The Many Types of 18th Century Gowns

I realized today with the 18th century gowns I have made I have only scratched the surface of how many different types there were. It’s easy to fall into the idea that it was all Robe a la Francaise, Robe a l’Anglaise, Robe a la Polonaise, rinse/repeat; but there are really many more than just those, and then all kinds of mooshed up variations too!  So I have compiled a rough list of gown types.  I will not define these specifically (though I am sure they do have very specific definitions).  Ready?

Robe a la Francaise or Sacque or Sack Gown – an iconic gown of the entire 18th century, the Robe a la Francaise, or Sacque, features a pleated back.  The Robe a la Francaise was commonly worn over side hoops, and as the century progressed, remained the style of choice for formal occasions. Learn about Madame de Pompadour’s sacque gown here and see how these gowns were put on in this cool “Dressing 18th Century Video”.

The Met – Sacque or Robe a la Francaise – 1750-55

Robe Retroussee Dans les Poches – This style of gown entails pulling the skirt fabric up through the pocket slits, creating a poofy, elevated skirt.  The example from the Kyoto Costume Institute shows a Robe a la Francaise worn this way, but a Robe a l’Anglaise can also be worn retroussee dans les poches.

KCI – Robe retroussee dans les poches, 1780

The English Gown (English) or Robe a l’Anglaise (French) – Extremely common in the first three quarters of the 18th century, this style features a tight, fitted back, rather than the draped pleats of the Francaise.  The English gown typically closed over a stomacher with the pins hidden beneath double, single, or mock robings. The pleated-back style falls out of fashion in the 1770s.

The Met – English gown or Robe a l’Anglaise – 1770-75

The Italian Gown (English) or Robe a l’Anglaise (French) – Beginning in the 1770s, a new style of fitted-back gown replaced the English gown. The Italian gown closed at the center front and featured a seamed back in either four pieces or two, with a waist seam, replacing the earlier pleated back. There are several variants of the Italian gown – the “zone” front or cutaway front (below), a chemise front, various sleeve lengths including long sleeves, trimmed, untrimmed, etc. The defining factor is the back seams.

The Met – Robe a l’Anglaise with a “zone front” – 1785-87

**Yes, both gowns above are called “Robe a l’Anglaise” in French. The term is not incorrect, but it’s important to distinguish between the two styles of gown. While the English Gown and Italian gown are contemporary for a very short time, one does pre-date the other and the construction techniques differ.

Robe a l’Anglaise Retroussée– This styling refers to a fitted-back gown worn with the skirts gathered up.  Any Italian Gown can be worn this way, with various systems of suspending the skirts; it is uncommon to see the skirts draw up this way on earlier English Gowns.  A Robe a l’Anglaise worn retroussée, however, differs from a Robe a la Polonaise. More information about this here and a video showing all the layers of this gown and how they were worn.

The Met, Robe a l’Anglaise worn Retroussee, 1780-85

Robe a la Polonaise – This popular style was possibly named for the division of Poland into three parts in 1772, symbolized by the three portions of the skirt, when drawn up.  The Robe a la Polonaise also features a cutaway bodice styled like a man’s frock coat, and worn over a gilet, or vest.  The bodice hangs loosely front the center front.  Polonaise gowns could have long or short skirts, and be worn over long or short petticoats that most commonly matched the gown fabric.  The Robe a la Polonaise was in fashion in the 1770s and early 1780s.

The Met, Robe a la Polonaise, 1787 – click for more views of the front.

Robe Volante or Robe Battante – This type of gown is from very early in the 18th c and is a precursor to the Sacque. The Robe Volante, or Battante, was a large, seemingly loose-fitting, draped gown, similar to the Robe a la Francaise, but less structured.  The back features loose pleats, as does the front.  Volantes were closed in front, but often have stomachers peeking out, and were worn over a pannier.

The Met – Robe Volante – 1730s. Click through for more views.

Robe en Chemise or Chemise a la Reine – The scandalous fashion of the 1780s was the Robe en Chemise, a gown inspired by the underwear of the lower classes.  Robes en Chemise feature gathered bodices, sometimes cut in one with the skirt.  There are various stylings – some have fitted backs, while others have gathered backs; some have full billowing sleeves, while others have long, tight sleeves.  Chemise gowns were made of lightweight fabrics in any color, not just white. There’s a fantastic chapter all about this style of gown, and why Marie Antoinette caused such a scandal when she wore it, in “Fashion Victims” by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell.

Lady Lemon, 1788, George Romney

Robe a la Turque – The Robe a la Turque was inspired by what it sounds like – an interest in Middle Eastern fashions.  Popular in the 1780s and into the 90s, the Turque is very similar to the Polonaise, with the back and skirt cut in one.  Its distinguishing features appear to be short sleeves worn over longer under-sleeves, a collar at the neckline, and a sash at the waist, though examples exist showing variation – no sash at the waist, and no short sleeves.  This makes me think that perhaps the style was as much about the chosen fabrics, colors, and accessories, as it was about the specific cut of the gown.  Cassidy, of A Most Beguiling Accomplishment, goes in to more details and theories about the turque in her excellent article here.

Three views of the Robe a la Turque from Galerie des Modes

Redingote – The Redingote, named for “Riding Coat,” was inspired by men’s fashion, and included collars, button fronts or cutaway fronts worn over gilets, long sleeves, and often military inspiration. Unlike earlier riding habits, Redingote skirts extend to the ground and do not include pockets.

Via Dames a la Mode, Magasin des Modes, 1787

Levite – The Levite was a style of casual dress with an exotic flavor, similar to the Turque.  This type of gown was often loose-fitting with long-sleeved, and the bodice closing in front, but sometimes left open like a robe.  The characteristic accessory of the Levite is the sash tied around the waist.  Levites were popular in the 1770s and 80s.

Dames a la Mode, Gallerie des Modes, 1780

Robe de Cour – The Robe de Cour simply means “Court Dress.”  It was the most formal gown worn, and is conservative in fashion.  Robes de Cour in the 1770s were large trained gowns worn with grand panier, with tightly fitted, rigid bodices closing in back.  By the 1790s, not much had changed – Robe de Cour were still worn with pannier and a long train, even when the fashion of the day was for slim, classical-inspired looks.

Marie Antoinette, by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1778-1789
Dames a la Mode, July 1798

Round Gown – The round gown was a fitted-back gown with the the skirt and petticoat sewn as one – it is not an open robe. Round gowns exist throughout the century but become extremely common from the 1770s through the 1790s.

The Met, 1775 – click through and zoom in to see how the skirt is one piece with a drop front.

This list is by no means complete, and my descriptions are not at all in-depth.  There are yet even *more* styles of gown – Habit de Sultane, Circassiennes, variations on themes – and I did not include any short gown or jackets.  Hopefully, though, this will give a brief idea of the variety to be seen in just a few decades of the 18th century.  It certainly inspires me to make some of these more obscure or specific styles, rather than my typical Robe a l’Anglaise etc. etc. etc.

So with so many styles to choose from, which is your favorite?


    • Lauren Stowell

      March 16, 2013 at 12:43 AM

      It does indeed! From what I've read about them, they were still tightly fitted under all that drapery, but I wonder…I mean, how would anybody know? hehe

    • Rowenna

      March 18, 2013 at 2:02 PM

      I wonder if they were fitted to provide support? As in, no fitting would be kinda like going braless today, and that's not (physically) comfortable for a lot of people? Or perhaps my modern notions of comfort are intruding!

  • Serendipity Handmade + Vintage

    March 15, 2013 at 8:51 PM

    The 18th century is one of my two favorite time periods for historical costume: the Robe a la Francaise wins hands down for me. And that makes me partial to Watteau trains on vintage wedding gowns.

    Great post!

  • Agnes

    March 15, 2013 at 8:53 PM

    As icicle declares above there is also the option of a jacket with petticoat as in the Pierrot jacket, the Caracao jacket, etc. Really many choices in the 18th Century and they are all wonderful in their own ways.

  • Lady Monroe

    March 16, 2013 at 12:12 AM

    Could a Robe de Cour have the back pleats of a Robe a la Francaise? Are they two different dresses entirely or a is the Court Dress just a category of dress while the Sacque Back is simply a style that can be applied to any dress?

    • Lauren Stowell

      March 16, 2013 at 12:41 AM

      From what I've read, the Robe de Cour had a specific kind of bodice. Marie Antoinette was known to reject the rigidity of it and refused to wear it. The train came off the back, like a mantua, rather than from the shoulders like a Francaise, but as the Robe de Cour evolves through the 19th century, it takes on different shapes with train extending from both the waist and the shoulders.

      Here's a view of the back of a particular wowza robe de cour:

      If anyone knows more about Robe de Cour specifically, please chime in!

    • Fanny Temps d'élégance

      March 16, 2013 at 11:36 AM

      In fact the terms you use are not the good terms : what you call "robe de cour" is a "grand habit". A "robe de cour" is any kind of dress that can be worn at court : "grand habit", later "robe à la française", and later "robe à l'anglaise".

  • NileQT87

    March 16, 2013 at 12:51 AM

    Interestingly, there appears to have been something similar to the robe de cour that seems to show up in Germany where the puffy sleeves are copied, but it's not worn by royalty. Because of its location, it's been dubbed the "robe à l'allemande" online, though that might not be its real name.

    There's also a royal Russian variant that appears to be copying Russian peasant costumes with the vest and waist sash.

    • Fanny Temps d'élégance

      March 16, 2013 at 11:41 AM

      In fact, the "grand habit" (see my answer at the previous comment about the wrong term) appears at the french court of Louis XIV at the end of 17th century and became a very fashionnable court dress (="une robe de cour") in all the european courts. And it was still wore a long time after the french revolution everywhere else (I've heard of "grand habit" in england at the end of th 19th century o_O).

  • Élisabeth

    March 16, 2013 at 10:07 AM

    Just a little more informations:
    I read that in the 18th century, they spoke about "robe redingote" or "demi redingote". The demi redingote has an open front skirt, like in your picture, and the redingote has a closed front skirt.
    La robe the court was just known as "Grand habit (de cour)".
    My favorite remains the robe à l'anglaise! 🙂

  • Vincent Briggs

    March 16, 2013 at 3:40 PM

    I think the redingote is my favorite, I love riding habits of any era.
    The robe a la turque, robe a la polonaise, robe a'anglaise, robe a l'anglaise a la polonaise, zone front robe a l'anglaise, round gown, robe retroussee dans le poches, and the levite are all fabulous too.
    I don't much like the robe volante. It just looks too baggy to be formal. I've always thought that the brown one from the KCI looks like a paper bag. Why would they wear stays under those?

  • Time Traveling in Costume

    March 16, 2013 at 3:51 PM

    The caraco is my current favorite. I'm not sure if it fits in this catagory but I like interchanging the "jackets" with different petticoats.

  • AuntieNan

    March 16, 2013 at 5:15 PM

    I love the round gown, and never understood the name before !! Thanks!! But my fave has to be the L'Anglaise. So flattering to do many figures. Wish I was clothing the 18th C this summer!!
    Auntie Nan

  • Rowenna

    March 18, 2013 at 2:05 PM

    Robes a l'Anglaises, particularly the later "quarter back" styles, are my favorites. Simple yet beautiful–late 18th century aesthetics boiled down to one gorgeous garment.

    But I kinda love them all.

  • Caroline

    March 18, 2013 at 7:31 PM

    Very timely post. I had a discussion with one of my fellow reenactors this weekend who declared that there was no such thing as a one piece "round gown" during the American Revolution. I was pretty certain I had seen an example out there somewhere and she welcomed me to find it as she has a one piece gown that she would love to wear, but she got called on it the last time she wore it (by the "stitch counters" as she calls them…ha, ha).

    But back to the round gown at the Met. I zoomed in and was pretty sure that I could see the edge of the open robe. Thoughts? Do you have any other resources? I told my friend I was going to find the research to "liberate" her one piece gown!

    • Lauren Stowell

      March 18, 2013 at 7:43 PM

      Hi Caroline – what you're seeing at the top of the skirt on the green round gown is the drop front. If you follow the seams further down the skirt, you will see they are joined to the front panel of the skirt. Here are some more examples:

      (The blue gown)

      Koshka's images show how the drop front works:

      Another from Deerfield:

      From MFA:

      Another from the Met, re-styled during its life:

      You can see there are quite a lot of examples, and these were just from a quick search for "round gown." I hope it's enough to liberate your friend's gown from the clutches of the know-it-alls-know-so-littles! Keep searching, if not! There is a lot of information out there.

    • Rowenna

      March 18, 2013 at 9:36 PM

      Hi Caroline! (waves like a dork) Fancy seeing you here 🙂 It might be added, too, that the term "round gown" stuck around even as the style changed, so later (think 1790s) gowns kept the name but didn't have that open front/drop front look. So the (rather rude!) individual who said "they didn't have round gowns" might have been using the term incorrectly (or s/he was just all around wrong). Regardless–it's why it's difficult to document our clothing based on text alone, because what people meant when they used terms changed over time!

    • Caroline

      March 20, 2013 at 7:07 PM

      Thanks Lauren for the additional resources. Much appreciated! PS: I wore my Kensies for the first time this past weekend. I'm still breaking them in but got loads of compliments from folks. Actually several guys commented on how much they liked them and where did I get them, etc. 🙂

      Hi Rowenna! :Waves back: I don't think she was being rude, just insistent in an attempt to spare me mean comments from the stitch counters should I decide to put together a one piece gown. Her gown was made by her grandmother so it has sentimental value and she really wants to wear it. You're definitely right about interpretation of text. She has been research pet en l'airs recently and has seen them called a number of things. I actually thought it was a caracao jacket myself. So many terms!

    • Rowenna

      March 21, 2013 at 2:01 PM

      Oh, no not your friend being rude–I mean the stitch counter-y types, anyone who would march up to someone and "correct" them. I'm sorry I wasn't clear–that's one of my reenacting pet peeves. Not a nice way to help in my opinion! Your friend sounds sweet, wearing a gown her grandma made!

    • Caroline

      March 21, 2013 at 7:57 PM

      Oh OK! The danger of e-mailing/blogging/commenting. 🙂 I'm of the mind that you shouldn't be a farb but honestly, some people get way to judgmental. It's a hobby and we certainly don't want to mislead the public but will they always know the difference? I think not. Most "tourists" I have spoken with think we are boiling water for fun or our tents are just for show. With that sort of mentality, will they know the one-piece gowns are debatable or that we used a sewing machine?

  • Anonymous

    March 24, 2013 at 3:09 AM

    I love the francaise the best because of the drama of it all – you can sweep about with your pleats and panniers and big hair and there is no hiding you in a room, lol. I do love the turque – will have to try one. Thanks for consolidating all this info in one place!

  • Mary Cullinane

    March 25, 2013 at 10:52 AM

    Thank you very much for such an interesting break down of what is a very complicated subject. I love Costume History, but being an amateur, it is so difficult to get a deep knowledge of such a wide field

  • Anonymous

    June 15, 2013 at 11:31 PM

    In the midst of research, I found a blog where they discuss the fact that a polonaise as we know it, is not what they knew in the 18th century.

    The polonaise we know with the strings drawing the skirt up is actually called a retroussée, which makes sense to me because of the retroussée dans les pouches. An actual polonaise "had a cutaway front, with the bodice closed at the neckline and sloping away into an inverted V shape (incorrectly called “zone”); the robe/jacket front and back were cut without a waist seam, with inverted pleats opening up from the seams, like a man’s coat."

    Here is the link:

    Any thoughts on this? I like being accurate with my fashion, so I am confused as to which term I should use.

  • A.M.

    February 10, 2014 at 10:34 PM

    Delightful article. My favourites, robe a la Francaise, robe a l` Anglaise and Levite. I would add to the list the 18th Century caraco jacket, often with an open front to be worn with a long open skirt and the muslin apron, in the 18th Century aprons were a decorative fine outdoors garment often made of fine muslin or embroidered silk and the fichu or small shawl was similarly made of lace or fine muslin. Shoes or high healed shoes in the first part of the century were made of silk brocade or leather often matching the dress fabric pattern. Court dresses also deserves to be mentioned as theye were beautiful, the most famous is the ' mantua ' during the first part of the century and then later mid of the century the sack back dress or robe a la Francaise. Every garment and style during this century was in my opinion of great fashion and appeal, these garments are an important historical document of our history and past, not to be forgotten !

  • sam b

    January 27, 2018 at 5:53 PM

    About the term "round gown": After receiving my copy of your book (and reading the whole thing in two days), the bit about "un Fourreau" reminded me of something in a book on Colonial clothes I have from Williamsburg. Pulling that one out and finding the page, it shows one gown labelled "Fourreau a la Anglaise", indicating that the term fourreau is not related to the back construction. The unique thing about the dress, from everything else in the book, is that the skirt is closed in the front–no petticoat required! This could be what qualifies it as a "child-like" frock, maybe? The bodice has a comperes front with tabs, looking like a waistcoat under an open bodice (early transition away from stomachers?) and the skirt front is like your treatment for the 1790's petticoat, tying under the bodice. Sadly, the book doesn't give much for sources, only a list of acknowledgements, although many of the sketches look like the Janet Arnold patterns, and the author is listed as Robert L. Klinger, published 1974. As for "round gowns", that term seems to consistently refer to any dress with a straight waist seam, no point in front or back, with or without a visible waistband.

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