January 28, 2015

Closet Histories no. 4.2: Robe a la Francaise & Robe a l'Anglaise

Today I will be going over the basics of two of the 18th centuries most predominate style of gowns, the Robe a la Francaise (gown in the French style) and the Robe a l'Anglaise (gown in the English style). The robe a la francaise came first and was perhaps the winner for the main style of gown in the 18th century. The back of the gown is cut en fourreau, that is, in one with the skirt. This style of gown is also called a sack-back, sacque, or even Watteau gown after the 18th century artist Jean Antoine Watteau.

A pattern for an 18th century en fourreau gown by Diderot's Encyclopedia 
Robe a la Francaise, French, 1765-1770, MET
Above we see a typical robe a la francaise from the Metropolitain Museum of Art's collection in New York. The gown is made of brocade silk and is trimmed with self fabric and fly fringe. Thanks to the MET's well done photography we can see the pleated back of this gown, the feature that makes it a la francasise in style, in high detail. The defining feature of the robe a la francaise are these wide pleats running down the center back of the gown. These pleats are left free hanging, creating the signature silhouette of this style.

In this photo you can see at the side where the back pleats are hanging loose way from the body, even though the front and side of the gown come close to the body, preserving the fashionable conical shape.

Above we see a drawing of the inside of a robe a la francaise. The back of the gown, though seemingly loose and flowing gracefully from the shoulders, is actually structured inside. This interior laced back gives the francaise its structure despite it's loose and easy appearance. There are back bodice pieces which are laced to pull the front and sides of the gown smooth while the back outer layer retains the appearance it is hanging free. 

The second part of the illustration shows the layout of the pleats making up the back of the gown on the outside layer. Remember that this wide back piece, which was pleated into the bodice, was also cut in one with the back skirt panel. These gowns took a lot of fabric, perfectly showcasing the most expensive silks money could buy. 

Robe a l'Anglaise, British, 1770-1775, MET
Above in blue we see the other major style of gown from the 18th century, the robe a l'anglaise. The "English gown" differs from the robe a la francaise in that the pleats on the back are sewn down and lay flat against the body (stays) continuing the conical shape of the bodice. The back panel of the l'anglaise was still cut en fourreau, but the silhouette achieved by sewing the pleats flat is different. Like the name suggests, this style of gown was very popular in England. Like the francaise above, this example is made of silk brocade, but is trimmed only on the bodice and sleeve cuffs with a simple fly fringe.

The center back of this anglaise shows how the pleats were arranged differently than on a francaise gown. Here the pleats are more angled forming a flattering V shape and are sewn down retaining the conical shape of the dress.

In the drawing of the interior of the l'anglaise, we can see that no separate interior back piece is needed to maintain the conical shape of the bodice. The back pleats are sewn down until the waist where they become pleats in the skirt. 

Robe a l'Anglaise, American, 1785-1795, MET
This last gown is a variation of a robe a l'anglaise, the difference being that this gown's back bodice piece is cut separately from the back skirt panel (not en fourreau). The back is cut to look like a regular l'anglaise, but would actually require less fabric. This meant this style, the quartered back, was less expensive. The bodice and skirt are completely separate pieces. The back of the bodice is cut in four sections, hence the name quartered back.

 In this final close up you can just see how at the waist point of the center back, the bodice is sewn to the skirt rather than the center back piece continuing into (forming) the back skirt panel.

I hope you enjoyed this little basic 18th century wardrobe vocabulary lesson, I will have more from the 18th section next time on Closet Histories!

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!


  1. Very (!) much so, dear gal. Do you happen to know, does the hat style often called Watteau that was especially popular in the 1930s/early 40s relate back to Jean Antoine and the 18th century as well or does it stem from something more modern?

    ♥ Jessica

    1. Thanks Jessica! Watteau hats are indeed named after the 18th century Watteau as well, as some of the hat styles in the 18th century were similarly flat and low crowned. The hats were called Bergere hats, most often they were made of straw. The Dreamstress has a lovely post about Bergere's here:


      I would love to have either a 1940's or an 18th century version of such a hat! I have made a few silk Watteau style hats before, they are one of the easier styles to accomplish without a hat block as the crown can be smaller than the head-size. I'll have to do a post about all of the hats I have made someday.


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