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Monday, September 16, 2013

Women's Fashion Part 1

c. 1760

Monochrome, but in a bright canary yellow guaranteed to catch anyone's attention across a room, this exceptionally well-preserved robe à la française with trimmings represents the apogee of the form. The absence of ornament, other than basic ruffles, makes this a museum object easy to read: it is a perfect teaching example, free from distractions and affirming thereby the adorned beauty of eighteenth-century silhouette and style, so often masked under frills and coquetry.

Robe à la Française


A perfect example of the robe à la française at mid-century, this hand-painted silk dress displays the opulence, Orientalism, and insatiable baroque excess of the time. Layers build on layers; flowers terrace out from the two-dimensional on the textile, to silk flowers, to nets laden with trapped flowers and floss. The silhouette is perfectly of the era: panniers dilate the hips; a narrow waist is achieved by the corset, which further pushes up and supports the bust. A deep décolletage is rendered more or less modest with insertions of bits of cloth, and the sleeves are finished with layers of engageants that are generally just basted in for easy detachment and washing and are thereby useful in keeping the valued dress clean.

Robe à l'Anglaise

c. 1785-1787

In eighteenth-century dress, the torso was encased by layers of quilted linen and boning that constitute an exaggerated exoskeleton. An inevitable consequence of this redefinition of the torso is an emphasis on the hip and bustline. By mid-century, especially in France, the style was for the bust, veiled by lace or a sheer mull fichu, to emerge above the top line of the bodice.

Court Dress

c. 1750

In the eighteenth century, formal dress was so closely associated with Versailles and the French court that it was universally described as the robe à la française. The robe à la françaisehas a fitted overdress which is open at the frontand has a decorative bodice insert called a stomacher covering the corset and an underskirt, the petticoat, showing under the splayed drapery of the overskirt. 

In its most formal configuration, the robe à la française presented a particularly wide and flattened profile accomplished by enlarged panniers. Constructed of supple bent wands of willow or whalebone and covered in linen, panniers took on broader or narrower silhouettes. The most remarkable held out the skirts like sandwich boards, barely wider than the body in side view but as expansive as possible in front or rear view. A woman so garbed had to pass through a door sideways.

Robe à la Française


Growing out of the fantastical atmosphere of the eighteenth–century French aristocratic milieu, and conceived as often by ennui as by personal vanity, the fashions embodied by the ever-formalrobe à la française were the product of an age that sought at any cost to convey extreme grace and aesthetic perfection. This piece is imbued with the luxury and ostentation inherent in the era's metallic embroidered silks and serpentine floral textile patterns. The playfulness of the delicate hand-painted silk taffeta sufficiently showcases the Watteau (after the eponymous artist), or sacque back of the robe, reinterpreted from the seventeenth–century gown to incorporate two expansive pleats from the neckline at back. Though this piece does not demonstrate the extremity of the eighteenth–century silhouette as required by French Court dress, it clearly champions panniers to support the gown and a tightly corseted bodice.

c. 1882

The late nineteenth century in fashion is governed by both the somewhat typical constructions of lace and silk eveningwear, and the fairly new and "modern" representations of women's sport and travel clothing. While most intriguing are the avant-garde developments of the Bloomer pants and the many adaptations of the women's riding habit, which incorporated menswear affectations into both its ornamentation and its construction, the women's walking costume is one of the most difficult ensembles to find currently in pristine condition. Partially because few women felt compelled to include such a pedestrian costume in their trousseaus, and partially due to the natural deteriorations caused by light, moisture and old age, the well-kempt walking costume of the 1880s and 1890s can be found in few modern costume collections. The construction of the ensemble's bustle is squarely in congruence with the trendy shape of the second bustle period, and the Curaisse-shaped infra-structure and tightly rounded sleeve are unequivocal documentations of this period in fashion.

This is the only view of the dress they only have


c. 1872

The 1870s was a period of marked romanticism and whimsy in fashionable dress. Much like the picturesque paintings of Renoir that depict such confectionary creations, both day and evening gowns were highly ornamented and often executed in delicate, feminine textiles. Though eveningwear was marked by décolleté necklines and lavish silk satins and taffetas, day dresses were made more modest with austere fabrics like cotton or wool. While many women owned walking and traveling dresses which afforded slightly greater moveability, also quite common was the summer day dress that was to be worn to an afternoon tea or reception. 

This garment, emblematic of warm weather day dresses of the period with its sheer printed cotton and delicate lace trim, is a particularly pristine example, and notable for its clear revival of eighteenth–century aesthetic sensibilites. The late nineteenth century, abetted by the luxury and progress of the Industrial Age, recalled distinctly, both in its textiles and in the etiquette that surrounded fashionable dress, the notorious material excesses of the third quarter of the eighteenth century. The wealthy classes of the late–nineteenth–century showed a particular respect for the formalities of fashion. While their garments were not nearly as ornamental and their entertaining circles not as elitist, the decorative effects of late nineteenth century afternoon reception dresses such as this one unarguably echoed the lavishness of the eighteenth–century gown, most notably here in the sleeve and neckline.

That's the end of Part 1.

Stay tune for Part 2.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for this information. I have to let you know I concur on several of the points you make here and others may require some further review, but I can see your viewpoint.