1775 French Rococo Robe a la Polonaise - Historical Garment, Janet Arnold

Debut: Balticon 2014

Cost of materials: $30

I have had this gorgeous yellow and white striped with pink flowers decorator fabric for several years, but hadn't really had any inspiration to use it. A little while ago, I was watching "Marie Antoinette" by Sofia Coppola and went on a whole French Rococo kick - I watched "Brotherhood of the Wolf," "The Duchess," "Farewell, My Queen," "Perfume," "Dangerous Liaisons," "The Affair of the Necklace," "A Royal Affair," and a few other great movies to get an idea of what I wanted to make.

I also looked through Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion 1 and Norah Waugh's The Cut of Women's Clothes and did lots of research online on historical costume makers and their methods for making period garments. I decided on the Polonaise - not the zone front gown, but essentially the Robe Anglaise with center front bodice closure and gathered back skirt (or worn "retrousse dans les pouches" - pulled through the pockets). This required a few things to be made beforehand: the underclothes, the stays/corset, the false rump or bum roll, and the petticoats. I also mostly machine sewed this outfit, mainly in the interest of time and sanity; I simply do not have enough time to hand sew a dress like this, but I do appreciate all the work that goes into the making nonetheless.

I used Norah Waugh's Corsets and Crinolines for the corset pattern, and I was lucky enough that I didn't have to resize the pattern at all - it fit perfectly as is! I used a pretty butter yellow cotton sateen with ice blue trim and stitching and pale blue linen for the lining. I used hammered grommets instead of hand sewn ones in favor of time. I also used 1/4 inch cable ties to simulate the thin boning required for the pattern and they worked out really well! The chemise and tie-on pockets were made using Simplicity 3635. The pockets are white cotton sateen with eggplant taffeta trim and the chemise is fine cotton muslin. I made 2 bum rolls - one is a small crescent shaped roll and the other is a much larger sectional roll for a more extreme shape. Both were made using cotton muslin and stuffing.

For the petticoats, I made a first petti from cotton muslin and a second petti from linen. Each petticoat is just a large rectangle of fabric with a pleated waist - the front of the petticoat has a flat center box pleat and radiates outward to the waist, the back has a center inverted box pleat and radiates inward from the waist. The waist is then sewn and covered with a waistband facing and has waist ties or tapes sewn to the pocket edges. The linen petticoat has a slight train in the back to accommodate for the bum roll - the bum roll takes up a bit more space and the longer back means the hemline will be fairly straight when worn together. The dress petticoat is a beautiful coral pink satin that I acquired from G Street Fabrics on clearance. I literally had JUST enough to make the skirt and have some left over for trimming. The trimming was cut with pinking shears into long strips and sewn together, then gathered and stitched onto the skirt front. Each petticoat has 10 inch slits at the sides of the waist to accommodate for pockets, and the waists are tied at the sides with ribbon tapes.

I began the dress by scaling the pattern from the book onto 1 inch grid paper to obtain the correct size (the images in the book are at 1/8th scale size). After transferring the patterns onto the grid paper, I cut them out and patterned the bodice and sleeves out of linen for the lining. I sewed up the lining and applied the boning as described in the patterns (at the back center, side back, side, and middle front seams). I left the shoulder seams unsewn for fitting purposes and just pinned those together. I tried the lining shell on over the corset and miraculously everything fit perfectly again! I only took in the top of center back about a 1/2 inch to fit more closely. After that success, I carefully patterned out my decorator fabric so that the center back would line up to have one of the central flower motifs in tact and not skewed. I also patterned the bodice fronts and the sleeves and sleeve flounces to match as well. Each bodice piece is sewn directly to the lining individually, a per historical methods. The edges are tucked under about 1/4 to 1/2 inch and edge stitched down onto the lining. This takes the strain off of the fashion fabric and transfers it onto the lining so the fashion fabric isn't ruined in any way and can be replaced with little trouble.

After sewing all the bodice pieces together and sewing up the sleeves and applying them to the armscye, I stitched the top hems under and applied two gathering laces starting at the shoulder seams and running along the top hem to the center front in a small channel - this allows for better fitting when the laces are tied together. The center front of the bodice was then fitted and the turned hems stitched so the bodice could be closed in front with hooks and eyes. Boning channels were also stitched at the center front seams and boning inserted to provide a stable front seam. Once that was done, I then turned under the bottom hem and stitched it until the point where the overskirt would attach onto the bodice. The bodice was nearly complete! I still needed some trimming, though, so I used pinking shears again to cut out strips of decorator fabric and sewed the ends together to make a very long strip, then gathered it along the center. After gathering, I carefully stitched the trim onto the bodice along the hem edges, from the skirt edge and up the center front and around the neckline and back again. Hooks and eyes were stitched onto the center front edge for closure and are hidden by the gathered trimming.

The sleeve flounces took a little bit of doing. Since the decorator fabric is a woven cotton, the edges aren't nice and neat when cut - they are very stringy. This prevented me from having a pinked edge on the sleeves. Instead I decided to trim the flounce edges, as seen in many extant (existing) gowns from the period. I wanted something pretty but had very limited options since I was trying to be frugal with the outfit and didn't want to spend a lot of money buying silk flower trims or such. I opted for some very pretty and fuzzy yarn in a variegated pink and white color. I felt it lent itself enough to being believable and didn't detract from the overall effect of the outfit. So I turned the flounce edges wrong side up about 1/8 inch and stitched them down, then hand sewed the yarn trim to the edges - I did it that way so the underside of the flounces would look nice and the trim would hide the hems completely. After the trim was applied and the top hems were sewn under as well, I gathered each of the two layers of flounces and sewed them onto the bottom edge of the sleeves - this way, I can remove them easily if needed or apply a different sleeve treatment such as cuffs for a new effect.

Nearing the end, finally! The overskirt came last, because it was the largest part of the outfit. I cut several matching panels out of my decorator fabric according to the pattern and adjusted the length for my height. There are two front side panels and two back panels. The back panels have a false seam to accommodate the pattern requirement and the dwindling amount of fabric I had left - the seam is only a 1/4 inch tuck to simulate a seam. The side seams feature a 10 inch pocket slit in line with the petticoats underneath. The front long edge has a separate piece of fabric sewn on as a hem facing, about 2.5 inches wide. The entire skirt waist was pleated according to pattern, but I had to throw in a few more pleats to make the whole thing fit. The center back edge is sloped to fit the long point of the bodice back. After pleating the waist, I left the pins in place and sewed the edges to prevent movement. Then I needed to apply more trimming! I cut several more lengths of fabric with pinking shears and sewed them all together to make two very long strips about 1.5 inches wide. I cut another two tapered lengths of fabric that grade from 1.5 inches to 3.5 inches wide. All of these strips were gathered and then pinned to the skirt front panels. I switched the trimming designs from the pattern and used the tapered strips along the front straight edge, and then pinned the other strips in a snaked design onto the skirt panel (the pattern showed the reverse and the trimming was box pleated instead of gathered - I am not a fan of box pleats). Once pinned, I sewed all the trimming down with my sewing machine and then sewed the skirt onto the bodice hem. After the two were sewn together and all the pins removed, I tried the dress on over my bum roll and three petticoats and then made sure that the bottom hem of the skirt I had drawn out was at an appropriate length - it was! So I sewed up the bottom hem and it was technically finished!

I say technically finished because I still needed to sew on the loops and tapes inside the skirt to allow for drawing it up in the polonaise style. I sewed on two lengths of ribbon at the side back seam of the bodice at the waistline - 44 inches folded in half to make two 22 inch ties at each spot. I then used 4 small lengths of cord (about 4 inches each) and folded each into a loop. The loops were sewn onto the inside of the overskirt at 18 inches and 28 inches from the waist at the side seams of the skirt. This is so I can tie up the overskirt at different points to get several different draping effects. And after that, I really was finished with the dress!

I still needed a few odds and ends to bring the outfit together, namely a hat, shoes, and some jewelry. You can't make a French Rococo walking dress without a hat and some jewelry! I purchased some second-hand wide brim straw hats from EBay - one pink, one green, and one plain. However they had high crowns and weren't very "period accurate," so I started cutting the crowns out and picked out the stitching, then hand sewed the crowns again to make three different sizes: smaller rounded crown for the pink, smaller flat crown for the plain, and almost non-existent crown for the green. I liked the look of the pink for this particular outfit, but the color was all wrong. It was very bright and almost hot pink. I used some Buttercream Yellow Floral Spray and sprayed the entire outside and the inside brim of the hat twice to give it subdued pastel color, which ended up matching the fabric very nicely! To help cover up the crown seam, I used some pale green taffeta and pinked the edges, then pleated it and glued it down onto the crown seam. After that, I took some white silk leftovers and made little puffs tied with green ribbon and sewed that to the crown seam to hide the taffeta trim edges. It still wasn't quite right, so I pulled the brim up and sewed the edge to the crown to get a nice curled lip, then made a bow of the white silk and sewed that on, too. It looked much better! I finished it off with some paper roses that I spray pink and then glued those into the brim curl. I'm very happy with how it turned out!

I scoured EBay for some shoes that I would be able to use and look fairly convincing as period correct. Thankfully, by the 1770s the shoes were becoming frilly and fanciful and took on a mule slipper look without need of a closed heel. This helped immensely, and I ended up finding a pair of cream mule slippers with a curved heel and multi-color woven boucle fabric with a leather bow. They matched the dress very well - what a find! The shoes were paired with white stockings that I already owned. I wanted to go simple on the jewelry (I'm a fan of less is more) and used some rhinestone and pearl drop earrings that I purchased on clearance from the craft store - they worked perfectly!

I had a great time getting photos for this costume at a neat early-nineteenth century building near my house - it even had a courtyard with arches and a gazebo near a pond with a fountain! This outfit has pretty much cemented my love of Rococo fashion and my desire to make more.

Picture Credits: David Dunn


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