How I Came to Love the Robe à la Française

Clothing for the new colonial family.
The whole family is dressed up. I am wearing one of the two gowns I still have. This is the first I ever made.

Maybe it’s because I was born in the 1970s, or that I was brought up in a house that didn’t follow the latest trends, or maybe growing up we just didn’t have money for designer duds, but whatever the case, I have never liked contemporary clothing. Let’s think about what the average person wore during the 1970s and 1980s. Not what was on TV or in the magazine, but what people actually wore. Do you blame me?

I didn’t watch much TV growing up but one show we did get to watch was “Little House on the Prairie.” That was my gateway into the wonderful world of historic costume. Unfortunately, you can’t buy Victorian togs at the local discount clothing emporium. So I was doomed to wear whatever was fashionable for the girl of the time.

In junior high school, two pivitol things happened:

  1. I saw the movie Dangerous Liaisons.
  2. I went on a family vacation to Williamsburg, Virginia.

And the rest was history, as they say. I have been in love with the clothing and the architecture of the 18th Century ever since. I wanted those gowns and I wanted to live in Williamsburg 24/7; as close as you could get to going back in time, without having to do without nice modern things like plumbing, feminine products, and dental hygiene. Again, since I couldn’t pick up a gown at the local department store I had to wait.

For one thing, I had to learn how to sew which takes practice. Once accomplished, it would take a few years more until the rest of the pieces fell into place.

First Victorian, Then Sacque Success!

When I was in college I took a fashion history class, partially for credit, partially for fun. During the class, I met a civil war reenactor who told me about the historic pattern and supplies companies she used. I ordered a catalogue and made myself a fully accurate Victorian day dress. Finally, I could wear something I felt was more me than anything else in my closet. I would have made an entire wardrobe but I discovered that hoop skirts aren’t practical on public busses. Besides, Victorian wasn’t really what I wanted.

I returned to look through the catalogs time and time again. All 18th Century patterns seemed to feature the English back, which is sewn down. Eventually, I noticed that one very small drawing of an 18th Century pattern seemed to have an open back. I called the company and confirmed that it was indeed the open-backed, robe à la française that I had wanted for so many years!

When I was constructing my first gown, I got stuck at one point. To finish, I needed to examine actual period gowns. So, I made an appointment for myself at the Met costume institute and voila! They were kind enough to show me several examples.

And so began my very long and productful relationship with 18th Century attire. To date, I’ve made six robe à la française, or sacque gowns, and several corsets. When we moved to Philly, I lost of bit of closet space so I’m down to two. They’re getting worn so I hope to make a new gown in 2014.

It’s important to note that before the internet there wasn’t any community or resources available. Now, you can search on YouTube and get a variety of tutorials. I’m even Facebook friends with the lovely mantua-makers at Williamsburg who make sacque gowns too.


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