After last week’s embroidered waistcoat (a personal favorite), I asked our Facebook fans for their own favorite garments, and received a request for a polonaise.

Readers less immersed in the world of vintage costumes might not recognize the word, just as our descendants a hundred years from now might be stymied by “culottes” or “jeggings.” Fashion history is filled with defined – and named – garment forms like these. Some last for a few years, others for decades or centuries. Many are (correctly or incorrectly) named for historical styles, or for fictional characters and celebrities. Some terms are applied somewhat indiscriminately to a variety of styles, or to a piece that evolved so much over the years as to be almost unrecognizable from its origins, but many are specific, distinct garments.  (A jegging is a jegging is a jegging.)  (No, we don’t have any jeggings in the collections . . . give us a few decades.)

The robe a la polonaise gown was introduced in the 1770s. The style emphasized puffs of fabric around the back and sides of the full skirt, created with tapes and ties on the underside. It was revived a century later, this time with the poufs and puffs centered in the back of the skirt to add to the bustle effect. The polonaise of the 1870s and 1880s was a long bodice or robe, fastened up the front, with a puffed and gathered back.

We have a few such gowns in our collections, including the one shown here (donated by Joan Kain). Like many of our costumes, it was donated by a county resident but was itself worn elsewhere – in this case, in Cheltenham, England around 1880, by the donor’s great-aunt. The polonaise fastens from neck to hem with hooks and eyes, covered with tiny bows.  Flounces of the same fabric are at the wrists, polonaise hem, and underskirt hem, with an extra flounce on the underskirt. The colors have faded, and the gauze-like fabric (perhaps Chambery gauze) has stiffened; there are many tears, especially in the underskirt. It may not look like such hot stuff today, but at the time it was a well-made and fairly stylish day gown.

The fragile condition of the fabric – and the fact that several of the interior tapes are missing from the polonaise robe – means we couldn’t achieve quite the effect the original designer was hoping for. To see the real thing in action, here’s an illustration from Harper’s Bazaar, 1876 (below), or check out these examples (with additional information on the form’s history) from the Met, the MFA, and the FIDM museum. (Fans of fashion take note – clicking these links may lead you into a rabbit hole of more and more fabulous designs, ensuring that you get no work done for the rest of the day.)

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