From Panniers to Polonaise

The story goes a something like this:  One day around 1730 two pleasantly plump English ladies wanted to take a stroll in the Tuileries gardens.  But the weather was, at least for these Brits, sticky and warm, and, for all the ladies in onerous garb, stifling hot.  To avoid the inevitable thigh-to-fabric rub beneath their walking dresses, the ladies devised a plan.  They thought of donkeys carrying baskets.  Next, they envisioned themselves, their skirts flowing around them, inches away from their skin.  Thus, the pannier was born.

(And yes, pannier is the name for a basket slung over a beast of burden)

Worn between the 1730s until the 1770s, panniers spread the appearance of ladies’ hips to shocking widths.  It’s hard to imagine now, but the most fashionable could not fit in many doorways without turning aside.  Collapsible panniers were created to render this problem obsolete but gentlemen scoffed at the idea of widening door frames merely for ladies’ whims.  They had, of course, encountered a similar caprice earlier with Marie Antoinette’s towering coiffure, the pouf.  The notion of hip widths of eight feet were just another frippery to be endured.

Tired limbs were another casualty that resulted from these large hoops.  Elbows suffered from behaving as wings from ladies’ sides and so a second invention ensued: the elbow pad, fastened near the lower waist so the arms would not despair of fatigue.  This silly business thrived until the Polonaise gown came into vogue in the 1770s.

1775-1780, altered several times; rosettes and green trim are 19th century

Styled to look like a tiered cake, with rings and cording beneath the skirts, the Polonaise gown imitated milkmaids who tucked up their skirts to avoid the muck.  Pocket slits appeared on the open skirt, allowing a stylish lady to tuck the fabric however she fancied that day.  Despite the necessity of three small panniers (at a minimum) to achieve this style, overall the look was poufed yet streamlined, the waist nipped in with petticoats underneath.

Robe a la Polonaise, 1770s


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