Robe a'la Francaise, 2015-2017
The 18th century
fashion classic, the iconic "Rococo dress". The fashionable
Lady's must-have wardrobe item that I had put off making for a
long, long time, partly because I felt it was a too arduous
and challenging task, partly because I was continuously caught
up with this at that else. The charming, pastel toned 1760's
Robe a la Francaise decked with fabric ruching and trim.
I had found the fabric
years ago before actually getting started, and I was still
happy with my purchase: a thick pale blue satin, acetate but
more or less works for a not too conspicuous cheat for silk
gown, and cost about 10€ per meter. The super
fashionable Francaise should of course be in floral brocade,
but a plain one is a pretty as a smaller budget option too,
and the fabric ruching decoration stands out more on it.
I also found a looped braid that
looked sort of period, or at least not too painful. The pale
gold looked very pretty with the ice blue satin, and would add
some nice bling. There was also the practical consideration of
finishing all the edges with the trim: for example the lovely orange
brocade Francaise in Kyoto Costume Institute (AC5373 86-18-4AC)
has looped braid on all the fabric ruchings and sleeve ruffle
edges. While it's true that metal braid was mostly used in
brocade gowns with metal threads woven into the fabric, at least
satin dress painted multiple times by Copley sports super
blingy metal braid or lace too.
Drafting the Pattern
So, I had the materials, then I needed the
pattern. The right way to cut a Robe a la Francaise is obviously
to drape it on the body, but this method is not preferable for
my experience level and my poor nerves! Besides, I wanted to do
the pattern myself to get a grip of the whole process, and it's
not very easy to fit your own back pleats. I also wanted highly
reliable patterns to begin with parts of the decoration before
putting it all together - the smaller pieces would also be more
practical to store, as I knew I would be working on this project
for a long time.
I had, of course, gained some experience of the mysteries of the
Francaise with my two Pet en l'Air-projects. Both had taught me
several things. The latter one was still not perfect either, so
the full length robe needed some more experimenting. I began to
work on the pattern based on my second Pet en l'Air trying
to fix the problems it still had. I also sacrificed some old
bedsheets for a mock up version. Happily one side of the robe
was enough for test purposes when it was pinned to the lining,
though it did look a bit curious.
My main reason for an extravagant full
length mock up was to make sure the hem width would be adequate
for my hoops, as I had come to suspect this was the cause for
both my previous Pet en l'Air's fitting awkwardly at the bottom
edge. The first pink one opened way too much at the front, while
on the second gray one the front was okay but on the back the
wide box pleats opened too much towards the hem. On the full
length robe the gracefully falling back pleats were such an
essential part of the look that this problem had to be solved.
I had used the
Snowshill Manor Pet en l'Air-pattern from Janet Arnold's
"Patterns of Fashion 1" for both, but on looking at other
patterns more carefully I noticed that full length Francaises
had more width at the back pleats, while looking the same to
outside they would have deeper pleats or an extra very deep
pleat under the characteristic double box pleats. Obviously at
least that particular short Pet en l'Air was not meant to be
worn with hoops, then, which kind of makes sense as it was
more informal wear. It does look perfect over a quilted
petticoat worn under the taffeta petticoat, though.
So, for the Francaise mock up I added 30cm width at the center
back on the half back piece and pinned it into the deep extra
I have also had massive problems with the
side pleats in my previous projects. With the grey Pet en l'Air
I learned to place them fan-like. This led to a revelation: For
example in the Arnold's pattern of the Snowshill Manor Francaise
(1770-1775) the top edges of the side pleats rise over the
waistline and the pleats are set slanted. When folded these pleats would likely set in a
shape somewhat similar to what I my pleats on the Pet en l'Air
had ended up, with the difference that they would actually reach
the waist seam and not hang partly loose. The side seam was also
In my mock up I both cut plenty of allowance
on the top of the pleats and flaring the side seam by 20cm at
the hem. The final total back
width at the hem would be 280cm and the front skirts 50cm wide.
When I had pinned the mock up pieces on the
lining and arranged the side pleats for a good while I was
almost ready to cry. From happiness, that is. The old cotton
sheet looked almost like an elegant Robe a la Francaise. (Well,
one half of it). Finally the fabric settled nicely over the
hoops and the back pleats fell gracefully all the way down. The
small train I had added, estimating the length from museum piece
patterns did not look too off either. I folded and pinned the
extra length at the front and sides to match the shoes I was
planning to re-decorate for the dress. Following the Snowshill
Manor Francaise pattern I also shaped the front edge of the
skirt slanted in roughly the same angle as the side seam.
I was fairly happy with the sleeve on the
grey Pet en l'Air so I just copied the pattern and drafted the
third ruffle following the shape of the other ones. The bodice
fronts had also looked fairly decent, not counting in the weird
robings-pleat thing. I had planned to this time make it for
real, as a front pleat instead of an shaped extra piece cop out
cheat, but yet again it defeated me. I just couldn't figure out
how it was supposed to lie flat and smooth. In the end I just
gave up and resorted to the shaped extra piece cheat.
When I was happy with the mock up I
carefully unpinned it again and marked the seams, pleats and
pretty much everything of interest with pencil. Then I moved on
to finish the paper patterns. The big scary Robe a la
Francaise-project suddenly began to seem less like a mission
When I was fairly
happy with my patterns I began to plan the trimming. The
orange Kyoto Costume Institute Francaise mentioned above had a
quite nice trimming plan, but then I found one that liked even
more, this beauty from Victoria&Albert Museum
(T.115&A-1953). It has the
lovely s-curve on the fabric ruchings, so typical to the
rococo aesthetic, but it's not overdone, as the straight
ruching strips on the robings balance the curvy trimming on
the robe skirts and the petticoat. The little puffs combined
to the ruched strips are also very pretty. All the ruching and
ruffle edges are also finished with braid.
The proportions of the
dress also seem to roughly match my body type, unlike some
museum pieces made for really short ladies by modern
standards, so the trimming design could be copied fairly
My chosen trimming
source does, however, very frustratingly lack a matching
stomacher. I would just have to make some educated guess about
the stomacher trimming, then.
I was excited enough about this project to
make some sketches for once, which helped a great deal to plan
the trimming design. I estimated the width for the ruching
strips and drafted their mounting lines on the patterns. I also
made a short sample of the puffed strip and measured the desired
length between gathered points. My puffs ended up a bit larger
than in the original dress, though.
The petticoat trimming is of course partly another educated
guess, as the pictures on the V&A site show only the center
part visible underneath the robe. I simply continued the same
style of decoration further to the sides.
All the ruching strips on the robe skirts
and petticoat were cut twice as long as the finished ruching.
The two to one ratio is actually rather dense for the period,
many ruchings seem to be only very slightly gathered, which
makes sense as fabric was expensive. But then again a more
gathered look is lovely on a plain material (again I think of
paintings here), and the two-to-one-ratio is super easy to
measure. (I don't think they really
counted the ratio on the period, but just gathered as they went
along, but I don't trust myself to get an evenly gathered result
without some measuring, at least not yet.)
The widest ruching strip on the robe front skirts is cut 14cm
wide, the narrower one on the petticoat 8cm wide. The puffed
strip used on both is cut 9cm wide and gathered with 9cm
intervals to about 6,5cm long puffs. The ruching on the robings
is cut about 5cm wide.
For some reason I had
gotten into my head that the ruching strips would be first
sewn onto the dress, edges and all, and the braid added
afterwards to cover the edges. When I took a closer look at
the V&A Francaise I realized that the strips were only
gathered at the middle and the edges were flapping loose. This
led me to take a closer look at other dress trimmings too.
Many had the edges sewn down, but even then the braid was
usually sewn on the edges beforehand and then gathered or
pleated with the edges.
This kind of makes
sense, of course, as it would be handy to finish the edges
before gathering (especially on brocades). But it also strikes
me a bit odd at the same time considering that usually any
effort to save materials seemed to be worth the trouble to
period mantua-makers, and this takes method so much more braid
than adding it afterwards. On a more practical level, my braid
stash, all that there was at the shop when I bought it, was
not adequate for trimming the strips before gathering. Happily
I found at least this example (above) where the looped braid
is clearly sewn on after the gathering (just look count the
loops on the outer and inner curve), so my ill-advisedly
chosen method would not be totally wrong for the period.
Now that we have mentioned the dreaded term "period correct": My
18th century sewing careers has been a long journey from trying
to incorporate blatantly modern methods into period garments to
gradually learning some more accurate methods and, whenever I
hadn't been too impatient, trying them out in varying degrees
with varying results. Robe a la Francaise was such a huge and
long-planned project that I originally wanted to use largely
period sewing techniques at least in the finishing, as far as I
was aware of them and they seemed to work for me. Along the way
I of course resorted to many modern cheats after all - I'm not
ready to give up machine sewn seams yet!
As my restless mind continually yearns for more different
projects that I can reasonably achieve making something as
historically accurate as possible has never been my main
priority, while it might be an interesting experience in itself.
My main focus is usually to make something that looks decently
period and is within my budget limits, or sometimes even to just
get something easily washable to wear for re-enacting events.
Anyway, as this project was one of
the more ambitious ones, one very helpful source for dress
construction and sewing techniques was the Rockin'
the Rococo Sack Dress tutorial. Not that I followed it
completely faithfully, though, but it was very informative.
I began the sewing by
cutting the bodice lining from a rather rough unbleached
linen. I had originally planned to machine sew only the seams,
but then I noticed how neatly the machine stitch disappeared
on the textured material and machine sewed away the hems and
the boning channels on the back opening edges. For the boning
I used my usual budget material, cable ties. I made the lacing
holes by hand, though, as they are so fast and easy to make on
linen and always look so much more nice.
The front edges of the
lining stop from a few centimeters form the dress front edge,
and there is a 3cm deep fold left loose for pinning the lining
into stays. On the neckline the lining goes all they way to
the edge again.
I spent one Saturday on our living room
floor cutting all the pieces and basting everything from the
pleats to the ruching's gathering lines. This obsessive
meticulousness proved wise, as pretty soon after this I became
so occupied with this and that else that I had to bury the
Francaise-to-be in a box under my sewing room guest bed for
nearly a year.
I had, however, began
the ruching strips. The satin was rather densely woven but
still, like with all the satins, the cut edges just breathed
out fluffy thread. I decided that my life would be so much
easier if I would run them over with narrow overlock stitch at
once, as it would eventually be covered by the braid trimming
anyway. At this point it of course began to dawn on me why
they prefererred to finish the edges with trim before
gathering in the period...
In the puffed strips I machine sewed the
braid over the overlock stitch, as they would go to the skirts
and not be looked at that carefully. The machine stitch was
nearly invisible on the top, but of course the edges tended to
turn around in the finished puff strip to reveal the overlock
disgrace. Oh, well. One learns.
On the ruched strips I first basted a
heavier gathering thread at the edges right next to the overlock
stitch, then pressed them to fold at the center and whip
stitched a gathering thread along the fold.
I have read that in the period they would
add the dress trimmings last after finishing the dress, which
makes sense if they draped the dress on the client. I felt,
however, that as I was fairly confident about the cut based on
the mock up it would be more practical to sew on most of the
elaborate trimmings on separate dress pieces and put them
together later. So I began, rather backwardly, with decorating
the robe front skirts.
For the first thing I pinned the widest
ruching strip on the basted curved line. I had placed pins at
evenly measured intervals on both the strip and the basted line
so that the strip would be gathered evenly. Only after pinning I
tightened the gathering thread as I whip stitched the strip on
the skirt piece between every gathered fold. It was a bit tricky
to do this along the curvy line and not to pull the base
material scrunched. It went slow, but the result is both pretty
To get the ends
rounded I slanted the gathering line towards the edge at the
ends and left the last few centimeters ungathered.
After whip stitching the center line
I left the edges still loose and added the puffed strips that
circle in and out at the sides. They went pretty fast as I had
basted the places where the gathered bits would be sewn on. I
sewed the ends down under the ruched strip and tried to flatten
them as well as I could manage.
The ruching strip whip stitched on along the
fold has to be pulled open, and the center line stays nicely
crisp and puffy. After opening the fold I pinned the edges down
at some places, carefully tightened the gathering thread little
by little and smoothed the gathering evenly at the curves. When
the gathering looked fairly even I pinned the edges more
carefully. I thought that it would not go amiss to whip stitch
the edges down loosely before adding the braid. At this point I
also had to be very careful not to pull the base material out of
At the top edges I left the ruching strip
unfinished to be able to sew that waist seam and front edges.
Then I sewed the braid all around the wide ruching, only
stopping at the top corner again.
When the front skirts trimming was finished I had to admit that
it did pull the skirt pieces after all. The front edges were
definitely wavy. I should have kept my stitches looser, as the
ruching was not likely to tear off. I did what was still to be
done with steam iron, but at last I had to resort to evening the
edge with scissors. And yet the finished front edges still don't
lie smooth and even, as you can see in the pictures.
The robe skirts front edges and hem got a
facing. I guess linen would have been a sensible option for the
material, as it would protect the fashion fabric from dirt and
wear at the train. Many museum pieces have silk facings too,
which of course look so much nicer especially on the front edges
and when the skirts are tucked up. Of course I was not going to
put a silk facing to an acetate gown, so in the end I chose more
or less wisely a thin acetate lining material, pretending it
might pass for a very light silk. It does not offer much
protection against wear, but of course it can be replaced if it
The hem facing is about 25 wide at the side
seams and continues in a straight line across the back pieces. I
basted it on the fronts and back at this point and sewed the top
edge on the satin pieces with small herringbone stitches. Near
the side seams I only basted it to be able to close the seams
The front edges got a 15cm wide facing. I
pinned and sewed the facing a bit tight on the edge to pull it
back to shape, which helped a bit. The stitch line of the other
edge was mostly covered by the trimming.
At this point I stored the front skirt and back pieces away for
a while and turned my attention to the sleeves.
I had decided on
proper three layer sleeve ruffles, and planned to finish the
edges with the braid. Many museum pieces, the V&A
Francaise among them, have silk lined sleeve ruffles, and I
guess at least brocades need the lining. The wrong side of the
satin was so neat that I saw no need for a lining, though, and
it would only make the gathering more tricky.
I sewed a line of machine stitch near the
scalloped edge, clipped the allowance between the scallops and
then pressed the edge to turn on the right side. A machine
stitch ends up a bit tight so easily that I didn't even have to
really gather it to get the edge turn inwards quite easily. The
corners were a bit tricky, of course.
Next I sewed on the
braid with two lines of small stab stitch, first very near the
edge and then the other side of the braid. The corners between
the scallops are reinforced with a few extra stitches.
I lined the sleeves with linen, sewing first
the fashion fabric edges and one edge of the linen together,
then pinning the other linen edge folded over the seam and
stitching through all layers by hand. The sleeve end is also
finished by hand. In my former Pet en l'Airs I have just bag
lines the sleeves, but now I tried to put on a bit more effort.
When I had finished edging all the ruffle
pieces I basted them together at the gathering line and neatened
the top edges with overlock, all layers together. Then I basted
a heavier gathering thread along the folded line and the top
edge right next to the overlock stitch.
I also basted a guideline for the gathering
on the sleeve, pinned the ruffle on and whip stitched it on the
sleeve from the underside. Costume Close Up has a nice diagram
about this on page 15.
When the lower gathering was secured on the
sleeve I pulled the top edge gathering thread tight and pinned
the top edge on the sleeve, then whip stitched it on place. For
the last thing I added the braid on the top. This was, again,
doing it unlike they seem to have mostly done in the period, but
again I didn't have any extra braid to gather. Besides, the
stiff metal braid would also have looked just awful gathered
Only after finishing the sleeves I
also realized that the sleeve ends were a bit too shaped, on a
Francaise they might well have been more straight and shorter
and the ruffle covers the elbow anyway. The ruffles themselves
could have been a bit wider too to flare out prettily. But I
guess they'll do.
After playing around with the smaller,
separate pieces it was finally the time to begin putting things
together. Of course I could have still followed with the
stomacher, but I had still not managed to make up my mind about
the trimming, and secondly despite careful calculations I was
still not 100% sure how much braid I could use for it. I had
also found out that the bolt of braid had damaged parts where
the metal threads had darkened badly, so I would have to either
cut them away or use them for not so visible parts of the
trimming. Even rather small bits would be useful on the
stomacher, while on the longer pieces I'd rather have not any
more bulky joins than necessary.
At this point I also had a vacation, which is the perfect time
to work on something that needs your full abilities and
concentration - such as putting together a Francaise bodice
rather than whip stitching ruching which you can manage half
asleep on the couch after a workday. This is why I put off the
petticoat at this point too.
I had basted the back pleating lines on the
pieces after cutting, but still I had to dig up my patterns and
diagrams again to make sure I'd fold them right. I pinned the
pleated back piece on the lining and secured it with a
horizontal line of herringbone stitch 10cm down from the
neckline. In my previous Pet en l'Air's I have sewed the pleats
with vertical stab stitching at the top pleat edges, but since
then I have learned that that horizontal stitching seems to have
been more common.
I basted the satin on
the lining a few centimeters from the side seam and under the
pleats, where the hand stitched line that gives the back of
the robe figure a hugging shape would go. Then I moved on to
the front pieces.
I sewed the front skirt pieces at the
bodice waist, folded the side pleats following the basted lines
and sewed their top edges together by machine. Then I basted the
front bodice on the lining, sewed the shoulder seam on the back
and the side seam on the lining. I pinned the skirt side seams
and tried the whole thing on.
I had pinned the side pleats at the waist
seam on front and back for the fitting. The back part looked
great, but on the front I had to adjust the angle of the pleats
a bit still to get them to fan out neatly over my pocket hoops.
Also the front waist seam had to be curved a bit more on the
skirt piece, but apart from these small adjustments, easy to fix
at this point, everything seemed pretty promising.
After the fitting I
could happily move on to finishing everything only pinned and
basted so far. On the side seams I basted the front seam
allowance over the lining seam, folded the back seam allowance
under and pinned it on the top of the seam, and then hand
stitched the layers together. The back side pleats turned
under with the seam allowance.
On my grey Pet en l'Air I had had problems with the back fit,
the satin tended to pull askew when I stitched it on the
lining under the pleats, but then again I had also messed up
the side seams and had too narrow back width so maybe it all
began from there. Anyway, this time the fabric laid smooth
over the lining on the fitting so I could happily stitch it on
I sewed the back side pleats on the hem of
the lining. At the front side I slip stitched the lining on the
waist seam and reinforced the side slit top with a few stitches.
At the front edges I sewed the lining on the satin 2cm from the
lining edge to form a fold for pinning the bodice on stays. This
stitching line is technically always covered by the robings, but
still I wanted to sew it by hand.
As I have already mentioned, I had ended up
making separate robing pieces shaped like the bodice edge. I
faced them with the same thin acetate lining I had used on the
skirts. I basted matching points for the waist seam and bust
point as I had cut the robings a bit extra long at the ends just
in case. As the satin and lining both love to fray in seconds I
neatened the edge with overlock. The seam allowances end up
between the bodice and robings, but they will get brushed when
pinning the dress.
I machine sewed the robings on the front
edges by machine from the waist seam upwards to a few
centimeters to the shoulder seam at the back. I left the ends
hang loose to finish them later.
Then I sewed the finished sleeves on front the shoulder seam
around the armhole to under the robings at the front. I had
already at the cutting stage basted lines for the top pleats and
the shoulder line. Now I pinned the pleats, pinned the sleeve
top on the shoulder and tried the gown on. The sleeve top only
needed some tiny adjustment. I trimmed off extra allowance and
sewed the sleeve top on the lining with strong thread.
When I had sewn in the sleeves it was time
time finish the robing end at the back. Something mysterious had
happened at some point, though, either the back neckline had
stretched or the shoulder part had stretched (on the Francaise
it's rather on bias unlike in the closed front bodices where
it's usually cut as a separate piece), as the robings tended to
settle inwards from the back neckline corner. A narrow neckline
is of course better than a too wide (it's actually still quite
wide for a later Robe a la Francaise), so I maneuvered a bit
with the seam allowances until I could get the neckline to match
the shape of the robings.
I sewed the ends of the robings down,
turning the allowances under. Then I cut a 9cm satin strip,
sewed it on the back neckline (just a bit tight to keep the
neckline from stretching any more), turned the ends under in the
corner and turned the top edge on the wrong side of the bodice.
This bit at the back always looks so nice that it's almost a
shame to cover it with trimming. It's not perfect, though, as I
rather think the sleeve seam should meet the robings corner,
which didn't happen here, and I was too lazy to fix it later.
In the period they obviously just left the
underarm seam like that, to fray all it pleased, but I'm too
pedantic for that. I turned the seam allowances in towards each
other and whip stitched the top.
As I had just copied the sleeves from
my previous patterns, drafted years ago I had not really stopped
to reconsider their fitting the period. I have already mentioned
the perhaps too curved elbow. Another thing that I realized only
later that the shoulder pleats were usually smaller than mine.
Oh, well, I'm not taking them out anymore. Besides, larger
pleats work better on a heavier material.
Now the bodice was more or less done save
for the trimming, which made me really happy as that was the
part I has dreaded the most beforehand. There was still much to
do left, of course.
I hemmed the skirt side slits and side seam allowances narrowly
and sewed the rest of the facing on over the side seams. Then I
checked the hem length (A bit long at the front), trimmed off
extra, pressed the narrow allowance to turn under, pinned the
lining on the hem and secured it with tiny stitches through the
I had left the bottoms ends of the robings
loose as I thought the ruching would be easier to sew on that
way. The robings were covered with about 5cm wide straight
ruched strip. For some reason I have never really fancied curvy
trimming on robings, so this was another thing that had made me
fall in love with the V&A Francaise.
As I had by now noticed that the double length strips I had used
give very dense ruching I decided to try a 1,5 to 1 ratio for
the considerably narrower robings. At first, while gathering I
wondered if they would look too sparse after all, but when I had
sewed the edges down they began to look just right and in
harmony with the rest of the trimming.
When the robings were covered with the
ruching I at last finished the front skirts top corners: First
the wide ruched strip, matching it to where the robings would
end, then the braid on top, going a bit over the waist seam.
Then I turned the ends of the robings under and sewed them by
hand on the skirt and the little bit of front edge left. On the
picture you can see how one can still manage to turn the robings
up for pinning.
Next I moved on to the
petticoat, and it was time for rather relaxing gathering and
whip stitching by previously basted lines again. I had already
in a very early stage began to hem the petticoat pieces. This
may sound like a very curious order of doing things again, but
as I would sew on the trimming before assembling the whole
petticoat again every adjustment on the length would have to
be made on the top edge anyway. So why not hem the individual
pieces save for small bits at the sides? (Had I known before
that the curved ruchings may pull the main pieces out of shape
I might have reasoned differently and done the trimming
The petticoat trimming
followed the same lines as in the robe. I began with the
ruched strip, though being a bit wiser now I consciously tried
to leave my stitches looser and not get a curvy hemline.
Obviously I succeeded better now as I didn't have to take out
my hemming. At the last upward curve I left the edges still
loose to be able to tuck the ends of the puffed strip
underneath. The pictures of the V&A dress don't show how
the petticoat trimming continues to the sides, but I thought
this looked neat.
My bolt of braid was running low, but
happily there were a few separate bits long enough. One join I
hid under a puff and another in near the hem on one side. I
don't know why I was so neurotic about them, as I don't think a
join in the trimming would be anything people would be concerned
about in the period as long as there was plenty of it, but I
guess it's one of my modern obsessions. Anyway, then I added the
puffed strip and finished the remaining bits on the sides.
The large ruffle above was cut twice as long
as the gathered line. I finished the top- and bottom edges like
the sleeve ruffles, and hemmed the sides. I gathered it 4cm from
the top edge and whip stitched on the petticoat. The heavy top
edge wouldn't stay up, so I had to baste it lightly on the
When the trimming was finished I closed the
side seams, hemmed the side slits and the rest of the hem at the
sides. I pleated the waist on a dummy, making rather large
pleats as they settle more smoothly under the robe. Tiny pleats
are a thing of the later, closed front gowns. I had to lower the
waistline at the front a bit more than I had estimated, and the
petticoat ended up on the border of being too short. But then I
had already planned to get fabulous shoes to wear with the
Francaise, so they could as well show.
When the pleats were more or less
symmetrical on both sides I sewed the waistband on by machine.
No hand sewing in a place that doesn't show and needs to hold
After all the work with the robe the petticoat seemed to get
done almost by itself even with the rich trimming. Then there
was left only the stomacher that I had put off for such a long
I tried the Francaise on with the
stomacher from the grey Pet en l'Air and decided that while the
width was still fine it was a bit too long. I drafted a new
pattern and made the stomacher base from the same linen as the
bodice lining. It was actually more soft than stiff, but I
always tend to use too heavy materials I decided to give it a
try as the boning would help to keep it in shape.
I simply bag lined two layers and stitched the boning
channels and edges. Then I mounted the satin on it, turning the
edges on the wrong side and whip stitching them on. The
stomacher base was done rather hurriedly and its not even quite
symmetrical, but it doesn't really show when it's on.
Then I had to finally
make decicions about the trimming. I had originally wanted a
spiralling trimming with lots of figure 8ths and s-curves, but
then I realised it might be the most practical thing with my
chosen technique. First of all, spiralling strips should be
very narrow, but then the wide looped braid would swallow up
half of them. Secondly on my body a stomacher is rather a long
an narrow than a triangular piece, which limits the trimming
designs as well. I had also wanted to date my Francaise to
late 1760's to early 1770's just because I love tall hair, and
by then the simpler comperes-fronts were all the rage.
The most fitting layout for the rest
of the gown and the period would probably be a ladder of
straight ruched strips, possibly with bows. My other source of
inspiration, the orange brocade KCI Francaise has a stomacher of
simple ruched rows, which I had at first dismissed as boring,
but gradually it grew on me. I would have still liked to add the
bows frequently seem on portraits, but was by now running out of
braid so I had to abandon them.
So, in the end I cut 6cm wide strips,
gathered them save for about 5cm at the center. This straight
part I gathered along the center line. This simple thing gives a
rather pretty look that sort of combines the ruched and puffed
details on the skirts. This decoration also needed very little
braid, and that could also come in short pieces.
I left the ruching strips ungathered also
for a few centimeters from the edges to get a smoother base for
pinning. I turned the ends on the wrong side, added tape loops
for pinning and then covered the mess underneath with a linen
I had felt a bit lukewarm about the
stomacher, and just sort of wanted to get it done, but in the
end I was surprised at how harmoniously it slipped into the
whole outfit. The horizontal ruchings create a nice sharp
contrast to the vertical ones surrounding them on the robings,
the narrow stomacher is not at least made more narrow by them,
and in general the more geometrical bodice decoration balances
the curves on the skirts.
Then there was the one last thing to add on
the robe: The elbow bows. The 75cm long and 8cm wide pieces were
again finished with the braid like the sleeve ruffles, and I had
left them last, working on them while traveling etc. I gathered
them into lush two-looped bows and tacked on the sleeves. At
first they looked enormous, but on a rococo dress more bows is
always a good thing.
Essential accessories for Robe a la
Francaise are the wide, flimsy ruffles on the sleeves, either
with lace or embroidery. For the Francaise project I also wanted
to indulge my other newly found passion, making bobbin lace. The
lace ruffles should have two or three layers, but one layer on
each sleeve was all I was able to manage with a bit over year's
notice. More detail about making the lace can be found here.
I have always been under the impression that sleeve ruffles were
tacked on the shift sleeves and removed for washing. When I had
gathered the starched ruffles I realized, however, that there
was no way I was going to pull them through the narrow robe
sleeves every time I dressed, they would at best get creased and
at worst tear. So I decided to be unconventional but practical
on my own fashion, and tacked the ruffles on the robe sleeve
ends. While I'll still have to take them of if I want to wash
the dress or change them to another dress, or if they brush my
dinner plate, but it will anyway be likely less often than
washing the shift. I think the more informal Pet en l'Airs will
do with factory lace and I'm not going to make another Francaise
for some time!
Robe a la Francaise is
often, though not always, worn with lace on the neckline too.
I have previously thought that to be sewn on the shift
neckline too, but have since learned that it's tacked on the
robe necklace and the top edge of the stomacher, which makes
sense considering the washing, too. On a lot of portraits you
see only a bit wider, ungathered bit of lace in the stomacher
edge. This seemed to me a nice style for several reasons:
first of all, I did not want too much lace to overcrowd the
beautiful wide neckline and secondly a 25cm long strip of lace
was something I could make in a few month's time.
I sewed the finished lace on a cotton
tape which I tacked on the stomacher. When I tried the Francaise
on I noticed that I had to twist the ends downwards so that the
lace would not stick up but fall on my bosom. It still does not
lie all smooth, however.
I had felt ambiguous about the neckline lace too at some point,
fearing it might make my already quite high (by 18th century
standards) neckline look way too high, yet I still wanted it
(more lace!). In the end I rather like the look: The lace is
light and airy enough not to look stuffy, and it creates a nice
counterpoint for the voluminous sleeve ruffles with a wider
To finish the outfit I took apart a pair of thrifted shoes and
re-fashioned them into matching, embroidered
The Francaise-project was a slow one. Not so
much because it was that difficult after all, but rather because
as I had no clear deadline for it it was all too easy to put on
the shelf repeatedly to make time for more urgent matters, both
hobby- and work-related. Of course it was also very time
consuming with all the hand sewing, not to mention the lace on
which I worked at the same time.
After the unhurried beginning I did at some point towards the
end to lose my patience with the whole thing, including the
accessories, and just wanted to get it done and move on to
something new. This is one reason why I don't have as many
making-of-pictures as I'd like to have and planned to take
beforehand, as I was too much in a hurry and stressed out to try
to play around with the DSLR camera I have difficulties handling
and just snapped a few quick shots with my phone.
The on and off-way of working was far from
ideal also because though I had for once actually made notes and
sketches of my plans in the beginning I still managed to forget
half of what I had intended to do in the long intervals I was
busy with something else. Also the longer you work on something
the more you begin to notice your mistakes and things you have
since learned that should be done differently, and easily feel
too lazy or frustrated to fix them afterwards. And at some point
you just lose your interest and want to begin on something new
and shiny. At first the pretty half finished Francaise on a
dummy in my living room (because my sewing room was a mess at
the time) looked adorable and made me smile, but after some
times I began to be simply annoyed with it. So fickle is the
Finally, when it was
finished, after a couple of weeks the Francaise with all the
pretty accessories began to look lovely to me again. It may
not be nearly period accurate, but on an aesthetic level it
works very well and is very close to my initial idea of a
frilly, pastel toned fountain of prettiness (It has been
already nicknamed "The Frozen Francaise" by a friend). I'm
also still happy with the fabric, though its heavier and
stiffer that silk satin would be it compensates by being
washable (already tested as I frequently sew with chocolate
and sometimes accidents happen) and does not crease easily.
And the color, it's just perfect. And now that I at last have
accomplished a Robe a la Francaise I think I sort of qualify
as a proper 18th century seamstress.
The pictures of the finished dress
on me are taken at the Kahiluoto Manor at Seurasaari
Open Air Museum. Many thanks for the friendly staff and
Finnish National Heritage!)