So excited to talk about #2 of the Top 7 Looks from Outlander S2: Claire’s emerald brocade Robe á la Piemontaise!
When I first saw this promo photo I wanted it soooo badly! If you’ve known me for longer than five minutes that comes as no surprise because green is my favorite color. That gorgeous fabric gives me daydreams of using the rent money on yards of silk. Just kidding! That’s what credit cards are for. Emergencies… very important fancy fabric emergencies. *sigh* Being a responsible adult is no fun.
So while I enjoyed the NYC billboards with VIVE LES FRASERS, and I’m presuming 10-foot-tall cleavage, I just wanted to see this dress in action. We had to wait until episode 7 to see it! Unlike #1, the 1740’s Dior Suit, this is a true 18th century style. However, the Robe á la Piemontaise was not fashionable until the late 1770’s to 1780’s so it’s about 40 years early. Back in January I joined in on the #GeorgianJanuary Instagram theme month, and mistakenly called this gown a Robe á la Française. I simply hadn’t read as much at that point and didn’t notice the difference from francaises. Also called sacque or sack-back dresses, these gowns both have pleated fabric across the shoulders that look almost identical from the back.
I don’t speak French, but it’s safe to say that if I can figure out robe à la Française means French dress, you probably did as well 😉 So what’s a Robe à la Piemontaise? According to Google Translate it’s “dress with piemontaise,” which makes it sound like it comes with a sauce on the side. *eye roll*
I still remember un po’ italiano, and recognized the Italian term “Piemontese,” as in cucina piemontese. Piemonte is Italy’s Piedmont region in the north along the Alps, as the name comes from “foot of the mountain” (piede + montagna). The capital of the region is Turin, which I got to visit very briefly back when I did study abroad. A Wikipedia rabbit hole led me to Clotilde, sister of Louis XVI and later Queen of Sardinia. She was a devout Catholic and wanted to become a nun, but a royal marriage is simply too valuable politically to be wasted. The King, her brother, arranged for her to marry Charles Emmanuel, Prince of Pièmont when Clotilde was just 16 years old. Her sister-in-law Marie Antoinette writes of her younger sister Èlisabeth being very upset over her sister leaving France, but apparently there was no love lost between the congenial-yet-conservative Clotilde and her fashionable SIL. The official marriage, after a proxy one in Versailles, took place in Turin in 1775—right around the time this dress was briefly fashionable! Unfortunately I couldn’t find any direct references to this dress style possibly being named after the new Princess of Piemonte or an Italian import, and it will take more time to look for primary sources.
Let’s compare these sack-back dresses, which look very similar at first glance.
Cream silk gown of Spanish origin from San Telmo Museoa, a museum dedicated to Basque culture. Likely 1770-85.
Green imperial brocade Robe á la Française of French origin from The Met, NYC. Likely 1750-75.
However, the profile tells a different story!
You can see that the gown on the left has detached pleats and the green one on the right has pleats that are one piece (back and skirt). So now we know the cream gown is a piemontaise, and confirmed that the green brocade is indeed a francaise. You can’t see the wall behind the dress in the profile view of a francaise. (Sorry, going to get lazy with proper terms.)
Those pleats were often used as an opportunity to show off some nice pattern matching like these two:
The back can be fitted with the CB ties, and you can see the reinforced fabric and stitches where the pleats are attached. This is a museum deaccession from the Brooklyn Museum that was sold by Augusta Auctions.
Damask or Brocade or Jacquard?
Since I don’t have much on the provenance of the dress, I wanted to delve into the textiles and the confusing intermingling of damask/brocade/jacquard. Shopping online you might see descriptions like this one from Mood: “British Amethyst Damask Satin-Faced Jacquard.” What the heck does that even mean?!
Let’s look back to see where this word salad came from.
Silk fabric production came to Europe from China, and by the Renaissance we can see evidence of complicated woven fabrics in paintings and frescoes. For example, “The Birth of Mary” by Ghirlandaio, which is in Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The fabric pattern on the noblewoman in the middle is very beautiful in person, and the detail is impressive even five centuries later.
Brocade comes from the Italian wood brocatto originating from the past tense of broccare, which my dictionary give as “to brocade” but the older usage apparently meant “to stud with nails.” Brocco means stick or thorn in modern Italian, and broccoli means “tiny nails” so you can see the etymology. Brocade patterns required great skill and a lot of time; it would take weeks just to prepare the loom with up to 40 different thread colors, and then months of weaving it with the help of a draw boy standing overhead.
The name “jacquard” given to fabric refers to fabrics made on the Jacquard loom, invented in 1804 by Joseph-Marie Jacquard. His loom used punch cards to help create the design, meaning that a less-skilled worker could make a beautiful fabric much faster. A Jacquard loom can make various kinds of weaves including damask, brocatelle, brocade, and matelasse. So you could say that all of these are jacquard fabrics, but the way it’s most often used now is to describe a lighter-weight damask or brocade, with brocade calling to mind a heavier, stiff fabric. The Dreamstress blog goes into more depth and I really recommend it if you’re curious to know more.
I browsed the NYC garment district for some examples:
Damask: A reversible floral or ornamental design often in one color (flat and satin) or two (design and solid ground).
Brocade: Various designs, but gives a raised embroidered look. It is not reversible–wrong side of fabric will usually be striped.
This was tagged as a “double-faced brocade” and you can see that this one has been woven to be reversible.
Imperial brocade: A type of brocade with metallic threads
Compare with this embroidered satin–see how there’s no visible weave or loose threads on the reverse?
I came up with a little jingle to help me remember.
Flip it, mirrored- damask!
Flip it, striped- brocade!
Flip it, hairy- discontinuous brocade!
Okay, that last one needs work, but maybe it will help you 😉
How to Make It
There should be a petticoat underneath the open skirt of the gown like the extant dresses above. The large box pleat at the center of the skirt allows the bodice tabs to lie flat, and also mimics the look of gown-over-petticoat.
Type: Robe à la Piemontaise
HA Rating: 9/10
Silk damask or brocade, also blue/green changeable taffeta
Hook and eye closures (front)
Boning (along center front)
Gown with matching petticoat: 10-12 yds
Satin fabric or ribbon for ruching trim (plus lining, lacing for lining back, etc.)
JP Ryan Robe à la Française/ Pet en l’air
Reconstructing History Robe à la Française
Robe a la Piemontaise tutorial by The Fashionable Past (with layout from Danish museum)
Robe a la Francaise overview by Couture Mayah
Mill Farm Robe a la Française
Overskirt/Petticoat – Simplicity-American Duchess 8411
Undergarments (to be used for all costumes)
Paniers/Side Hoops: Simplicity-American Duchess 8411, Dreamstress Panier-Along tutorial
Stays: Recommend strapless stays with this neckline. See Corsets and Crinolines (Diderot and half-boned stays), Butterick B4254 (View A or B), Simplicity 8162, or Reconstructing History
Shift/Chemise: Self-drafted or Simplicity 8162
Poison-detecting necklace (optional)
Silk stockings with ribbon garters
Green satin 18th century repro shoes (Modern heels like these would fun if you’d like to look more like a time-traveler 😉 )
Up Next: #3, The Red Dress!
Stills: Starz, Screencaps: Outlander-Online.com
The Silk Industry in Spitalfields
Patterns of Fashion and other books on the Recommended Reading list
[Edited 8/30/17: Reading list missing link]