The Surprising Link Between 18th Century French Fashion and the Partition of Poland

These are examples of what is called a robe à la polonaise.  As a non-native but fluent French speaker, I always mentally translated its name as a “dress in the Polish style”, like robe à la française or robe à l’anglaise. Not knowing much about the history of 18th century fashion, I just assumed that it was the style of dress popular among Polish aristocrats that at some point became de rigeur in fashionable French circles, like how “dresses in the English style” came to be popular in France.

However, last week I was drawn into Caroline Weber’s masterful work Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. It’s a detailed, nuanced, and fascinating history of the politics of Marie Antoinette’s body and fashion choices, and how they were interpreted by the court and by the public. This particular passage caught my attention:

“… the polonaise did represent a significant move away from such [artificial, aristocratic] costumes by eliminating the restrictive paniers and train of the grand habit and the robe à la française and replacing them with a pert little bustle made from layers of glued cotton. The cut of the overdress was loose. . . and its overskirt was looped up around the hips into three jaunty swags. (These three swags were what gives the dress its name, after the three way partitioning of Poland by Austria, Russia, and Prussia. . .)” (page 147)

Weber discussed many other instances where Marie Antoinette and her compatriots commemorated contemporary events through fashion, often through the elaborate pouf hairstyle. Marie Antoinette’s body was a canvas upon which she could assert her political positions. It is in-character but adds another layer of meaning onto the dresses in this style that I found completely surprising!

Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français, 30e. Cahier de Costumes

“Jeune Dame en robe à la Polonoise.” Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts

Further Reading on the History of Fashion

  • Weber, Caroline. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. New York: Picador; Henry Holt and Company, 2006.
  • The “Fripperies and Fobs” tumblr for a random assortment of historical fashion pieces from collections all over the world.
  • An Agreeable Tyrant: Fashion After the Revolution“: using actual extant examples of clothing, this website traces American fashion trends from 1780 to 1825.
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