18th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: a Robe a la Francaise in rococo brown, ca 1755

Robe a la francaise, brocaded silk & metal, ca. 1755, Museo de Roma

I can usually anticipate some of the reactions to a Rate the Dress, but I was completely blindsided by the initial reactions to last week’s royal fancy dress.  Sure, it wasn’t a court jacket, but badly made seems a harsh accusation for a 200+ year old costume that still looks nearly pristine!  The frat boy comparisons did crack me up.  Isn’t it odd how our modern perceptions of a ‘look’ completely change how we see it in a historical garment?

However, after the initial wails of ‘tacky’ and ‘cheap’, a whole bunch of you swooped in with 10/10 ratings.  There were 14x 10/10 ratings, compared to only 11x of any other #!  The enthusiasts pointing out that the costume was awfully fun, did exactly what it said on the tin, and was quite practical for a theatrical performance.  After all, a real bear skin would have been extremely hot and heavy and hard to move gracefully in!

Thanks to all those 10s, Karl got a 8.4 out of 10.  Rrrrowr!

(sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

This week Rate the Dress goes from late 18th century theatrical fancy dress, to mid-18th century formal attire.

This robe a la francaise in brocaded silk in muted puce-brown features the very fashionable, extremely square hoops of formal mid-18th century garments.

They may be odd to our eyes, but in the context of their time they served three important functions.  First, they lent the wearer literal stature: by making the wearer take up more space, they become more physically imposing.  Second, they served as a showcase of wealth: fabric was extremely expensive, and the large, stiff hoops required more fabric.  Finally, they became a frame for the beauty of the fabric itself, holding it in smooth panels, so the elaborate weaving patterns could be admired to their fullest.

The fabric of this dress shows patterns that are a transition between the large shapes and wilder colours of the ‘bizarre’ silks of the early 18th century, and the more delicate, lace-like patterns of the mid-18th century, with the classic rococo serpentine line.  The wide, pale, curved lines show a clear dept to lace patterning, while the mix of colours, and overall scale, looks back to ‘bizarre’ prints.  The addition of shimmering metallic threads adds an extra element of depth and interest to the fabric. Their gold sheen is echoed in the metallic stomacher the Museo de Roma has paired the gown with.

The maker cut the spiralling stripes to symmetrically frame the front of the dress, emphasising the interplay between curves and straight lines.  They would have drawn the eye to the petticoat (now missing) visible under the overskirts of the robe a la francaise.

The stripes also flow symmetrically down the back of the gown, disappearing in and out of the so-called ‘watteau’ pleats that characterise a robe a la francaise.  The dress becomes a coy balance between stiff formal lines, and playful curves: the perfect embodiment of the Rococo.

I’m not too thrilled with the hairstyle the gown has been staged with.  The volume is more Edwardian pompadour than 18th century poof, and the height is more 1770s Marie Antoinette than 1750s Madame de Pompadour – who did not wear pompadours!  Sigh.  Ah well, let’s not focus too much on a less than ideal museum hairdo, and focus instead on the garments.

What do you think?  Would this robe a la francaise make the wearer suitably elegant and imposing, while still retaining a sense of fun and flirtatiousness?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10



  1. nanny norfolk says

    I think the fabric is beautiful & the back of the robe looks wonderful, except the wide hooped skirt, which I hate but that was the fashion at the time & fashions have always been ridiculous at times. So 8/10

  2. I have never been a fan of the squared-off panniers of this period; they tend to make me think that the woman is disguising herself as a sofa!

    That being said….

    The cut of the gown is perfection itself. I especially like the elegant way the Watteau pleats fall, straight as an arrow, toward the skirts below. And I like the stomacher the museum paired the gown with; I think it harmonizes well with the gown.

    On the other hand, though I love the color of the gown’s brocade, there’s something about the way the pattern interacts with the display aspects of the rectangular skirt that reminds me a bit too much of a sofa. It tends to make the gown fade into the woodwork (though under candlelight the effect might be different, that’s hard to discern from the photos).

    6.5 out of 10. I’m sorry I can’t bring myself to give a higher rating, but the shape of the skirt really does spoil the other effects of the dress’s cut and the luxuriant fabric.

  3. So am I understanding correctly that the brown skirt showing between the over skirt is not the original? But the green bodice thing is original? You can tell historical costume is not my field, but most interesting. The combination of over the top conspicuous consumption and the almost camo colors is weirdly charming.


    • The under-skirt is not original, but I’m pretty sure the stomacher (the triangle thing pinned to the front of the bodice) is an original mid-18th century piece, though it most likely wasn’t worn/used with this exact dress – it’s just of the right period.

  4. Elizabeth S. says

    The longer I look at it the more it grows on me. As mentioned, the cut is very good. And,yes that wig thing is awful;the dress looks much better if you put a finger over it. I don’t think that the color has aged the best,and I wish the stomacher and petticoat had survived. All told, 8.5/10.

  5. Claire Payne says

    It is a shame about the square hoops because I would like this a lot more with a more becoming shape. It is surprisingly simplistic to me, although this allows the lovely fabric to do the talking (metaphorically speaking). I do like the colour brown, the fabric design and the sleeves. 7 out of 10 from me.

  6. The mid 18th century has never been a particular favorite of mine, but I do appreciate just how good this particular silhouette is at showing off a beautiful fabric. And because this fabric is particularly lovely, I’ll give it a 9/10 for fulfilling it’s purpose as a silk brocade display vehicle so well 🙂

  7. Sixer says

    Perhaps it’s becasue it is fall here in my hemisphere, but I’m loving this multi-hued ode to brown. No, I’m not particularly fond of the trash-cans-attached-to-my-hips look, but it really is an excellent way of displaying gorgeous fabric. It actually reminded me oddly of a kimono, with the uncut lines used to display prints. And the placement of the design, with the careful pattern matching, is certainly worth applauding as well.

    I’m not totally sold on the metallic bodice, but maybe there is such a thing as too much brown and the designer didn’t want to tempt fate? At any rate, 9/10

  8. Kim Morton says

    It reads more like a gold dress to me and I love Watteau backed gowns. The gold train puddle. 8/10.

  9. Amazing watteau pleats, great cut and use of fabric. For me it would be a 8/10. I don’t like die color range, the brown looks so muddy for me.

  10. However did they travel in such gowns. Getting into a carriage sideways? The mind boggles.
    My first reaction was meh, 1930s sofa. But it has grown on me. The back is so beautifully cut, and even if I am not a fan of this look, I have seen such gowns live and they really do work once you give up the preposterousness of them.
    The drab brown gives way in my eye to a metallic richness and sublety and I love it.

  11. SueAnne says

    This dress gives the impression of the good kind of imposing: I’m here, I’m stylish, I have an awesome pattern on my dress fabric. I love it.
    As much as I like a good addition of trim, I rather like the wide, uninterrupted expanses of skirt. The stripes down the back are magnificent enough, as are the sleeves. Also, it’s good to know the stomacher probably wasn’t worn with this dress originally; it’s a bit darker than I’d hope with the dress.

    10/10 for surely helping the wearer make a noticeable entrance!

    • If it helps, the stomacher has also probably darkened considerably with time. Metallic threads and lace tend to tarnish, which makes them much darker, and less shinier.

  12. Susan B. says

    Very stately gown, beautifully made to display the richness of the fabric. Too bad some of the original elements have gone astray – my guess is that the original petticoat was a rich brown and gold brocade, to add just that note of candle-lit glitter to the presentation.

    Brown is not my favorite color, but it can be sumptuous under the right conditions (including my kitty’s long soft brown tabby fur, which is just about this color for the most part).

    This gown is sumptuous.


  13. Tegan says

    Any time I have to try to imagine 18th century people being PEOPLE and having fun, I mentally picture Amadeus.

    That being said, this isn’t a fun color — it’s an interesting and beautiful print, but it seems more like the “quiet bookish young lady” would wear this more than the fun and flirtatious miss you suggested could. The color is just so… meh. I wish I could have seen it new, but that’s gonna lose points.

    That being said, it’s so crisp and clean and perfectly executed. I love the clean and smooth lines. And there’s always something to be said for the experience of a gown wearing you, and most things that big do that! 😛

    Let’s say 7. Hate the color, but love the execution.

  14. Rachel says

    It’s funny how I can accept the exaggerated shape of a hoop skirt or bustle, but can only see this shape as silly. I guess it’s because I’m more used to seeing those later silhouettes. The dress certainly is lovely, and I’ve never noticed until how how the square necklines of the period recapitulate the square shape of the skirt. The fall of the pleats in the back is gorgeous – so regal, but without all the fuss and bother of a robe. And, as you say, creating organic lines and movement despite the rest of the dress’ structure.

    I would definitely say the wearer would be imposing, but I don’t read much flirtiness in the dress. Maybe it’s the relatively subdued color? Though candlelight would probably pick out its metallic lights beautifully.

    I don’t love the shape, though that’s the period, so I don’t fault it too much for that. The colors and fabrics and trim are gorgeous, and I have the feeling they’d be even more beautifully intricate in person. From the photos though, they feel a bit underwhelming.


  15. Having a tendency to clumsiness even in our simple clothing era, I wince when I see these extreme skirt styles, so it’very hard for me to evaluate this fairly. (Sure, show off your wealth in fabric yardage, but how about drapes or wall covering?)

    The watteau pleating is exquisite, and while the color is somewhat dull here, I suspect it would read more vividly and warmly in firelight/candlelight.

    8 of 10

  16. Setting the oddness of a walking square fashion aside, I’m impressed. Real thought went in to how the fabric was cut to highlight the pattern, and the pleats in the back are beautiful. It reads more gold than brown to me, and I like it. I’m not sure I’d say flirty, but definitely elegant. 10/10

  17. Murgatroyd says

    the square panniers never looked good to me, but i think the pattern here would actually look even stranger with sloped! that said the gown itself, i am in love with the brocade, and i love the waterfall effect the curved lines give combined with the pleating in the back. shame about the styling details, and the petticoat being missing. but only grading the gown itself, 10/10 definitely!! now how much to buy it for my own closet?

  18. Katie says

    I love the back – the pleats are very elegant and give a lovely line. Plus it’s sparkly, which is always a bonus! 8/10

  19. I think that the color and print are very elegant! I’m not a huge fan of the violently squared off pannier, though. 8/10

  20. Daniel Milford-Cottam says

    Not really a dress that enthuses me beyond being a great survival. I’m not a fan of the colour and I feel the silhouette is too harsh in this fabric/colour. It isn’t really terribly memorable for me. The back view is much better with the nice flowing pleats but the front looks hard and rigid, and it’s a very fading kind of colour. 6/10.

  21. Madeleine Rose says

    Not really my period (I’m Natural Form/New Bustle Victorian all the way!), but I can appreciate this style for its drama and gorgeous textiles. This squared-off shape in front seems strangely harsh compared to the flowing pleats of the back, although it does allow for presentation of the textile almost as if on a canvas stretcher.

    It’s a shame about the missing petticoat. The stomacher may not be original to this dress, but I actually love the darkened metallic lace with the stunning gold brocade.

    With a lush fabric as stunning as this my eyes would never have reached the hair styling had it not been mentioned. On the strength of the display of such breathtaking textiles alone I give this dress a solid 6.5 out of 10.

  22. Kristin says

    The cut of this gown is exquisite! It gently hugs the waist while it loosely cascades down the back. And the fabric! A definite 10/10.

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