The Robe à l'Anglaise

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, women all over Europe wore the mantua (which itself had originated in negligée dress).  This was a fairly unstructured dress made in a T-shape, with most of the fitting of the bodice and sleeves achieved with pleats.  The front of the stays would be covered with a pinned- or sewn-on stomacher, and the bodice would usually not close.


Fashion plate of the Comtesse de Mailly, probably by Nicolas Bonnart, 1698; location unknown



The mantua's skirt, which was generally cut in one with the bodice, would be tied back to reveal the intricate decoration on the petticoat (which was generally horizontal in this period - either broad woven stripes, or rows of applied lace or flounces).


Mantua and petticoat, ca. 1708; MMA 1991.6.1a, b

As the century progressed, the mantua became more fitted.  Seamstresses ("mantua-makers") sewed down the pleats on the back of the bodice, which was cut separately from the skirt on the sides and front, and created tighter sleeves, though the turned-up cuff was retained.  Though the shape of the stays under the bodice remained roughly the same, the skirt's shape was changed through the use of hooped petticoats.  During the 1720s and 1730s, a domed petticoat was preferred, with the gown often worn closed across the front.


Detail from The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox, William Hogarth, 1729; MMA 36.111

In the 1740s, hoops which stuck out far at the sides but created hardly any volume at the front and back became popular.  The skirts of the mantua usually did not fully cover the petticoat, often being pulled completely to the back.  This style was retained from then on as English court costume.

Detail of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Andrews, Thomas Gainsborough, ca. 1748; National Gallery NG 6301

The robe à la française (called a "sacque" in English) took over in style in the 1750s, and it was around this time that the mantua became known as the robe à l'anglaise in France, and the night gown in English (though it was often simply called a "gown").  The two styles co-existed during the 1760s, but the sack gown declined during the 1770s and fell out of favor as the French became enamored with English country styles.  When the anglaise returned to its position in fashion, it had slightly changed: while the back could still be pleated in one with the skirt ("en fourreau"), the fashionable version was more often made of separately-cut, fitted pieces.

 "Cette Figure est vêtue d'un Lévite taille à l'Anglaise ...", Galerie des Modes, 1781; MFA 44.1487

By the end of the 1770s, the front of the gown could be closed without a stomacher, and the sleeves were generally cut to fit around the elbow, or went to the wrist.  To achieve a more "country" look, handy for walking, the overskirt could be pulled up through the pockets ("retroussée dans les poches") or tied up with ribbons.  This style is commonly called "à la polonaise" today, but at the time it seems that this was understood to simply be another way of wearing the gown - there may not be a specific period term for it.






The Duchess of Devonshire and her Child, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1786; Chatsworth CTS336404

During the 1770s, full hooped petticoats were falling out of style.  By the end of it, women were mostly wearing small side or pocket hoops, or large bum or hip pads.  The general trend towards casualness that accompanied this also led to the introduction of the jacket as fashionable dress, and the creation of the chemise à la reine. This was the end of the English gown: the higher-waisted styles of the turn of the century owe much more to the negligée chemise gown than to the anglaise.

Comments

  1. I'm so disoriented with chronology in fashion terms about mantua gown and robe a la anglaise. When exactly "mantua" term gone out of useful (at least in daily garment mean), and when "english gown" started to be used? Is this the moment when the back of bodice was completely cut from skirt? Or maybe it was earlier when it was still connected with skirt by flatted folds like in mantua gown?

    Thank you in advance and best wishes

    Anna

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    1. I'm not entirely sure when "mantua" stopped being used ("mantua-maker" kept on as a term for a seamstress into the 19th century), but in English "gown" was used for the fitted gown all the way through the 18th century. In English, as far as I can tell, nobody referred to the anglaise as an English gown or a robe a l'anglaise; in French, I'm not quite sure when they started using the term, but I don't believe it was related to the waist seam. It probably started in the 1770s, when it began to come back into fashion, as a way to distinguish it from the robe a la française. So, yes, I think it was used at the very tail end of the period when the skirt and bodice were still connected.

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