When this most elegant of 18th century dresses first appeared in the 1710s, it resembled a wrapping gown. It had no waist and there were no fastenings as it was pulled over the head. The front was sewn closed from the waist down, bound with ribbon all down its front, or left hanging open. They were worn as undress, i.e. informal day wear. Sometimes sleeves had relatively simple cuffs of a rectangular shape with 2-3 pleats to make them narrower at the nick of the elbow or left plain.
Until the 1740’s, it gradually developed a waist, opened in front, became more decorated and, like all dresses, wider. By the middle of the century, the gown had developed variations that could be worn for formal off-court occasions, e.g. weddings and soirees.
La Robe Francaise – Court Dress
By the 1770’s the sack-back gown was second only to court dress in its formality. In front, the gown was open, showing off a decorative stomacher and petticoat. It would have been worn with a wide square hoop or panniers under the petticoat.
Scalloped ruffles soften trimmed elbow-length sleeves, which were worn with separate frills called with double and triple flounces, not counting the lace flounces attached to the chemise sleeves.
It now had the back arranged in box pleats which fell loose from the shoulder to the floor with a slight train. The painter Watteau was so fascinated by the play of the large pleats in back that he painted them over and over again. Today these pleats are known as Watteau pleats.
Making the Robe
Silk Taffeta, Damask or printed cotton
The Française was not exclusively upper class, but the sheer amount of fabric that goes into its construction made it unaffordable for anyone who didn’t make a comfortable living. For the middling sort, it served as Sunday best. This means that the fabric should be of the better kind – either silk damask, silk taffeta or printed cotton. – I’ve been asked about the fabric weight. Consider that heavier fabrics weigh down skirt supports, especially wide ones, so that you may need stiffer (and heavier!) steels in the panier.
As for the amount, for those who want it in a nutshell: 10-12 metres @ 90 cm width will suffice, a small safety allowance included. 1-2 metres more for patterned fabrics. You may think that this is an awful lot of fabric. Yes, it is. You may think that you won’t need as much because you’re petite. No, believe me, you will need it. It doesn’t make much difference whether you’re slim or fat. Even if you’re on a budget, an 18th century robe is nothing to be niggard about.
Linen for Dress Lining/Petticoat
For the lining, you also need roughly 150 x 75 cm of a firm linen-weave fabric. The lining will hold the whole construction up, so it mustn’t be too weak or be distorted easily. You also need to make a toile that is a mock up in cheap non-stretchy sturdy fabric so not expensive mistakes are made with the silk. It should be the colour of unbleached cotton or linen or match the top fabric or go well with the top fabric while being inconspicuous.
Sometimes the petticoat was made of plain linen and only covered with the fashion fabric where it showed, i.e. in front and partly up the sides and back.
Most books recommend washing the fabric before cutting in case it shrinks. In case of silk, however, that is risky: Silk tends to lose some of its shine and stiffness.
Making the Pattern
The most important part of the dress construction is lining as it determines the shape and fit of the finished garment. If the lining fits properly, so will the robe as it is simply draped onto the lining.As the Robe, a La Francaise is only fitted round the front and can easily be adjusted to two or three dress sizes.
You should also have the corset finished first: The robe can only fit properly if it is draped on the corseted figure. And the panier should also be finished since its size and shape determine the length and width of the skirt and thus, the fabric consumption.
LINING AND LACING AND PLEATS
Cut a mock-up of the lining out of cheap fabric like calico first. This is called a toile it allows mistakes to be made without wasting expensive fabric. Lightly baste or pin the back, sides and fronts including the under stomacher (not sleeves) together and put it on over the stays, allowances to the outside. Make sure it fits properly – so it lies smooth – adjustments, if any are necessary, should be marked directly on the fabric so this can be used as a template for the lining fabric.
The proper lining fabric is then cut out and sewn together to create the body and sleeves of the dress lining. The under-stomacher is sewn into the lining – it has eyelet holes and is designed to take the stress often placed on fancy stomachers. Also, the purpose of the front facing on the under stomacher is somewhere to pin the decorative stomacher later.
Ties have been added to the back of the lining for adjustability.
Cut 10 pieces of twill tape 12” long – pin each end of tape as indicated on the pattern – tapes will lie on the outside so it is easier to adjust for the wearer. Make a casing with twill tape stitch down over the tapes then insert boning. I have used covered 6mm sprung steel – then pull the tapes in to make a perfect fit – The boning will keep the back straight and smooth. It should be necessary to adjust the back tapes only once.
The design should enable one to let out the torso of the gown sufficiently so it can be worn through early pregnancy or taken up an entire size.
Draping the Robe – The back is pleated into two large pleats and must be symmetrical (as my fabric isn’t wide – I had to join it off centre). Then sew the top fabric pleats onto the back-neck piece. The Front and back pieces of the gown also have had the fabric folded back from shoulder to hem – these are called robing’s – they will be decorated later.
The front and back are then sewn together along the shoulder seams and at the sides.
A side skirt extension which is a large rectangle of fabric is sewn to the back and front of the skirt sides to increase the skirt width and then pleated to make the side pockets.
The dress is now attached to the lining – along the neckline and down the front under the under stomacher. It is also attached at the top side seams, at bottom of side seam and on top of pocket pleats.
Sew the seam of the sleeve and then attach the sleeve into the armhole by 4-6 small pleats.
The sleeve engeantes or flounces then need to be attached – there are two on each sleeve a smaller and a larger. Gather the upper edges of the flounces and sew them on with a little head. The smallest flounce sits on top. The longest part of the flounces is at the outside of the elbow, where the sleeve is longest.
Put on the robe over stays and pannier. Be sure to wear your period shoes or heels the same height as those of your period shoes. the front edge, the skirt should 5-8 cm above ground. At the sides, it should be floor length or 2-3 cm above. In back, the train length is a matter of taste All the more reason to attach a cheap hem protection fabric to the inside of the train.
From about 1740, most gowns and bodices were worn to reveal a stomacher, a stomacher is a decorated triangular panel that fills in the front opening of a woman’s gown or bodice. The stomacher may be boned and cover the triangular front of a corset. This stomacher is decorative, the bodice’s lacings would then criss-cross over the stomacher or be pinned.
They could be made of the same fabric as the dress or of a contrasting fabric. Depending on the period, their bottom point was at waist level, or lower; towards the end of the 18th Century they could be as deep as 10 inches below the waistline, making it impossible for the woman wearing them to sit.
Once the under stomacher is laced centre the stomacher over the lacing and pin to the top edge of the facing of the lining. The pinning line corresponds to the stitching line.
Making the stomacher
Pin stomacher interfacing together and sew boning channels, pin stomacher lining to stomacher. Pin interfacing to wrong side of lining stitch all layers together leaving top of stomacher open. Turn stomacher right side out and insert boning into casings. Fold remining seam allowance to inside of stomacher.
Decorating the Stomacher
For a 1750-1770 robe, the most common trims were bows and gathered or pleated strips of top fabric, So I decorated the stomacher with box pleated silk sewn waving down the stomacher and trimmed it with bows and very fine antique gold and pink trimming. Trimming was usual narrow and the same colour as the garment, as here many formal gowns were trimmed with metallic trims. The narrow band of lace sewn to the top edge was called a tucker.
Fabric was very costly so only the extremely wealthy could display such extravagance in trimmings. The stomacher is a very attractive item which you can replace quite easily – a different stomacher can ring the changes with any gown!
The result is a beautiful gown that can be worn for any court event!