Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Costume Mythbusters: the case of the gaulle

True of False: A gathered-front 18th c. gown with tight sleeves and a fitted back is known as a "gaulle", vs. a gown that is gathered all the way around and has puffy sleeves, which would be known as a "chemise a la reine".

How would you answer?

If you had asked me this question 2 days ago, I would have answered True without hesitation.  I have read this over and over again online from people who know WAY more about 18th c. clothing than I do, so I believed it as fact.  For the past few years, I have been using this distinction myself and teaching other people to do the same thing.

But earlier this week I started wondering how the term gaulle was actually used in the 18th c., and I fell down a rabbit hole of research and historical fashion nerddom.  The specific way that we have been using the word "gualle" - i.e. as a distinct sub-category of the chemise dress with tight sleeves and a fitted back - is without a doubt FALSE.


To unravel this myth, I decided to look though as many different 18th c. fashion journals as I could find to see what people were calling these gowns at the time that they were made.  I found over 40 examples of gathered dresses in 6 different French and German fashion publications from the 1780's and 90's.*  I have posted  most of these fashion plates along with the period words used to describe them on a Pinterest board for easy reference.  These dresses were called a lot of things, but I did not find one single reference to the word gaulle.  I was amazed!

There are other costume historians who are studying the topic of chemise gowns much more thoroughly, and I am sure there is additional information out there that I have missed.  But from my quick survey of online period fashion magazines, here are some of the things that I discovered:

  • The most common name for these type of dresses was "robe en chemise", which would translate simply to "chemise gown" in English.  Other plates were described by more exotic versions of the chemise title, such as "chemise a la Floricourt", "chemise a l'Anglaise", "chemise Grecque", "chemise a la Jesus", or "chemise a la Reine".  Other texts used the word "chemise" alone and simply added a descriptor for the type of fabric or color, like "ein Chemise von weißem Linon" (chemise of white lawn).  
  • Speaking of "chemise a la Reine", I only found this term used three times and in only one publication, and it was used for the earliest incarnations of this type of gown.  These illustrations were published just a few years after Marie Antoinette started wearing chemise dresses in the early 1780's.  At that point, they were still new and trendy garments specifically associated with the queen.  After chemise-style dresses became more common, the "a la Reine" appears to have been dropped.
  • In the very few instances when the word "chemise" was not used for gathered dresses, they usually were described as morning gowns (du matin) or with the term "neglige", which denotes a dress worn in informal situations.  A few others use the word "fourreau", which seems to mean something along the lines of a shift or a sheath dress.  Two plates were listed as "Creole" gowns, and one of those goes on to describe this as a gown worn by Frenchwomen in America, so maybe this type of garment was a popular choice for the heat of New Orleans.  Finally, one example described the gathered bodice as "en rideau", which means it is like a curtain.  But once again, no references to a "gaulle" anywhere.  
  • I found no distinguishing titles to separate gowns with puffy or tight sleeves, fitted or loose backs, or high or low necklines.  They were all called chemise gowns.  Even in the mid 1790's when the gowns began to morph into new forms with standing collars, deep V-necklines, and were combined with vests or various over-garments, they were still called chemises. 
  • Colored chemise gowns were quite common in fashion plates.  I found examples that were red, pink, peach, yellow, green, blue, purple, grey, and black.  The colors could be muted or very deep.  Colored gowns were listed as being made of muslin, linen, taffeta, and satin, and yet again, they were all referred to as chemise gowns.   
  • Patterned chemise gowns in muslin or silk also existed.  Small dots and stripes were the most common, but I found one example of a chemise gown decorated with stars.   
I have no doubt that the word "gaulle" was used somewhere in 18th c. texts as a creative or exotic title for a chemise dress, but it definitely was not the norm, and it definitely had nothing to do with how fitted the dress was.  And BTW, if anybody knows of an example of the word gaulle used in period literature or fashion plates, I would LOVE to hear from you!  The only example of this word that I could track down was from the painting, Marie Antoinette en Gaulle, which my fabulous art historican friend Sarah from Mode Historique tells me was actually called "la Reine avec chapeau" inVegee-Lebrun's own painting inventories.  It seems that later art historians are the ones who added the term "gaulle" to the title.

But does all of this mean that you shouldn't use the word gaulle anymore?  Well... not necessarily.  You could think of the word "gaulle" like the term "zone gown", which is another modern costume term that was not used in the 18th c.  Neither of these might be historically accurate words, but if historians and costume enthusiasts have agreed to use these words for particular styles of dress, then what's the harm in it?  I just want people to be informed about the historical facts as well, and then you can make an educated choice about whether you prefer to use the modern dress term or the period one.

So now that this myth has been busted, stay tuned to read more about my newest project - a black striped gaulle robe en chemise.



*All of the fashion plates that I used for this survey are found online at these three sources.  If you know of other webbed 18th c. fashion journals that include the original text, please let me know!
Journal des Luxus und der Moden
Bunka Gakuen Library (browse by "History/Age" - there are a number of journals in the 18th c. section)
Gallica copy of Journal de la mode et du goût


5 comments:

ZipZip said...

What good sleuthing! I've also noticed the use of the word "chemise" to describe a variety of gathered dresses, but hadn't ever explored the terminology expressly, as you did.

A couple more late 18th century publications to peruse, also from the Bunka Gakuen library: "The Fashions of London and Paris during the Years 1798-1801", and "Gallery of Fashion". Text for the former is separated from the plates -- it's pushed to the front of content -- but with care you can put plate and text together. Both feature a great many dresses of this type.

Very best,

Natalie

Jen Thompson said...

Natalie - Thanks for the recs! I was also interested in seeing how far into the empire/regency period the term chemise was being used for similarly gathered dresses. I'll definitely keep looking into it in the future, but my family might kill me if I don't back away from the computer now! LOL! I get a bit obsessive when I start researching something!

Augustintytär said...

Historical fashion nerddom is so much fun! Thank you for sharing!

Ela said...

Great article, and fantastic job on the research! Actually, I've always wondered whether the "gaulle" in "La reine en gaulle" was somehow a corruption of the term "Gaul"/"Les Gauls", an antiquated term simply describing "the French" or "something French". Nowadays it's mostly used when adding a poetical flavor or when you want to emphasize the "Frenchness" of something. I know, there'a an 'l' too much in "gaulle", but I have no idea *when* that term was attached to the picture, and as we all know, orthography has changed over the centuries ('Britain' once being spelled as 'Britten'). So, couldn't it be some simple misunderstanding in a way that someone not familiar with French fashion terms nevertheless wanted to emphasize/describe the special *French* way in which the Queen was dressing, i.e. "La reine en gaulle" --> "The Queen in [a typical] French [dress]".

Just a blind guess on my part, it'd be worth looking up and considering the etymology of the word 'gaulle', which doesn't exist in my dictionary...and it'd be interesting to know when the painting's title was altered and by whom.

Cassidy said...

Awesome work! I think we do have a tendency to turn more general or later terms into hard-and-fast rules, so it's always good to look into them. And I do love fashion mythbusters. :D

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