Last year around this time I fell in love with a dress from a painting by Louis Rolland Trinquesse.
Since I’ve never done a proper Robe à la Polonaise, I decided to try and make this one.
A lot of people (like me) love to throw the term around but it’s seriously ill-defined, so let me explain to you what makes it so special that buying it new starts in the three figures a yard.
Okay, fun fact: I have done a lot of stuff recently that I didn’t document making all that well.
These three things are really special though because it’s basically three times of “that pattern wasn’t quite right.”
The Ikea Swallowtail Jacket
I made this with an Ikea Ljusöga pillowcase based on the Swallowtail Jacket at Colonial Williamsburg, using the pattern from Costume Close-Up. It was supposed to be a quick and dirty project. Which became kind of funny when I realized that I had made this one for +6′ tall person and had to alter everything to fit my smaller frame.
One key element was that I wanted the lacing in the front and I wanted that lacing to be functional. But I didn’t wanted the functional lacing to go through the fashion fabric. So I put the lacing holes into an extra linen strip directly under the open sides of the front. That means though that I have to pin the fashion fabric to the strip after lacing, otherwise the lacing holes would show because the fashion fabric layer just doesn’t lay flat.
The stomacher is lined in red, which means I can turn it around, change the lacing to a white silk and get a whole new look. (I have not done this, despite wearing the jacket at one event twice.)
I also made a red petticoat that was supposed to allow some rough handling. It did handle mud okay. But it doesn’t dry very quickly which is not good.
A Riding Habit (ugh)
I basically went for the first worsted wool fabric that looked okay-ish and that was a mistake. I ended up with a really heavy fabric whose feel I didn’t like.
So when I messed up the pattern and ended up missing about 4 inches at my waist, I made the choice (wrong one, obviously) to not undo that and add another fabric piece at the side sesams but rather leaving it open, only held together in the middle of the chest area. (I wanted to be done with that jacket. (Again: mistake.) This meant that I had to make a vest and shirt for sure (instead of cheating), line the jacket’s lapels in light blue silk and alter it further and further.
So this is my vest and shirt on my dummy double (without the buttons and the buttonholes):
And these are these things worn by me:
And I love them.
Unfortunately, this is the riding habit itself:
And I hate it.
It makes my waist look as large as my boobs which is actually ridiculous, it sits awkwardly on my hips, the sleeves look like they will tear themselves out of their armholes when I actually wear it and it weighs 5+ pounds. (Not awesome if you’re travelling.)
I actually stuffed it in the bottom of my closet. (Anyone wants an ugly, heavy riding habit?)
Ironically I was actually assured that this worsted wool fabric will last forever. The worsted news.
A hand-printed cotton Anglaise
I also made a Robe à l’Anglaise out of handprinted Indian cotton (which used plant-based dyes) which is so historically correct that I felt I should have worn a sign that said as much along with it.
The funny thing about this dress was finished so quickly that I failed to document much of the process.
The thing was that the cotton was very thin, so I lined the entire robe. (Linen in the bodice, thin cotton for the rest.)
I added the elbow sleeve thingies because I made the sleeves a bit too short. Unfortunately I was so out of fabric that it was all pieced. (That’s why the petticoat is a cheat petticoat that only used the fabric where it showed.) To cover up the pieced-ness of the elbow things I added a bit of ruffle which was even more pieced.
Me wearing it (I fixed the small gap since then.)
Very late into doing the grand habit de cour, I figured out how to access Janet Arnold’s article on Princess Sophia Magdalena’s wedding dress from 1766, as published in Costume, the journal of the Costume Society, Issue #1 (1967), p.17-21.
I had no idea what I would find in these five pages, maybe some blahblah, maybe that one bare-bones semi-informative cutting diagram that still hangs around somewhere on the internet, maybe some line drawing.
Instead I got this:
Page 17 was a brief description of the dress, page 18 was a line drawing of the bodice with emphasis on the interior (this is the only part of this article that actually can be found on the internet), page 19 is a line drawing of the front and back of the complete dress and pages 20-21 are a cutting and boning diagram of all layers (bodice/petticoat/train) and the gauze sleeves and neckline gauze (palatine).
The only thing that was missing unfortunately was the hooped petticoat (the Livrustkammaren has one, but apparently for a different robe de cour). So if you want to do a robe de cour and need a pattern… well, you can try to find an old copy of this issue of Costume (apparently there was a re-issue) or you can become a member of the Costume Society and grab a digital copy of any of their journal’s back issues.
(Which by the way have other nice patterns, like Janet Arnold’s pattern for the 1660s gown in Bath’s fashion museum or some really intriguing original non-Norah Waugh boning layouts for 18th Century stays in one of their 2000s issues.)
So what does this mean for my robe? Well, first of all my boning layout is pretty good. The major differences are that the boning layer and the fashion layer are not identically cut and that there are more additional bones in the tabs (
I don’t know how that works actually – I couldn’t have fit more in mine. Edit: the bones are split vertically in the tabs. Reading is always key.) And that on the back of the shoulder straps there are a few horizontal bones. Also the fabric is finely corded white silk. Which mine isn’t.
Things that I got right: I have 5mm wide bones, Arnold says the bones in the bodice are 3/16 inches wide which translates to 4.7625mm which is extremely close. 0.24mm is so small that I cannot actually find a good comparison, even the thickness of your fingernail is likely to be greater.
My boning layout in general is pretty on actually. Adding the fashion fabric tabs independently of the main part of the fashion fabric is correct. Adding interlining is good (although I could have added more.) Sewing down the seams is also correct.
All in all, there is no major snafu.
So what does this mean for the rest of the gown?
Before I start with the story of how I got there, I want to talk about what I am actually doing.
The concept of a court gown seems so easy to define – until you ask “which court”. Mine is obviously inspired by a painting of a British princess of the 1720s, so the answer should be pretty obvious.
The court gown that people do think of when they actually bother to think about it all, is the court gowns that still exist in their complete form – the three in from the Swedish Royal Armoury. They are not merely court gowns – each is by all definitions of the term a “grand habit de cour”, the court gown as worn by the French court.
The French Court was very wasteful when it came to fashion. There is a reason why no other French court gown has survived in its entirety – it was absolutely unthinkable to wear one twice. Madame de Polignac had to stay away from a wedding once because she couldn’t afford to wear a new grand habit.
That also meant that they were not meant to last. The description of their decorations in the later 18th Century sound more like still life paintings (even fake vegetables decorated those big skirts) than textiles and were thus pretty fragile. The Swedish gowns come from an early era were the fabric was the eye-catcher and decorations were not much of an afterthought.
The court gown in France consisted of three main parts: the boned bodice, the petticot and the train. It was pretty mandatory to wear them with double-sided sleeve ruffles, the palatine (the lace/silk gaze around the top of the bodice) and high heeled mules. The width and shape of the petticoat varied, depending on the fashion. From 1730 onwards though, the petticoat was pretty big.
I will be honest about my gown – I have fabric for a petticoat (not a super-wide one, mind you) but I don’t have fabric for the train. And to be even more honest – I have no interest in recreating a train.
Pattern-wise, a train for a Grand Habit is the second most simple 18th Century garment you can make. (#1 is a fichu.)
Even a shift is more difficult. I feel not challenged by making a train, yet I would feel very challenged wearing one. And – lucky me – my inspirational dress has no train.
And also…. lucky me, I have finished what makes the grand habit so little fun, pattern-wise…
So here is what has happened since I started putting the boned pieces together… Continue reading
I always wanted to make a grand habit de cour / robe de cour / court gown but there were a lot of arguments against it.
And then this fabric arrived at my door step:
It’s a vintage piece and it weirdly pre-cut. The short version of this story is that it’s way too nice to not use it for a big gown, and yet there is not enough of it to use it for a traditional 18th Century gown. But you can cut the bodice of a court gown and still have enough fabric for a 1730s type of court gown petticoat.
Something like this:
This seem like a contradiction until you realize that piecing this pattern and fabric is a terrible idea.
And since I hate fabric stashes (I hoard enough stuff, I don’t need fabric for something I’ll never make on top of that.), I decided to take the plunge and make a robe de cour.
The first step was taking that low-res pattern and re-work it so it has a boning layout and actually fits me. I did some retro-engineering based on an x-ray of a court dress in Sweden and one of Norah Waugh’s early 18th Century stays to figure out the most likely boning layout. Then I started measuring that one pair of stays that fits me well and dropped my research and numbers and that low-res scan into Adobe Illustrator. I ended up with a pattern that has actually worked out pretty well so far.
I printed the pattern out on transparent paper, started tracing it and its boning channels onto a linen fabric and sewed parts of the outline and all the boning channels.
Then I measured and cut the 174 (!) bones (1/5 inch – 5mm plastic boning), rounded off the edges and stuffed them into the channels. 174 times.
Judging by the few pictures I have of the Swedish court bodices (the only place where anyone bothered to photograph the insides of a court gown bodice), that number must somewhat close to the original. (The width of my boning channels does match up with regular fully-boned 18th Century stays.) Maybe the bones/boning channel are a bit narrower than mine but not by much if at all.
I also added a thick horizontal metal bone and a busk to the inside of the front bodice and evened everything out a bit by adding some interlining.
I am currently working on at putting these parts together. It’s sloooow because the boning gives the whole thing a very special dynamic.
My excellent plan to avoid making my Francaise back in the day involved doing other things, like embroidered engageantes/sleeve ruffles for my pen en l’air.
I had two pairs of 18th century engageantes I could study in person. One pair was not matching and is simply embroidered using tambour embroidery / Point de Beauvais, the other one was a matching pair of Dresden whitework engageantes.
That close study reveaed that I don’t have the hands, eyes and patience to pull off either technique.
But thankfully these aren’t the only ruffles to study:
But my research also revealed that despite all the myth-making around 18th Century gossamer fabrics, you can find comparably fine cotton fabrics in the here and now. (Now linen… that one is a problem.) Granted the cotton fabric I found in my local store is a close match to the Tambour ruffles fabric, not the Dresden – and while its close enough, it’s not identical.
I didn’t want a one-yard-plus sized pair. This was only partially motivated by my laziness and more by more observation of the orginals. A yard long engageante is surprisingly full and struck me as little bit too “gala gown” for my pet en l’air. But research revealed plenty of original engageantes with a width of 25 to 30 inches.
Anyway, I took the fabric and traced out in pencil some patterns I borrowed from the internet and printed out on transparent paper. Then I embroidered.
This took a while.
Then I did some hemming….
Then I put it together, pulled a ribbon through the tunnel at the top, starched it and called it a day:
They could be wider but they work very well for the pet en l’air.
In retrospect, I would have been better off with the metric system… 2 yards of pink silk taffeta were just not enough but 2 metres would have been. I wonder if I am not going to end up agreeing with Janet Arnold’s take on the Francaise… that it is the easier type of gown to make. (If I ever make one of my own.) I guess the mass of fabric is bound to be unwieldy but the fit is much easier to handle. And having made this, I know where I can improve the fit – more shoulders/arms, less waist.
But this jacket also gave me some insight into the the scariest part of my planned Francaise – the self-trim. I didn’t actually need a lot of trim for this jacket… I forewent the trim at the bottom hem (even though this is pretty common with pet en l’airs (although there are quite a number without it) and the trim on the robings just went straight down. There is an exceptionally good reason for that although I didn’t document it well….
The robings had different widths on each side. I am not sure how I managed this – and how I failed to notice until fairly late into doing the stomacher actually. The stomacher had a few real life inspirations:
I was kind of floundering what to do with the stomacher trim, except that the stomacher’s purpose was to close the entire jacket through its middle with hooks and eyes. (I am not a fan of pinning a stomacher closed.) So I went through my copy of Fashion and spotted my fabric’s distant color cousin and was convinced that it would be perfect pattern-wise. I was working with my two-yard leftover yardage at this point (which was just assorted bits and bobs), so I didn’t have enough length with what I thought was the necessary full width. But then I found this:
And this is how I ended up with this compere stomacher with a false button closure.
are apparently historically correct.
Meanwhile my stays are bound on the bottom… front.
It was a so frustrating job that took a break and finished my silk organza petticoat which has enough volume to sustain the skirt volume of a Chemise a la Reine on its lonesome…. maybe. But it does make me wonder whether it might just eradicate the need for any sort of pad, bumroll. We will see. Maybe.
To be fair, starting at the bottom of a pair of stays is starting with the most difficult part. Although it didn’t feel that difficult, it just took so long. Patience is not my strongest suit.
I am wary of the skin care advice and products in the Toilet of Flora but the hair stuff seemed worth a try.
I started with the most difficult part which was the pomatum. I read up on it and the general opinion was that if you want firm pomatum, you need mutton fat.
As I was thinking about this, I ended up with a very nice rack of lamb – grass-fed, free-range, happy until the very end – which still had some fat on it. Not a lot (not even half a pound) but something. So I cleaned off every little bit off meat on it and then put it into fresh water which I regularly changed every 12 hours. (Once you drain the fat the first time, you’ll get why this is necessary.)
Hypothetically I should have done this also with pig’s lard but I had access to white, odorless, no-preservatives rendered pig’s lard. I did give this whole thing a try with a small amount of pork fat and the result was nice but in no way superior to what I could buy.
But I did learn a fun fact about lard – it takes to scent exceptionally well. It doesn’t keep but it recognizes and strengthens scents you wouldn’t pick up on under normal circumstances.
The most important thing about rendering fat is to use a bain-marie. Unless you want some fries with that. But every time you melt it, you need to keep on a constant low heat. A bain-marie is super-helpful and you can easily fake one by putting a smaller pot into a larger one.
Also interesting bit – a little mutton tallow goes a long way and it has to. My lamb didn’t taste like mutton but its fat, even though there was very little of it, smelled very much like mutton.
Anyway, I took my rendered fat, my lard, some clove oil (a little goes a looooong way with that smell too), bergamot and lavender oil into my baine-marie and melted it, poured it into my little pots and waited for it to harden. (This part took hours, even though the mix cooled very quickly.)
I didn’t take any pictures of the process – much of it was unexciting, some of it actually gross.
The hair powder was much easier.
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musings on the wonders and marvels of the long 18th century and beyond
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