In our modern world there is much of the past that has been obscured. Looking through the lens of time, especially when you have to peer through the film of the Victorian era, the ways of the past get hazy, sometimes completely lost. We lose knowledge and understanding of ways of life, of work, of dress, of speech. This is why we can never truly be 100% historically accurate.
We tend to apply our own knowledge and understanding to things in the past. We call these “reenactorisms.” Reenactorisms start nobody’s-quite-sure-where-or-when and persist doggedly, sometimes for generations.
One such reenactorism is the ubiquitous term “en fourreau.” It’s used to describe a pleated back English gown or night gown wherein the back pleats are cut in one with the skirt. The term “fourreau” is an 18th century French term relating to dress, but doesn’t appear to relate to the back pleats of a gown.
|The New Pocket Dictionary, 1784 |
|The Complete Vocabulary in English and French, and in French and English…” 1785.|
In its simplest translation, fourreau is a frock. (It also relates to an envelope, sheath, as a scabbard, but also of a, um, horsey bits). The fourreau describes children’s dress, but in the 1780s is seen in description of women’s fashionable dress as well.
|Children’s dress described in Cabinet des Modes, February 1786. The description, the plate, and my translation. Cabinet de Modes is available on Gallica (click through for link)|
|“The little girl seen from the front is dressed in a taffeta frock trimmed with gauze and a gauze apron.”Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Francais, 1780. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 44.1482 mfa.org |
The fashion plates depicting adults use the word “fourreau” (or “foureau”) in many different ways. Here are the plates:
|From Cabinet de Modes, December 1785, with my translation. I have purposefully not translated “fourreau” here because it can mean several things – is this a frock? a sheath? a kerchief? I leave it to you to make your own determination. Gallica.fr|
|…” a simple Foureau d’Agnes, Amadis sleeves”
Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Francais, 1784. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 44.1567
|“Fourreau gown, the sleeves rolled up, the edges of the dress turned in front with braids and buttons…“
Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Francais, 1784. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 44.1580
|“…wearing a gauze fourreau with a striped belt…”
Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Francais, 1785. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 44.1624
|“…she is dressed in a caraco and taffeta fourreau…“
Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Francais, 1786. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 44.1643
|“A Levite gown with a foureau bodice/waistcoat…“
Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Francais, 1779. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 44.1417
Additionally, The Lady’s Magazine of 1789 notes –
It’s such a shame we can’t see what Lady’s Magazine was really describing!
*Cassidy Percoco has also translated and listed more fashion plates from various sources mentioning “fourreau” and its derivatives on her blog A Most Beguiling Accomplishment. You’ll see there are even more descriptions and plates that confuse the meaning of “fourreau,” for instance, a child’s gown described as a fourreau but with no back fastening and a supporting description that it fastened in front (1780); also a Levantine gown (1779) described as having a pleated back, but with no image of the back to illustrate how.
|Just to confuse you, the pink gown is described as a fourreau. Gallerie des Modes, 1780. (not the description written on this plate, but the description in text describing this plate – you can find this on Cassidy’s blog (at link).|
As you can see just through observation, none of these garments gives us a conclusive definition of what a [un] Fourreau gown or en fourreau part of a costume is. As with so many 18th century things, especially in the 1780s, it’s all over the place.
I have yet to find a definitive primary source identifying “fourreau” or “en fourreau.” as a pleated-back English gown or Night gown (but if you have, please let me know in the comments!). There are secondary sources aplenty, though. Janet Arnold labels a gown from The Gallery of English Costume as both a polonaise and “cut en fourreau,” but does not list references. Costume Close-up tags the 1770-85 gown with the term, “This style is called en fourreau, or the English back,” with no citation. Grandaddy C. Willett Cunnington repeatedly describes and assigns the label to illustrations in Handbook of English Costume in the Eighteenth Century, but not a single primary quotation in his book actually uses the term to clearly describe the back pleats of an English gown. It remains a mystery where Cunnington got this definition. Norah Waugh indexes “fourreau” as a tie-back gown in the late 16th century and later in the late 19th century. Waugh does not assign the term to any of the 18th century pleated-back gowns in The Cut of Women’s Clothes.
Interestingly, Cunnington consistently uses the term “corsage en fourreau” to describe the back pleats. This term appears in the Gallerie des Modes fashion plate depicting the Levite gown (above). Norah Waugh and Abby Cox both cite primary evidence defining “corsage” as a soft, un-boned bodice, commonly worn beneath fly-front gowns like the Polonaise, Levite, and Turque. A corsage en fourreau is more likely to be a back-closing, close-fitting bodice based on the child’s garment and worn by fashionable ladies in the third quarter of the 18th century.
As for the rest, it’s quite inconclusive. It’s one of those wibbly-wobbly-18th-century-timey-wimey-fashion things.
So, my friends, how do you think this misuse of the term arose? Have you seen any primary evidence linking pleated back English gowns with this French word? Can we stop calling them en fourreau gowns now?
 There are many dictionaries with the same or similar definitions – “Royal Dictionary Abridged” 1715, “Royal English Dictionary” 1729, and “The Royal Dictionary” 1771. (Google Books)
 Another Gallerie de Modes et Costumes Francais plate, also 1780, describes “This little girl is dress in a frock [un Foureau] of painted toile trimmed in bands and the pulled up a la Polonaise” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 44.1483
 Patterns of Fashion 1: Englishwomen’s Dresses and Their Construction c. 1660-1860. It is well-known now that the Polonaise is its own specific garment – in fact, Norah Waugh in Cut of Women’s Clothes, 1968, states this clearly, contradicting her contemporary Janet Arnold. Without citations in Arnold it’s very difficult to substantiate her label of “en fourreau” as well.
 Cunnington, C. Willett & Phillis Cunnington, Handbook of English Costume in the Eighteenth Century. 1964. Great Britain. pgs 114, 121, 125, 274, 276.
 Waugh, Norah. The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600 – 1930. 1968. New York.