1770s Polonaise – Progress, but Slowly!

1770s Polonaise – the skirts are drawn up with cords, to create the three partition effect the gown is named for

Work on this crazy froofy dress comes in spurts, but now that I only have about a month to get it done, I best knuckle down!

It’s quite a complicated type of dress. Despite the popularity of the Polonaise in the 1770s, there are no patterns available and only just recently have we even begun to differentiate between this and any gown with the skirts drawn up.

I can see why it’s not a style made by many. It’s *complicated.* Seriously.

Testing the drape of the gown skirts when drawn up – there’s quite a lot of adjusting that goes on there, to achieve different looks.

To clarify, this type* of Robe a la Polonaise is a style of gown wherein the bodice and skirt is cut in one, like a man’s frock coat. The volume in the skirt comes from the inverted box pleats at the center back and side back seams. The difficult part is in the fitting of the bodice through the sides – the front hangs open loosely, but the sides skim close to the body, achieved through tucks and pleats that *must* be fitted on the person (or in my case, the dress form). Beneath the open front is a false front that attaches all the way at the side back seams and pulls the back taught. Getting all these pieces together, hanging right and fitting well, has been a challenge, to say the least.

*Edit – There are examples in fashion plates of Robes a la Polonaise with back waist seams. They still have the open, hanging front of bodice and overall loose fit, as well as the skirts drawn up in the three distinct partitions. We might be tempted to call these Robes a l’Anglaise, but while they are closer in construction, they are still not the same type of gown.

The little false front vest is attached on the inside at the side back seams. All of this will be piped with organza.

And if I had it to do over again, there are a hundred things I would do differently. Luckily, though, every extant Polonaise is different. There didn’t seem to be a set-in-stone way to do the seaming, the tucks, the cutaway, so you have all kinds of variation, which I find to be a comfort when constructing this crazy thing.

One organza cuff done by hand. This was 60 inches roll hemmed by hand on both sides, then gathered on 3 lines by hand, applied by hand, and those hands? they hurt like hell after the *hours* this took. So the rest will be done by machine, and I won’t apologize for it.

Luckily, too, I intend to cover all my wibbly bits with trim, lots of trim. This is partially because it goes with the style, but also because it will obscure where I pieced in cotton because I didn’t have enough pink silk.

The most intense piecing is on the petticoat, with a very deep hem done in the cotton, to be covered with organza. The back of the petticoat is heavily pieced on the sides and left as plain cotton down the center back, where it will be covered by the gown skirt. I’m astonished I had enough to get even this far, and quite like the quirky imperfections of this costume already.

Piecing the back half of the petticoat.

I have quite a lot of work to do, as you can see. I need to hem and gather all the organza. Originally I intended to roll hem all of it by hand, but for the sake of my hands I’ve decided to do the majority of it by machine. I also have the petticoat to construct (it’s still in flat yardage at the moment), boning to add into the bodice, and some fiddling with the cuffs to create even more fluff and puff.

I realize at this point I will only have this one new gown down for Williamsburg, but I hope it will be the enormous fluffy monstrosity I imagine, and will be as much fun to wear as I hope. 🙂


    • MrsC (Maryanne)

      April 29, 2015 at 12:26 PM

      I just realised what it reminded me of. A berry syllabub! With cream! Tonight on Poldark, Mrs Teague suggested that Ross might like to taste her daughter's syllabub. I wish she had been wearing a lovely polonaise like this, it would have been so utterly perfect.

    • Lauren Stowell

      April 30, 2015 at 8:14 PM

      I've never had syllabub, but I hear it's quite strong.

      I have been enjoying Poldark, even if some of the minor characters are better costumed than the principles!

  • Anonymous

    April 29, 2015 at 2:46 AM

    This is already exquisite! I think it's guaranteed to be all you want and more. I'm so looking forward to seeing this finished, it's going to be just so scrummy! And I'm going to daydream that somehow, someday I will be able to play late 18th century dress-up with you during the few years I'll be living in the US.

    NB – is all your fabric piecing already done? I just wondered in case it would help you at all if I told you it wasn't usually done with lapped seams, but "normal" seams just sewn with quick running stitch…….or do you not want to hear that?

    • Lauren Stowell

      April 29, 2015 at 3:03 AM

      Ah, that's good to know! I did the first 1/3 side with the lapped seams, decided I'd had enough, then did the second third as you say, with just the running stitch. It went much faster and looked better too, haha.

    • Lauren Stowell

      April 30, 2015 at 8:15 PM

      Thank you! I don't think anyone will notice the piecing on the back of the petticoat. The cotton underlayment is pretty obvious through the organza, though

    • Lauren Stowell

      April 30, 2015 at 8:16 PM

      Funny you say that, because I absolutely hate shot silk! It was probably the worst option for this project, because of course it's directional, one of the reasons for so much piecing. That being said, though, you're absolutely right – I wouldn't have gone for pink is it weren't this slightly more sophisticated shot pink, so it's a love-hate 🙂

    • AuntieNan

      May 1, 2015 at 8:59 AM

      Oh hahahahah! You just reminded me of the gown I made last summer for Imogen in Cymbeline. I thought I was being soooo smart, piecing two gores into the bottom of the Cb skirt, and not until they were French seamed in did your dumb friend realize the damn fabric have a direction. Luckily it was in the back, and the shows are outdoors where wind and (eventually) fading light are our friends in this case!

  • Esther

    April 29, 2015 at 3:23 PM

    Oh boy! It is absolutely gorgeous, Lauren!! I can't imagine fitting and making something so complex just yet. I can not wait to see it finished! I'm sure it will be beautiful. (It already is!)
    I can sympathize with you on the rolled hemming business. I am in the middle of an 1850s dress which (among other things) is going to have two ruched strips on each sleeve. It's just so fun rolled hemming approximately 120 inches of fabric! Positively thrilling!
    I'm sure it will be worth it in the end though, especially because it means my beautiful Renoirs are going to get many more outings! 🙂

    • Lauren Stowell

      April 30, 2015 at 8:17 PM

      120 inches seems to be the magic number – that was what it was for one cuff on mine too. I've heard that rolling cotton is easier than organza, but it still takes a looooot of time. I bow down to your willingness!

  • Anonymous

    April 29, 2015 at 3:31 PM

    It's just exquisite, Lauren–really beautiful and unique. Now that you're nearly done, you might be interested to know that Larkin & Smith are currently finishing up a polonaise pattern based on an extant gown. They haven't announced when it will be ready for release, but I'm really interested to see it when it's out.
    Never apologize for saving your hands! I just hope you're stretching them and treating them special after all that work.

    • Lauren Stowell

      April 30, 2015 at 8:18 PM

      I wish I were nearly done!

      I'm excited about the Larkin & Smith pattern. It's the kindof Polonaise with the back waist seam, which would have been so much easier to construct, though would still be fiddly with the fitting.

    • Lauren Stowell

      April 30, 2015 at 8:19 PM

      thank you! The majority of it will still be by hand. I just find it easier to do the fitting. The trim will be by machine from here on out, though. There's just too much of it!

    • Lauren Stowell

      April 30, 2015 at 8:20 PM

      Indeed. I'll save the hand-rolling for the delicate bits, like the frill on a cap, or the tucker ruffle. Abby at Williamsburg advised to be very fine with the work around the face.

  • Kara

    May 1, 2015 at 7:39 AM

    This looks so amazing! Seeing how much work it really is makes me not feel quite so bad for the half-finished toile I have hidden away in the basement from four years ago. One day I'll take it out and finish it. Love the fabric piecing. It makes the dress unique and feel more like a historical garment than just a costume.

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