The 18th-century "Robe Volante" dress marked an important turning point in early 18th-century fashion. It put an end to the hourglass silhouette of Louis XIV's time, by concealing the shape of the bust under wide swathes of fabric that simply fell from the shoulder to the feet.
The habit was all the rage at Versailles during the Regency of Philippe d'Orléans (1715-1723). But, inspired by the modest dressing gowns of the 17th- century, the model had also been the subject of harsh criticism. One found it neglected. It was especially criticized for not emphasizing enough the attributes of the fair sex. As a result, from 1730 onwards, the Robe Volante began to evolve into what would become known as the Robe à la Française, which would be the court dress par excellence throughout the reign of Louis XV and until the end of the 1770s.
The pleats "à la Watteau"
The 18th-century Robe à la Française retains from the Robe Volante the folds in the back, known as "à la Watteau", because the painter has represented them a lot in his portraits.
The Two Cousins, by Antoine Watteau (1716)
The generous volume of the dress coat is drawn back into a double series of large flat pleats in the back. These pleats, which characterize the Robe à la Française, fall from the neckline to the feet and sometimes extend into a train.
L'enseigne de Gersaint, by Antoine Watteau (1720)
A structured bustline
If the back is hidden under the mantua, the front highlights the feminine attributes. A Robe à la Française is worn on a whalebone bodice that gives structure to the bust and neckline. This bodice ends in a point to better emphasize the slimness of the waist and the shapes of the hips.
It is on the sides of this very fitted bust that the panels of the dress coat are folded. These flaps were sometimes fixed by "compères", in other words pieces of fabric sewn on the inner part of the edges of the dress and buttoned.
In this portrait, Madame de Pompadour also adds trimmings made of a ladder of ribbons tied over the stomacher.
Madame de Pompadour, by François Boucher (1758)
The dress also has pagoda sleeves. At the level of the elbow, they end in a large lapel that flares out on the forearm. It is in this lapel that are sewn the "engageantes", a cascade of lace flounces.
The opening of the dress coat uncovers the skirt, often made of the same fabric as the coat. To give it all its volume, also characteristic of the Robe à la Française, the skirt is worn on a whalebone petticoat or Paniers.
The shape of these last ones evolves compared to those of the Robe Volante. The shape of a "bell" flattens on the front and the back to widen towards the sides. This one could reach 2,5 meters! Such a wide span made it inconvenient, which is why it was reserved for the great occasions and ceremonies of the court.
Marie Antoinette in a white satin basket dress, by Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun (1778)
The evolution to English garden dresses
Imposing and reserved for the high aristocracy, the French dress was thus worn by the women of the court until the 1770s. Only the ornamentation, the richness, and the nature of the fabrics vary. Unique and changing, it is the essence of the rococo aesthetic.
This Robe à la Française alone sums up the Rococo aesthetic for which beauty is necessarily dynamic; the undulating flowers of the fabric, the sinuous applications of the silk chenille on the bodice, corresponds to the swing of the basket when the woman moved.
"This French dress alone sums up the rococo aesthetic for which beauty is necessarily dynamic; to the undulation of the flowers of the fabric, to the sinuous applications of the silk chenille on the bodice, corresponds the swaying of the basket when the woman moved."
Pascale Gorguet-Ballesteros, Robe à la française, Musée de la mode de la ville de Paris.
But new forms began to emerge from 1770, inspired by the country spirit of English dresses. The dresses were shortened to show the ankles and facilitate walking; the bodices were also softened to allow better movement and breathing. And soon the French dress, symbol par excellence of the rococo but heavy and impractical, will fall into disuse.