Sunday, October 26, 2008

Late 18th Century Women's High Fashion 101

There were many fashions and trends in Georgiana's time, many of which were of her design. But I thought it may be a good idea to cover the general basics of women's fashion in this post.
To begin, there were two main styles of dress: Robe a la Francaise or Sack Dress and the Robe a l'Anglaise or Mantua. The majority of gowns and fashions stemmed from these two styles. A contemporary example could be straight legged jeans vs flared jeans; two basic styles that we have worn for decades despite trends such as low rise or skinny jeans.French Flair!
The Robe a la Francaise is what we tend to think of when we think of an 18th century gown. Perhaps the image of Madame de Pompadour in a garden or lounging on a couch appears in our mind. This uncomfortable, traditional style was going out of vogue in the later part of the 18th century but did not go extinct because it had to be worn for court dress functions. It required the use of the ever-important panniers to give the hips a huge rectangular shape (The French preferred a more kidney shape) and to make waists look smaller. Since the shape of the skirt didn't allow for a train, the back has drapery which flows into a train.
English Elegance!
The Mantua was a very uncomfortable, yet traditional style from the late 17th century. It never seemed to leave dressmakers' shops but through the century it was altered to better suit the new tastes of the times. The late 18th century's mantua or Robe a l'Anglaise is so different from the original mantuas, you would never know these two styles were related. However, they are both distinguishable by not requiring the use of panniers. This gown was more simplistic than the french counterpart and allowed for a variety of alterations on a basic style. Some of these included a faux bum (or bustle), faux stomach (to give the appearance of pregnancy, a Georgiana invention), and faux breasts. So the Robe a l'Anglaise basically saw padding just about everywhere at one point in time, which satirical cartoonists loved to comment on. A common accessory to this low-cut gown was the fichu, a scarf for your neckline, which could be criss-crossed around the bodice or would trim the neckline.
The Polonaise
The idea of playing shepherdess or being "provincial" was a problem the aristocracy had throughout the 18th century. Hogarth found it disgusting and it got Marie Antoinette into some trouble too. It also helped inspire this style of gown. Aristocratic women were looking for clothing to wear when they went into the country. The short length of skirt working classes wore appealed to them and looked like an appropriate walking gown. In the 1770's the polonaise was born. The skirt of the polonaise is pulled up to reveal the "petticoat," resulting in puffy layers of fabric resting on a stiff layer and showing off those cute shoes you just purchased.
Chemise de la Reine
None of these styles were very comfortable. Marie Antoinette battled with corsets throughout her marriage and was constantly seeking a comfortable dress of high fashion. Then she noticed what servants from the West Indies were wearing: loose, white dresses of muslin. Marie thought, "What a fabulous idea, I could even dress it up with some ribbons and accessorize!" and the Chemise de la Reine was born. She liked these Gaulle gowns (as they were also called) so much that she had Elisabeth Vigee le Brun paint her in hers, but when the portrait was exhibited in 1783 it was met with alarm. The people of France were disgusted that the queen was painted in a state of undress (it looked like a nightgown). But Marie loved the muslin gown, even if her countrymen didn't, and sent one to Georgiana in England. The Duchess of D loved the dress and would wear them all the time, so of course, all of England followed suit.
Round Robe
A combination of the Chemise de la Reine and the Robe a l'Anglaise, the Round Robe was born around 1795, an evolution of the Gaulle. It was made from muslin and the bodice criss-crossed just like many women would style their fichus on their mantuas. We can also begin to see the waist-line rise toward the bust with this dress style. The influence from France to dress in the style of Greek and Roman citizens was beginning to translate slowly into England.

So, which is your favorite? Or, even better, what style would you be wearing in your portrait?


  1. So why did Hogarth hate the Polonaise? Because it showed the ankles? Just curious as to what his objection would be.

    Me - I'd wear the Chemise for daily wear but I'd probably have my portrait painted in the Robe a la Anglais. Have to be grand for portraits you know. :)

  2. I'm sorry Stephanie, Hogarth actually didn't hate the polonaise but the idea of the upper classes being "provincial" seeing as they really had no idea how entirely un-romantic the life of the lower-classes were. He wrote about it in his book, The Analysis of Beauty. Sorry to be unclear!

    Your choices sound like me now: the most comfy stuff for everyday wear but only the best when you have to keep up appearances ;)

  3. Well, the Robe a la Francaise will always be my first love. I've wanted one ever since I saw the cobalt blue one my American Girl doll Felicity got to wear for her Christmas story (neither me nor my doll ever received it, a childhood tragedy). And I'd wear a really grand one, like something Madame Pompadour would wear.

    But in the past few years I've also fallen in love with the simple elegance of the Anglaise. In fact my favorite painting of all time features one, Rose Adélaïde Ducreux's Self Portrait With Harp. Someday I'll recreate that dress.

    And who doesn't love the fabulous draping of a polonaise (I'm a bit of a gorgeous drapery nut), especially an awesome stripey one like in the picture you posted.

    So I think the solution to this is just to have three portraits painted, one in each style. Because I would obviously be loaded and have a million dresses and be able to afford such things if I lived in the 18th century.

    The 18th century is my absolute hands down favorite era in fashion history. In case you couldn't tell.

  4. I am torn between a few of the styles...I love the polonaise style because of the draped fabric, but the anglaise seems more elegant to me. I'm making a chemise gown currently, but I have several yards of a gorgeous silk brocade, and I can't decide whether to do a polonaise or anglaise...decisions, decisions.

  5. I totally understand your dilemma drama-wench! Oh, and I never had the blue silk dress either; my doll was constantly wearing her green riding habit (in case she had to go anywhere, ya know).

  6. I think mine was always wearing her pink birthday outfit, or her (according to the American Girl website) "summer outfit", which, looking at the picture, kind of resembles a chemise a la reine in a way, only not as poofy. I think I loved the summer dress most because of the awesome hat.

    You know I don't think I had the riding habit either. My parents obviously just didn't love me.

    (This is drama-wench by the way, blogger's being stupid and won't let me post with my livejournal id.)

  7. Oh Sara, I totally feel your pain. That is just an awful decision to have to make!

  8. Lovely post!
    I love the Robe a la Francaise and the English one to. But I think I would like to have my protrait in the Polonaise :)

  9. Well, I guess it's pretty obvious that I like the polonaise, but for a 'puttin' on the ritz' occasion I prefer to put my formal foot forward and strut my stuff. I'd wear the Francaise, full length of course. No three-quarter or half-lengths for me! I want ALL my finery to shine. I'd also have to include a pet. They're such a part of my life that a portrait wouldn't really be the real me without one.

  10. fun post! I would just love an excuse to purposely make my bum look large.

  11. I read your every post, but had to comment today.

    First, I'd wear the Robe a la Anglaise. I really think I was born in the wrong era. I love that style, corset and all.

    But I have to ask; why in the world would they have wanted padding to produce a fake pregnancy??? I've never heard of that before. Curious minds want to know!

  12. Well, they must have just like the way it looked! It didn't look like an actual pregnancy just a lot of fluff in the front, which much have matched all the fluff in the back. It was also a fad that didn't have the same longevity as the false rump. I think the idea of making the trend was if everyone wore it then no one would notice who was pregnant and who wasn't; therefore hiding a pregnant belly wouldn't be an issue!

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