The classic French pannier dresses of the 18th century have been a long-time interest of mine but something that I have never delved into studying. Recently I purchased a set of antique brass bells online and when they arrived I was pleased that one of the bells is shaped like a woman wearing what I thought was a pannier. Given my interest in “extreme” fashions of the past I decided to finally dive into the history of this unique undergarment. My research has ended up being a compare and contrast of two of the most popular dress styles of the time: the robe à la française and the robe à la anglais.
Don’t get confused between the two ever again! Here’s a short guide to panniers, the robe à la française, and the robe à la anglais.
It is widely believed that hoop underskirts were invented in England in the early 1700s and made their way to France roughly a decade later. While the hoop skirts being worn in England at the time were ball/dome-shaped, the French seemed to have gotten more creative with the shape, especially as the nobility reveled in grandiose fashions. Many different shapes were experimented with, with artist Francious Boucher commenting:
“There were all sorts of paniers: funnel-shaped paniers à guéridon, dome-shaped paniers à coupole, paniers à bourrelets flaring out at the foot of the gown, paniers à gondoles which made women resemble ‘water-carriers.”
Boucher brought up a point worth noting. This style of hoop skirt was likely named for what it resembled: the side sacks often used to carry water and supplies, often on the backs of horses and donkeys at the time.
Because of the impractical nature of the skirt, eventually, it was used almost exclusively by the French court and would become a part of the dress style known as the robe à la française.
Robe à la française
The robe à la française is a variation of the style of court dress used throughout Europe for nearly a century beginning around this time. There are many similarities between the dresses worn by royal and noblewomen regardless of the country, but there are also many differences according to country that I am sure each was proud to call their own.
The pannier was perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of the robe à la française is that it utilized wide (and I mean, WIDE!) panniers to create its unique silhouette. As with other fashions of the French court at the time, the extravagance in and of itself was a draw, if not the entire point. Says the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
“Panniers, hooped petticoats fashionable in Europe for much of the eighteenth century, provided support for the era’s voluminous gowns. They also tested a woman’s “natural” grace. The ability to carry oneself elegantly and with the impression of ease despite such cumbersome undergarments was a learned skill and a marker of high social status.”
Besides the pannier the robe à la française has two other primary defining characteristics:
-it was typically created using a “sack back,” with box pleats running down the back rather than a fitted back (see the image below).
-it was typically worn using a fitted bodice with a detachable stomacher.
And above all – the robe à la française was very much a “go big or go home” situation, the perfect example of fashion over function.
Robe a la anglais
Looking at the robe à la anglais is a good way to look at how the popular European style of the early 18th century was altered according to country. Italy and Spain also had their own distinct styles.
There are three things that make the robe à la anglais a striking contrast to the robe à la française. First, while they did have a silhouette focused on expansion at the hips, this was achieved with the use of delicate gathers, not the pannier. As shown in the photos, the English version is in fact much less extreme in this regard.
Second, the robe à la anglais was often made to be worn with the “overskirt” open, revealing beautiful petticoats underneath, as seen in the images below.
And finally, the robe à la anglais utilized a fitted bodice and fitted back, rather than the “sack back” of the robe à la française. And for this fact, I now know that the woman portrayed in my little bell is in fact wearing a robe à la anglais, not a “pannier” as I had originally thought.
Did you learn something about 18th-century court dress from my post? Please share in the comments below!