently when you started making yours! So thank you! I had always intended to do a Closet Histories post for the style, but the recent research by other bloggers definately inspired this post!

      I am not too suprised to find out there may be evidence of polonaises with waist seams. I assume it would be more cost effective to have the bodice and skirt cut seprately, even if they were still made up into the polonaise style. Thanks for clarification on the reason the style is called "Polish", that makes more sense than what I had seen elsewhere!

  2. Me too, big time. They're fun, flouncy, feminine, and seem somewhat easier to navigate around in than a fair number of other more restrictive and/or heavily layered fashions from the 1600s - 1800s.

    Have a great weekend!
    ♥ Jessica

    1. Thanks Jessica, gotta have some frilly feminine goodness! I'd love to make a frothy silk polonaise one day.

      I hope you had a lovely weekend as well!


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