Lessons of the Volante – So Far

Du….Du Hast…Du Hast Mich…

There’s something about pleat-to-fit garments that both attract me and drive me bonkers. I think it’s a combination of no two surviving examples being the same and my desire to fit everything skin-tight and wrinkle-free. Like the Polonaise, the Robe Volante just ain’t havin’ any of that.

Volantes are transitional garments. They’re bridging the gap between earlier robes/surcoats and the more recognizable and streamlined Robe a la Francaise. Depending on where you land in the date range, and in Europe, every Volante is cut and pleated a little differently, which makes creating one both more “free” creatively and more maddening because there are too many options.

So far in my volante project I’ve discovered a few things that I hope will help anybody working on a similar early-18th century project.

Silhouette – Bell Shape vs. Oblong Shape – As a general statement, in the earlier part of the 18th century the English favored the round hoop and the French the oblong pannier. There is a distinct difference in the cut of volantes depending on the intended understructure and it’s not always obvious in the few pattern diagrams. It’s also not always discernible in museum mountings of original garments because many seem to be displayed with a certain amount of wonkiness. Portraiture gives a much better idea of how the gowns were worn and also reveals a plethora of shapes between a round silhouette and a wide oblong one.

Pannier, c. 1750 – The Met, 1973.65.2

Hoops are very different in the first 50 years of the 18th century. Some go straight out from the hips and then down while others are more domed or bell-shaped. Some appear to be round hoops that were then tied into oblong shapes. Some are very short and some down past the knees. All of these have quite an impact on how the sides of the gowns were cut and pleated.

Shaping at the Sides – Which leads into a little mythbusting. Volantes only *look* like big comfy sacks. They actually do have shaping at the sides, though. They all have a side seam that then fans into pleats for the skirt. Some have additional tucks/pleats at the side back and side front, hidden beneath the front and back drapery.

Here we have the gown side seam with the pleats fanning out, and to the right of that, the side tuck in the front, a common feature of transitional gowns of this period.

You can see how the side-front pleat holds the side of the gown to the body more closely.

Lining or No Lining or Partial Lining – With shaping and pleating this usually means at least some sort of lining. Several sources note a fitted lining or a half-lining. The examples in Cut of Women’s Clothes and Patterns of Fashion 1 both have fitted linings, though they’re both split at the center back. One example from Trouvais on Etsy blessedly lets us peek at the inside shows lacing strips at the side front and side back only and the Volante in National Museum of Scotland is at least partially unlined. Again – options, infuriating options! I’ve chosen to do a fitted lining and sew the side seams of the fashion fabric to it.
The Trouvais gown with lacing strips at the back and front. Though not sewn together at the center front skirt, this gown is from the same transitional period and very well could have started as a Volante and become a Francaise, which I believe was the fate of most Volantes. This gown doesn’t appear to be on Etsy anymore, but you can visit Trouvais there.

My front and back lining pieces – ties at center back, and lacing strips on either side of the front.

The lining for the center back, under the pleats. I referenced the split top and the ties from Patterns of Fashion 1 and Cut of Women’s Clothes.

Skirt Gores – One thing is very clear: there is a *ton* of fabric in these gowns, and that was precisely the point. Fabric on Volantes is often highly decorative and expensive, hence the origami-esque folding, pleating and *not* cutting. That being said, many Volantes have gores in the skirt at each side to provide enough fabric to get around the hoop and also allow for a train. The width of the gore at the bottom depends on the breadth of the hoop it’s the be worn over. Over the years I’ve learned never to skip the gores if you want a train – they’re necessary!
Big, meaty gores on each side of the skirt, and to be honest, I needed to put even more fabric in the front and back of this gown.

Back Pleats & Front Pleats – The pleating patterns for Volantes are all over the place. There are some that have the “typical” sacque pleats that seem to become codified later, but plenty of extants have varying pleat arrangements. There is a correlation between the back and the front number of visible folds, though – for example, if there are three in back there are three on the front and they match up at the shoulder seams.
Front and back pleat intersections – I didn’t get them exactly matched up, but close.

Trouble. Right here in River City – stitching down the front and back pleat intersections through really, really thick layers. I elected to use a technique from the Isabella gown and turn under the back allowance and top stitch rather than the front.
Those are just a few notes I have for Volantes so far. I’m not done with mine yet and I already see where I’ve made some mistakes, but I’m trying not to beat myself up too much about it, since every Volante is different. If mine comes out a little bit more Robe a la Francaise-y, it just places it later in the timeline.

Now to go wrestle with front pleats…!


  • Jennifer

    January 14, 2021 at 8:28 AM

    This is all SUPER helpful. I've made one attempt at a volante, then promptly took it home and threw it into the naughty pile. You've given me a whole list of solutions I want to try out. Plus it's comforting to think that with this much variety in reference material, pretty much any way that gets it done is going to be right enough. Thank you.

    • Lauren Stowell

      January 17, 2021 at 7:36 PM

      I'm so glad this helped! It's hard to pick something up out of the naughty pile, but I hope you do and I get to see your progress on it. Something else I found that might be helpful – just experimenting with hoop size and width and length, large pocket hoops (but not as large as the grand pannier) seem to give just a good a silhouette, if not better, and avoid the hoop shape problems. Worth a shot!

  • Rebecca Olds

    January 14, 2021 at 2:57 PM

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Would you recommend making the long sack gown (for the first time!) before attempting a volante? Is it better to start with the style we know a lot more about and then work backwards? or go in a more chronological order? I am going to tackle one or the other this year, for sure…

  • Lauren Stowell

    January 17, 2021 at 7:37 PM

    Oooooh, that's a good question. I think there is more information and help on the internet for Robe a la Francaise. I would start there – I am glad I had enough experience with the later Francaise going into this. That being said, the reverse inside-out-working-backwards thing baffled me, but I had some background on why it wasn't working.

    (can't wait to see your sacque, btw – you're going to be gorgeous!)

Leave a Reply

Discover more from American Duchess Blog

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading