I am writing this Blog because along with the fun title comes another 'F' - fragile! The dress I am about to show you is rare, dating to c1760-65 in my opinion [I justify this below], and as you would expect for such age, has faults related to delicacy & has been 'reinforced' by a less that expert seamstress. These stitches to support it can certainly be improved upon if you are competent with hand stitching, as all the current renovation is in large tacking stitch - easy to remove. But better to leave it alone unless you are sure you can do a more skilled job, because she still presents exceptionally well, and I have examined 18th Century gowns in far worse condition.
This is the most fancy 18th Century dress I have examined, and one of the earliest. I had to have it! Apart from the reinforcement work, it is also completely original. WOW!
Important to read this blog though, if you are interested in buying it, because the faults cannot all be shown on the sale page in the Department Store.
A brief description of the dress:
A Rococo period Robe a la Francaise, of [probably Lyons] French silk brocade, dating to c1760, in English terms marking the end of the reign of George II & the start of George III.
I think that the single rose buds may be hand embroidered - take a look:
With sack back pleating that falls freely from centre back neck to the floor.
The robings that begin quite narrow around the neck and down the centre front to short front waist seams, thus marking the point where a matching stomacher would end and petticoat would begin. The robings then continue from waist to floor and becoming far wider, edged in fly fringing and with diagonal pattern furbelows to the centre, creating a 3-D effect.
The sleeves are elbow length and gently pleated at the shoulder, leading narrowly down to three layered fall cuffs of graduating size, topped with a band to match the robings and finished with bows, all trimmed with fly fringe to match.
At the side waists, the dress is heavily pleated to create width for medium sized panniers to be worn below. A single tie remains [very exciting] which shows how these heavily pleated area's of fabric would have been attached to the pannier foundation garment. Within the side seams of the fabric and hidden within the pannier pleats, we find a pocket slit to each side.
Although the sack back gown gave the appearance of reasonable comfort, the lady would be tightly bound underneath it with boned stays to force her upper trunk upright, and the panniers [one to each side by this date] to make it extremely difficult to sit down!
Lets begin with a glossary of terms, for the students amongst us, using our gown to explain:
* Bouillonne - Used by the Kyoto Institute to describe Furbelows [see below]. Very difficult for me to find an exact description, Bouillonne seems to be a more general & French term for a fabric decoration that has been stuffed with cotton or wool.
* Fly Fringe - A fancy 18th Century braid, usually using fine silk cords with silk floss knotted & wrapped around it. Here it is!
* Floss [silk] - Floss is natural silk before it has been twisted into a yarn. It can be dyed into many colours and has a fluffy appearance with a glossy finish. The photo shows the floss dyed in creams pinks & sage green.
* Furbelows - [See also Bouillonne above]. Furbelow is the English term for fabric wadded [stuffed] decorations, that create a 3-D effect. Very similar to the 17th Century term of Stumpwork, which had exactly the same visual effect. Furbelow decoration was used widely in the costume of the Court in the early and mid 18th Century, and graduated in a simplified form to the early 19th Century Regency period for padding cuff and hemline decorations, The wadding was usually lambswool and could also be cotton [kapok], both being very lightweight. Here, the wadding can be seen if we look below each furbelow - I love these tiny details!
* Fall cuffs & Flounces - You will find that 18th Century sleeves could be called either and professionals use both terms for the same style. They describe the finish to the end of a sleeve, cut on the bias and usually with a wavy edge, to give a full flounce appearance. On this dress we have 3 layers of flounce, each one gradually larger, so that when placed on top of each other, each layer is on view.
Although you will see this type of sleeve decoration called 'ruffles' & 'engageantes', both of these describe an accessory made usually of Dresden decorated linen or lace, which are placed in addition to the Fall Cuffs! These are made individually and tacked in place to the dress sleeves, so that they could be regularly removed for washing. Fall cuffs and Flounces were cut to only cover the back of the arm in these early years, whilst later in the Century they were wider and covered the whole circumference of the elbow. In our dress, here, you see the delightful upper band with a bow, followed by the three layered fall cuffs:
* Panniers - Used for quite a long period of time throughout the 18th Century, panniers were all of one piece in the early years and most ungainly! Worn only as undergarments, they were most unattractive and made sturdy by the use of cane or whalebone.. The aim of a pannier was to create width to a female form, whilst keeping her stomach and rear figure flatter. By the 1740-50's period, panniers were quite ridiculous in width and made great fun of by menfolk [although they were made entirely by man!] By the 1760 period of our dress, panniers were now two joined parts, one for each side, and had reduced considerably in size. By around this time, they were only used in Court, where they were insisted upon. A gown made for panniers had to be constructed so that the fabric of the gown pleated and gracefully fell over each pannier. So, if you examine an 18th Century dress, you know that if there are no side pleats, it cannot be a pannier style.
*Petticoat - our dress here could not be worn without a petticoat because it is completely open down the front! A petticoat is not an undergarment in the 18th Century. Rather, it is usually a beautifully decorated, sometimes matching and sometimes contrasting skirt, of which only the front section will be viewed as it sits underneath the open robings of the gown.
* Pocket slits - This dress has cleverly hidden pocket slits at each side of the skirt. Female dress of the 18th Century did not have pockets at all. Instead, a single or pair of pockets were attached to a linen tie and fastened around the waist, underneath the petticoat and the dress. Pocket slits were then made in the dress and usually also the petticoat, so that the lady could discreetly slip her hand through and delve into her pocket, without prying eyes looking on!
* Polychrome - In fashion terms, this simply refers to multi coloured dyes being used in the decoration. Here, the silk floss of the fly fringe is polychrome.
* Robe a la Francaise - A gown that originated in France in the 18th Century, with an open front and deep pleating through the centre back. Also called a Sack Back & Sacque. Worn through many decades of the 18th Century and considered formal attire, often worn at Court, but one needs to look carefully for key fashion changes to detail in order to date it. As with this one! Two double box pleats sit side by side at the centre back of the gown:
* Robings - The band of trim that goes all around the edges of the front and neckline of a Robe a la Francaise. Often profusely trimmed with lace, furbelows, bows & fly fringe in the earlier decades.
*Rococo - A Continental European style of design that encompassed architecture, art, furnishings and fashion. Recognised for its extravagance. The height of the style lasted from circa 1720 to 1760, when it began to fade in the tastes of the wealthy. Our gown comes at the end of the Rococo period and the decoration is a lovely example of Rococo fashion.
* Ruching - A needlework decoration, usually to a panel of fabric, where two rows of gathering stitches are applied to each side, then pulled up to create loose gathers. Unlike most gathering we recognise, ruching creates a loose and soft combination of gathered pleats. It is still in use today. here is the narrow ruching on the robings:
* Ruffles - See above. Sleeve ruffles in 18th Century dress were single to multi layered accessories made from fine linen & decorated with Dresden work embroidery. They were also often made of lace. They were sewn to the main sleeve cuffs of a gown in such a way that they could be removed for regular washing. A lady would have many pairs of ruffles and could therefore choose her favourites. Ruffles were also called engageantes, the French term. Often called flounces today, this is not actually correct -see Fall Cuffs above.
* Sack back [English] or Sacque [French] - Alternative names for a robe a la francaise [see above]
* Stomacher - a highly decorated accessory worn with the robe a la francaise, to cover the front of the lady from centre breast to waist. Made in a softly triangular shape and essential wear up to around the 1770's when a closed front gown became far more fashionable. Sometimes the stomacher matched the gown, sometimes co-ordinated with several of the lady's gowns, they often had side tabs to fasten the stomacher to the stays with pins. The robe a la francaise developed in the 1770's to incorporate a built in stomacher, with centre front buttons to open and close. These were not removed from the gown and were integral to it.
* Ties - seems obvious, but ties were absolutely essential inside these gowns, including at the widely pleated side waists, to hold the dress fabric onto the pannier undergarment. I mention this because our gown has an original tie surviving! So exciting! Here it is!
* Watteau pleats - The sack back pleating of the robe a la Francaise is often referred to as Watteau pleating, not because the famous painter Watteau designed the gown style, but because of his paintings, some of which show women wearing this style. However, given the he was born in the late 17th Century and died at an early age in the 1720's, he wouldn't have experienced much of Rococo fashion or sack back clothing. I have been able to confirm that Watteau pleating is a term adopted in the 19th Century and was not used at all in the 18th! But it's still a romantic term so
Please note that these descriptors are mine and copyright. Your own research will confirm them or not! Thank you for reading!
Detailed condition report
This delightful Robe a la Francaise requires ironing, as you can see - not my strength, so I leave it to the buyer. It is also generally darkened with age, but has surprisingly few area's of staining apart from described below.
The vast amount of the silk brocade is without any splitting, except for the parts I will show you below. This is extraordinary, given the strain on it from the heavy area's of pleating and sheer weight. Given that it is around 260 years old, it can be handled with care and the large tacking stitches to reinforce weak area's explained below, can be greatly improved upon by a competent seamstress.
Note that the brocade design is beautifully matched throughout:
I have examined many 18th Century pieces where the design does not match. This is when the fabric has been re-used from an earlier garment. Not so here, this dress is original to the fabric.
So, if we start with the lining, made of linen, and at this date only ever applied to the bodice and sleeves [never to the skirt]. Although darkened, the lining is all good, with no damage or staining. It has a raw edge at the back of the dress, which can easily be hemmed if you prefer. This edge should not be stitched to the silk because the pleats are meant to hang loose so this is all correct.
At one side of the lining we see orange tacking stitches, but the seam of the dress silk is completely original and correct.
No issues with the lining at all!
The sleeves & fall cuffs:
Each sleeve is slightly gathered to the tops, narrow to the elbow, and then has a decorative band with beautiful bow, leading to the fall cuffs of three graduating layers. All these decorative features are edged in fly fringe. The fly fringe is slightly flattened with storage, but is really fresh and in excellent condition, as are the bows.
The tops of the sleeves have a tiny amount of splitting of no consequence.
One of the three layer fall cuffs has a few splits in the fabric to the largest layer, then a smaller amount to the top layer. The other cuff has just a little splitting. Here is the worst:
The sleeve underarm area's fare less well. Let me do one at a time.
The first underarm is darkened but not in an obvious way. There are a few splits. The previous owner placed tacking stitches over a large area around the site, maybe to prevent further splitting? There is minor wear/loss but no patching. The tacking stitches can be significantly improved by removal and replacement. It is a good idea to reinforce the area, but in a less obvious manner!
See right image:
The second underarm area is the most fragile area of the gown, but can still be vastly improved with subtle sewing. Here, the last owner has applied patches, both to the underarm and to each side of the underarm. I should tell you that she used matching fabric! I did not get any matching fabric with the gown, so she must have kept it. However, it is very good that she had some for the repairs! Unfortunately, she applied it with raw edges which are very untidy. These need to be removed and re-applied after being turned under. The area of repair is quite wide and the dress fabric below does appear quite split, but impossible to tell while the patches are in situ. Our good news is that the whole of these areas are underpinned with the linen lining, which will support them from getting worse. Here is an image:
The bodice robings are narrow, ruched, and edged in fly fringe. They end at the waist where they end in diagonal shapes, which would match the point of the stomacher worn with the dress. At the back neck, the huge weight of the sack back pleating has caused minor splitting of little consequence, as it is all contained within the fly fringe border:
The sack back pleating
This is such an important area of this dress, as it has dated it for us! Please see the main sale description & references.
Two double box pleats sit side by side at the centre back, not stitched down at all and flowing down the full length of the dress. A huge weight and in fantastic condition! Each lower pleat measures 3" wide, the top pleats being 2" wide. Peek between the pleated layers to find the original colours of the silk -amazing!
To one side, and an extension of the damaged underarm, we find a small area of tacking and a little patch.
See right image:
Front opening of skirt & furbelows :
The furbelows are in excellent condition apart from at the lower skirt where there is a little colour run to the silk brocade. Please see condition of hem area. The fly fringe can be teased out a little to help it stand out again but all in very good condition also. There are a short line of minor holes on one side of the skirt opening, not far from the furbelows, which appear to be insect damage. They have not be caused by age wear. I hope you can see them here:
But when the skirt is viewed overall, we can see that they are not too noticeable:
The lower skirt, hemline & stains
Around the hemline all around, is dusty and the darkest area of the silk. The Georgian lady must have walked in some less than polished floors! I think she also wore her shoes when dressing as I have found some minor boot leather marks! Nevertheless, the silk is still without any major splits until we come to the original actual stitched hem.
The fold of the hem at floor level is almost all split, even though the stitching remains in place. In addition, around 4" horizontally of the hem is split also. The obvious solution to this is to completely re-hem the garment, folding it up a little higher. Never use a machine on 18th Century clothing! A simple running stitch by hand will do. The skirt of the hem from the waist is classic according to Bradfield at 35" and the full centre back from neck to hem is 59", so it will not matter at all if a little is taken from the length.
One section of lower skirt is far lighter than the rest, and I think the previous owner tested it for washing. I would NEVER wash 18th Century silk, but in days gone by, lots of people did. Although the silk is undamaged by the cleaning, the brocade floral colours have run a little on a lower furbelow and the lower skirt so she obviously decided not to wash the whole gown, thank goodness! The colour run is minor and not a problem in the overall appearance in my opinion. In the image below, you can see that it is just a vague blueness.
We are very lucky in terms of staining. Yes, there are a couple of dark stains approximately 2" wide, but these are not in obvious area's and can be hidden. There are other stains to an area of the skirt, and these cover a larger area, but again, these stains have no colour - they appear to be grease spots and an only be seen in certain light, being clear.
And finally - the Panniers!
Please note that the pannier undergarment I have used to display this dress is my own and not included in the sale, but reproductions can be purchased very reasonably on Ebay. Mine measures approximately 26" in width, which is a perfect width for the dress pleats.
The fabric at each side of the gown is heavily pleated to form these panniers and the weight of the deep pleating is considerable. So it is amazing the the fabric all appears to be fine. However, the amateur tacking stitches are here again, this time to hold the group of pleats together at each side waist. Although the tacking is ugly, it can easily be made far neater and this is not a problem. Also, while the pleats are in exactly the correct position on one side, they are a little untidy on the other, so you will need to use the good side as a template for how the other side should look. It is here on the untidy side that we find the one remaining internal pannier tie, but we can see how roughly our amateur worked because she has caught the tie with a stitch on the exterior of the gown! Unpick the tacking and slip the linen tie back inside please!
See the tie in on the exterior?
Finally, there is a small, matching fabric patch at the side waist of one pannier, as shown here:
Quite neatly done and quite subtle
So there we are, a most detailed dress, with faults but presenting so wonderfully, and I will complete the sales page next and she will be offered for a good home please.
Note that I have gone to major lengths to describe all faults I have found, so please do ask if anything is unclear.
Traders please note also - I will not refund traders unless I have missed something out in this condition report that is substantial. I love her and do not want her travelling around the World any more than is necessary!