A La Polinaise

Polinaise is a fancy way of saying the skirt of a jacket is bunched up in the back.  Costume historians disagree on the specifics which will be largely ignored here as originals are found to support both theories. 

There is no question that the bunched-up skirts were worn and that they can be accurately recreated, the differing opinion is on what the garment should be called.  One school of thought dubs any such looped up jacket/gown as polonaise, while others refer to anything that does not meet the classifications below by the French term as “robe à l’anglaise retroussé”.   Retroussée, in this instance, is defined as skirts “looped up”. 

There’s a lot in a name, but in the end, I think it’s important to “recreate” rather than create your own version of what was worn during the 18th century and less important what you call it. 

Below is what some define as polonaise.  The issue under debate is whether the robe must meet at the neckline and have additional pleats at the sides to be called polonaise.  

What Is the 18th Century Definition of a Polonaise?

* The dress version — the robe à la polonaise (French/English; also called “polonese” or “poloneze” in English):

* Bodice and skirt of the robe are cut in one — no waist seam

* Robe has four pieces:  two backs, and two fronts

* The skirt of the robe is usually looped up using two ribbons, tapes, or cords, forming three swags

* The center-front of the robe meets at the neckline, then slopes away in an inverted “V” shape towards the waist and into the skirt (See below)

* Inverted pleats emerged at the waist from the side-back and center-back seams, creating more fullness in the skirt (see below)

* The bodice of the robe usually has 1-3 pleats at the side back, which serves to fit the robe closer to the body

* Under the robe is worn a separate or false waistcoat, bodice, or stomacher

* The sleeves generally ended just below the elbow, usually with a cuff (called “sabot”)

Photos: Glasgow Museums Collection. The noted features above are the inverted “V” front, and the pleated back. See above.

Article abstract:  The robe à la polonaise as worn in France and England in the late eighteenth century was a substantially different style from other fashionable gowns of the period and was remarkably popular in its own right. In addition to the looped-up overskirt, the polonaise was distinguished by the robe cut without waist seam and inverted `V’ front opening. It was probably derived from the Polish robe called `kontusz,’ as well as the looped-up skirts of the robe à la française. Contemporaries regarded it as a more `natural’ style of dress in line with the Enlightenment, and it was thought to be most appropriate for wear by middle- and upper-class women of young to middle age. The style featured revivals in the 1790s and late nineteenth century.  – Source:  Van Cleave, Kendra, and Brooke Welborn. “`Very Much the Taste and Various are the Makes’: Reconsidering the Late-Eighteenth-Century Robe à la Polonaise.” Dress 39, no. 1 (May 2013): 1-24.

The “bunching” is often referred to as “kilting” and is achieved by pulling up the bottom of the jacket/gown with loops, either on the under side or the outer side. 

This lovely green Polonaise, ca. 1780. Note there is no inverted “V” on the front of the bodice, nor are there visible side pleats on the skirt. The skirt is cartridge pleated onto the bodice. The Met. Robe a la Polonaise, ca. 1780.
“Polonaise”, ca. 1780, Musee Galliera, Paris.
Source below
“Robe a la Polonaise”, ca. 1787, The Met. There are pleats at the waist but there is no inverted “V” in front. Instead, there is contrasting trim that gets steadily wider from the neckline to the bottom of the skirt and continues around the bottom back. This trim was sometimes gathered, or ruched.
The buttons were sometimes placed as shown, and sometimes higher where the skirt joins the bodice. Loops attached to the under-side of the skirt are hung from self-fabric covered buttons.
Interior of a jacket/gown showing how the skirt is draped on the under-side. The tapes do not show on the outside when worn in this manner.
In this diagram from Janet Arnold the gown is labeled Polonaise 1770-1785. There is no inverted “V” in front and the skirt appears to be cartridge pleated although this does not show clearly. Note the placement of the buttons on which the ribbons hang to create the kilting effect.

The polonaise gown first came into fashion in the 1770s. It was a style of gown with a close-fitting bodice and the back of the skirt gathered up into three separate puffed sections to reveal the petticoat below. The method of suspending the fabric varied. Most often the dress had rows of little rings sewn inside the skirt through which a cord ran from hem to waist. Alternatively, ribbon ties would be used, with the ribbons forming decorative bows. However, in some instances the skirt was held in place by simple cords sewn to the inner waist of the dress and looped over buttons attached to the outside waistline. The stays underpinning the bodice of the polonaise were not markedly different from those which supported the robe à la française.  – The Met Museum. 

 

From The Met, 1774-93. Detail showing button placement.
The Met, “Robe a la Polonaise”, 1780-85. There is no inverted “V” and the skirt appears to be cartridge pleated to the bodice.

Published by thehistoricfoodie

I write articles for various magazines and books about foods and cooking techniques. My work centers primarily around historic foods and I travel throughout the country doing cooking demonstrations at various local, state, and national venues and teaching an occasional period cooking class. I've done cooking demonstrations on national and local television, including Chicago's WGN.

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