Dressing the English Lady

Mid to late 18th Century Women’s Fashions (1750-1795) – Dressing the English Lady

This period of Georgian history saw a remarkable array of fashions.  From the replendence of flowing ruffles and gleaming embrodiery to the simple, white muslin chemise a la Reine, the evolution was stark, often influenced by the French fashions at the Court of Versailles.

 

Top:  Marie Antoinette in her own design, the Robe a la Reine .

Bottom:  Robe a la francaise.

Two types of gowns dominated the scene, the robe a la francaise and the robe a l’anglaise, each quite distinct, down to the very structures that styled their shape.   An English lady might have either at the ready, the latter “English dress” suitable to the everyday country life outside London town while the “French dress” often graced formal occasions.  The fabric of the “English Dress” also tends toward painted cotton versus the lustrous fabrics of the Robe a la francaise.  All gowns consisted of a petticoat (the layer revealed by the cutaway in the front of the skirt) and some sort of stays.

 

Let’s look at the main differences . . .

The Robe a la Francaise

  • Also known as the “sack back” gown, box pleats fell like a waterfall from the shoulder, descending into a train.
  • Emphasis is placed on an extreme width to the hips, with panniers providing the structure.  The pannier was worn under the petticoat, the layer peeking out from the gown.

  • Sleeves most commonly ended near the elbow with a froth of lace ruffles cascading down the arm (engageants).
  • The stomacher, a triangular panel, was conical in shape, emphasizing a broad bosom and a tiny waist.  However, the stays beneath actually increased the waist’s natural narrowness, hence the stomacher as an illusion.  As part of the corset, the stomacher was boned, but sometimes it was merely decorative – torso jewelry if you will.  As ornamentation, the  stomachers were often pinned or stitched into place.  They also be secured by the bodice’s lacings.   Talk about extra work getting dressed!

This is the gown most of us would associate with Versailles: curvaceous in the hips to the extreme.   I can just imagine how crowded a ballroom might’ve been!

 

Robe a L’Anglaise

  • A false rump or bustle raised the back of the skirts, essentially lifting and empasizing the rear.  Unlike the Robe a la Francaise, the width of the hips had a slimmer silhoutte while the rear – dare I say it? – was bootylicious.

Bustle attached to the hips so the padded fabric flared out

The waistline dips in both front and back center.

  • Also note the shortening of the gown.  The train starts diminishing until, in the later part of the century, the skirt lifts off the ground, no doubt easier to keep clean in those dirty streets!

Beginning around the late 1770’s the Robe a la Polonaise, aka the milkmaid, gained in popularity.  This style mimicked how women of the countryside would hike up their external gowns to keep them out of the mud.  The rear is hiked up at the sides and back.

All pictures taken from the Costume Institute at the Met – an amazing collection extending far before and after the mid to late 18th century!

Curious about what English lords wore?  Check out this post on Stripping the 18th Century Male.

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