18th Century Gown Information
Paintings, period gowns in collections, probate inventories, newspaper ads listings’ the newest fabrics just arrived on the latest ships’, the limited number of written descriptions, the comparisons of English, French, and American sources, fashion dolls and magazines, are all just some of the ways, we today, go about trying to determine the ‘latest mode’ of these fashion conscience 18th century women. If you’re just getting started you’ll want to determine what your needs are. How do you make heads or tails of all you’re looking at in books with glossy color photos of gorgeous fashions in books like Fashion In Detail, Dress In Eighteenth Century Europe, and Costume Close-Up? With all their beautiful offering, what’s right for you, and your situation? You’ve heard it before, you’re going to have to determine ‘who’ you are, what role are you playing? The answer to these questions will enable you to dress the part in a believable way.
There are two basic styles from which all gowns are constructed. These are the Robe a la Anliaise or the England robe and the Robe a la Francaise or the French robe. I’ll leave the caraco, for a later date, as I’ve found so little information concerning this style in reference to their use in New England.
The gown, of all articles of clothing, will speak volumes of who you are just as it did for women in the eighteenth century, when others judged you and responded to you by your outward appearance. The gown doesn’t stand alone, as the higher up you portray on the social ladder, the more your accessories play a part of your image from head to toe. Your choice of fabric, color and style and adornment will represent your standing in society, or more to the point, that of your father or husband. So whether you're a Lady of quality, a New England countrywomen or a poor women from the back woods of the New Hampshire territory the gown is your outermost garment.
So if investing in a gown is a commitment to who you are representing, it stands to reasons that it will be your largest investment particularly when you consider the need for stays. Invest carefully and you will have a garment that lasts, is valued even when it begins to show signs of wear, and should you decide you have no further need of it will retain a retail value in the second hand market. This market is just as important to us now as it was then!
The English robes distinctive pleats are stitched to form a close fit next to the body. This is referred to as en fourreau. The gown might close edge to edge at the bodice front or may be cut to include a stomacher for finer variations. As lighter fabrics and cotton prints became fashionable in the 1770’s a style know as Polonaise became popular with it’s shirt pulled up in the back generally with ties from the inside. It is most often worn open in the front with a petticoat of contrasting color and fabric. Less common but not unusual is the round gown in which a front panel of the same fabric fills in the area where a petticoat would be seen but is attached to the gown's skirts. An example of this may be seen in Fitting & Proper by Sharon Burnston. This book contains an example of the three gowns discussed here with graphed patterns for each along with so much more. An excellent resource for many of the garments you’ll want to have.
The Robe a la Francaise often referred to as a sack or saque is a most elegant gown with its with large back pleats flowing from the shoulders over pocket hoops, often sweeping the ground, in all its splendor. This is the gown you will most often see made of rich silks with ornate stomachers, sleeve flounces, ruchings and trims. Whether designed to show off wealth with expensive details or tastefully appointed with the simplicity of self-ruchings with perhaps coordinating fringe this gown speaks volumes about its wearer through its details. The sack too has its variation as seen in the French paintings of Chardin. The maids and servants of these paintings wear a version of this gown known as the pet-en-l’air.
Several patterns for making your gown are available either as a traditional paper pattern or by drafting your own from measured drawings in books. Our eighteenth century counterpart could be found visiting her mantua-maker, yet another name for a gown. The seamstress would drape the chosen fabric on the customer in her stays to get a general fit and then complete the details in her own time. Gowns were made quickly with references suggesting a weeks time for completion was possible. Several patterns are available which have been drafted based on general knowledge of original garments. They are designed to be worn over stays to attain the desired conical shape of the eighteenth century silhouette.