It's the second week of Georgian month! Last weeks post outlined a brief timeline of the Georgian period, so make sure to double back if you missed it.
Today I'm going to be talking about the open robe; also known as a mantua (manteau, manteaux, robe de chambre), robe a l'Anglaise or English gown.
There are as many names as variations this dress had over the years!
In its earliest form, this style of dress was referred to as a mantua, most likely because they were made from Italian silk from Mantua. The mantua was 'kimono' shaped with only two pieces, front and back, the sleeves being cut in one with the gown. It was worn loose, or held in place with a sash.
As time went on, the style evolved and began being pleated at the shoulders and waist to give it more shape.
(A mantua pleated over a corset, with a sash at the waist.)
The front began to be worn open and the sleeves cut separately, with only two pleats at the centre back. It was beginning to take the form of the open robe!
The pleats reduced to only one or two at the front, this becoming what was known as 'robings', the singular pleat on either side of the open robe bodice. In Georgian dresses, these pleats were often simulated- cut from a separate piece of material and then attached to the bodice.
Photo taken at the Bath Fashion Museum.
Robings were left plain until the 1750s, after which they began being decorated. They could have been decorated with embroidery or lace, but more often it was the dress fabric made into puffs and pleats, then edged with a narrow braid.
The front of the dress being open (hence where it gets its name!) meant that either the stays worn underneath had to be pretty as they were on show, or a stomacher was worn. As time progressed, a stomacher was an essential accessory.
Stomachers could be plain and made from the same material as the dress, or elaborately trimmed and decorated to become works of art.
Fun fact: In the Georgian era, there was a distinct separation between seamstresses and milliners. Milliners back then not only made hats, as we know them to do today, but also made fichus, caps, sashes, sleeve ruffles, capes, aprons and other accessories. Generally, if the fabric used was the same as the main dress fabric then it was the work of the seamstress; if it was different, it was the work of the milliner.
Stomachers were usually pinned to the corset, then the dress was pinned over the top to keep it in place. A series of ribbons could have also been stitched to the inside of the bodice and used to fasten the dress over the stomacher, which was called an echelle.
At the beginning of the century, sleeves were wide and filled out by puffy chemise sleeves. They were elbow-length and turned up at the hem to form a cuff, which was kept in place by cords at the bend of the arm. Nearly all sleeves were cut on the bias, to have as much stretchiness as the fabric would allow.
After the 1720s, the cuff was cut separately and pleated. Lead weights have been found stitched into these 'winged' cuffs in order to keep them hanging nicely.
Hoops were worn under open robes at the beginning of the century, and skirts were floor length. The skirt was usually cut separately from the bodice, but the back was always cut in one, from shoulder to floor. From the 1730s, the back was still cut in one, but the skirt was now also cut with the back to avoid cutting into the fabric as much as possible.
Fabric was expensive in the 18th century, so a lot of early techniques really utilise clever folds and pleats to avoid cutting into the fabric so it could be unpicked at a later date and re-made into something more fashionable.
Early bodices weren't boned at all, but were worn over stays in order to give them the correct shape and support. The structure of stays worn at this point were modelled after earlier boned bodices.
Stays, 1775- Photo taken at Bath Fashion Museum.
Later bodices might have had one or two bones inserted at the centre back and sides, made from either whalebone or cane.
By the 1770s, front of the open robe had closed, the more suitable term for it now being the robe a l'Anglaise.
The back pleats became so reduced in size that they were replaced by seams, the entire skirt now cut separately from the bodice. When these pleats were replaced by seams, dresses were made to a much higher standard. Earlier in the century many seams were left unfinished, but now each piece of the bodice was mounted onto lining separately, the raw seams turned in and whipped together.
The back point of the bodice extended a few inches below the waistline, this later style not worn with a hoop, but with a hip pad and bustle.
The sleeves had tightened and came over the elbow, or sometimes came all the way down to the wrist. They were still, usually, cut on the bias. At first the sleeves were decorated with pleats and rouching, a particular style of this called the sabot sleeve, which was named after a clog!
Later, sleeves were was untrimmed, along with the rest of the dress. The harshness of these plain dresses were softened by floaty fichus, scarves and sashes.
The mantua, open robe or robe a l'Anglaise finally went out of fashion in the 1780s, being replaced by the Italian gown or polonaise.
Despite its evolution over the years, the cut of this dress remained the same for most of the century, the mantua influencing gown construction until the 1770s. It was only the materials, trimmings and accessories that changed over time, so truly an influential garment!
Coming up next week, the saque! One of my absolute favourite styles of dress, not just of the Georgian period, but of all time! I hope you're as excited as I am!
Until next time,
‘Costume In Detail’ by Nancy Bradfield
‘18th Century Dressmaking’ by Lauren Stowell and Abby Cox (good instructions on how to make your own!)
‘Aristocrats- The Illustrated Companion to the Television Series’ by Stella Tillyard
‘The Cut of Women’s Clothes’ by Norah Waugh
'Patterns of Fashion 1' by Janet Arnold