Historical Notes: Robe en Chemise, Laughing Moon Mercantile #133
This style of dress has become commonly called the “Chemise a la Reine” (the Queen’s Chemise) because there is a painting of Marie Antoinette wearing it in a portrait. The furor engendered by the dress has been discussed in many books and history fashion blogs on the Internet. The objections were many but it was chiefly denounced since it appeared as though the Queen of France thought so little of her subjects feelings that she had herself painted in her underwear. Whether or not this dress was objectionable it certainly was popular. There are many portraits and fashion plates of ladies wearing similar dresses.
The early versions of this dress were simply tubes of fabric drawn in close to the body by a series of drawstrings. Norah Waugh has a diagram of such a dress in “The Cut of Women’s Clothes” in her Diagram XXV. There was a drawstring at the neck, one at the waist, one or two on the full sleeves, and one could also be set under the bust. As time passed the constructions of the dress changed and became more structured. Instead of drawstring at the waist, a waistband appeared to confine the gathers so they would not move around. The same happened at the front neck when those gathers became fastened in place by a lining or a facing. The backs of the bodices at times even lost all their gathers and became tight fitting. The dresses further morphed with some having tight long sleeves and some had no ruffles at all.
There is some disagreement amongst history enthusiasts as to what the dress should even be called. The term “Gaulle” is used although some feel this term is incorrect and was not used at the time. Others point out that this type of dress was called “Chemise a la (insert name here)”, depending on whomever was seen wearing it and was a popular or influential lady. The name “Robe en Chemise” causes the least disagreement as it translates simply as “Chemise Dress”. One blog that details the confusion about terms is found here: http://www.festiveattyre.com/2012/06/costume-mythbusters-case-of-gaulle.html
Here is what Norah Waugh has to say about it in The Cut of Women’s Clothes in the section 1770-1795: “The dress, however, which was to have the most influence on future style as the famous chemise de la reine, called by this name after a portrait by Vigee le Brun of Marie Antoinette in such a dress had been exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1783. The origin of this style was the robe a la creole brought to Paris by Frenchwomen from the West Indies. (They also, incidentally, introduced the practice of washing this garment with a blue rinse.) The robe made of very fine soft Indian muslin, was cut very full and loose, almost like a chemise, the body fullness being held into the waist by a deep sash and the full sleeves to the arms by ribbon ties.”
In the section Quotations from Contemporary Sources from the same book: 1783—Marie Antoinette—It is understandable that I preferred to paint the Queen in simple dresses instead of full Court Dress and the large panier. These portraits were given to her friends, sometime to ambassadors. One of them showed her wearing a straw hat and in a white muslin dress with the sleeves gathered close to the arm; when this was exhibited at the Salon some malicious tongues said the Queen was wearing a chemise. For this was 1783 and already people were slandering her. Mme Vigee-Lebrun in “Souvenirs”
1784 - “When down dances my rib in white, but so bepukered and plaited, I could not tell what to make of her: so turning about, I cried, ‘Hey, Sally, my dear, what new frolic is this? It is like none of the gowns you used to wear.’ ‘No, my dear,’ crieth she, ‘it is no gown, it is the chemise de la reine’.’My dear,’ replied I, hurt at this gibberish, which I was half ashamed to own I did not understand; ‘What is it? You know I am not like you, master of French; let us have the name of your new dress in downright English.’ ‘Why then, said she, ‘if you must have it, it is the queen’s shift.’ Mercy on me thought I, what will the world come to, when an oilman’s wife comes down to serve in the shop, not only in her own shift, but in that of a queen. -Lady’s Magazine”
1789—”All the sex now-from fifteen to fifty and upwards (I should rather say downwards) appear in their white muslin frocks, with broad sashes, with their hair curled over their foreheads, and hanging down behind, to the bottom of their backs-and all without caps. -Lady’s Magazine”
Not everyone agrees on what was worn underneath as well. Some vote for full stays and others say they were left off. This probably had more to do with which silhouette was fashionable in the early years versus the later. A petticoat would have been worn to give a full shape to the skirt.
In the book “Muslin” in the section “England” by Sonia Ashmore, the origin of the style is discussed. “The relatively simple style of dress known as the chemise, for which muslin was the ideal material, came from France in the 1780s, probably inspired by Caribbean dress. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), a fashion leader of her day, is credited with introducing the muslin gown to British fashion after Marie Antoinette sent her a gift of a muslin chemise with fine lace, although muslin was worn before this. The Duchess ‘made one of her most successful entrances at the Prince of Wales’s ball wearing white muslin decorated with silver springs. “A 1787 painting of the Duchess by Thomas Gainsborough (1727—1788) is reminiscent of La Reine en Gaulle, a portrait of Marie Antoinette painted by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun four years earlier.”
In the section “France” Sonia Ashmore provides more detailed information about this style of dress. It was Marie Antoinette who first brought notoriety to muslin, however, For her extravagantly ‘simple life at the Petit Trianon at Versailles, and for visiting her diary and her farm, Le Hameau du La Reine, the Queen favoured printed cottons and muslins instead of formal silks. Away from the court at Versailles, one of her favourite garments was the gaulle, also known as a chemise gown or ‘baby gown’, which she may have adopted during her first pregnancy in 1778. The gaulle was often made of muslin, or muslin and gauze, and, crucially, was relatively unstructured, worn over a flexible cloth bodice in place of whalebone stays. … The gaulle, as notorious for its perceived undress as the ‘tea gown’ would become a century later, also anticipated the muslin gowns worn during the Napoleonic period…. Under the guidance of Marie Antoinette’s marchande de modes—Rose Bertin, known as ‘the Minister of Fashion’ - printed cotton and muslin often usurped silks and satin in the royal wardrobe. ...The Queen’s preference for flimsy muslin, even in winter, contributed to her wider unpopularity; her muslin gowns were perceived as undignified in their resemblance to underwear, unsuited to a women of her status, and unpatriotic in her betrayal of French silk manufacturers. Thus muslin transgressed multiple dress codes, carrying the taint of immorality as well as a betrayal of nation and public duty. The issue of the Queen’s dress rose to the level of scandal with the display at the 1783 Paris Salon of the portrait by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun La Reine en Gaulle, in which all of these sins appeared to be compounded. In the portrait, the Queen is dressed casually, in a muslin gaulle and straw hat, with no jewels. Despite the scandal, the style went on to become more widely fashionable, as is evident from the portrait of Marie Lavoisier.”
I mentioned that Georgiana, Dutchess of Devonshire was given a Robe en Chemise by her friend Marie Antoinette. The Dutchess was painted in a Robe en Chemise as was her friend and the second Dutchess of Devonshire, Elizabeth Foster. Here is a picture of the two of them painted by Guerin in 1791.
In this portrait of Emilie Pecoul, Madame Seriziat, 1795, (1914). Artist: Jacques-Louis David If you look closely you can see that her dress has a flat waistband underneath the sash.
For a link to this printed pattern:
For a link to this pattern as a download:
Sarah Lorraine has done a great deal of research on the Chemise a la Reine. You can find the results here: