Robe a la Française
England (c. 1740)
A perfect example of the robe à la française at mid-century, this hand-painted silk dress displays the opulence, Orientalism, and insatiable baroque excess of the time. Layers build on layers; flowers terrace out from the two-dimensional on the textile, to silk flowers, to nets laden with trapped flowers and floss. The silhouette is perfectly of the era: panniers dilate the hips; a narrow waist is achieved by the corset, which further pushes up and supports the bust. A deep décolletage is rendered more or less modest with insertions of bits of cloth, and the sleeves are finished with layers of engageants that are generally just basted in for easy detachment and washing and are thereby useful in keeping the valued dress clean.
This painted silk gown is The Costume Institute’s earliest example of the eighteenth-century fashion for exoticism and chinoiserie. The gown’s bold, somewhat fantastical floral pattern, with its use of dense areas of saturated color, is not, however, typical of the more commonly seen Chinese export silks, with their delicate and naturalistic designs.
Technical analyses of The Costume Institute’s examples of Chinese export textiles by the Museum’s Objects Conservation Laboratories revealed pigments bound in animal glue with underpainted designs in lead white outlined in silver and black paint. In contrast, the analysis of this gown disclosed the presence of a plant gum binder but no underpaint or silver and black painted outlines. Four pigments were used to create the palette—Prussian blue, gamboge, and red and brown lake—suggesting that the gown is most likely of European manufacture.
As early as the late eighteenth century, factories had been established in England, France, Holland, and Germany to replicate Chinese painted silks. Huguenots had begun to produce silks in Germany with the support of the Prussian governor, and it is likely that this textile is of Dutch or German origin. In addition, evidence suggests that the gown itself was constructed in England and thus is an exceedingly vivid surviving example of the intersecting transits of culture and commerce that permeated the period.