Originally constructed as a formal robe à la française, this brocaded silk satin gown was modified around 1780 to update it into a robe à l'anglaise (also called a "nightgown" in England), part of a shift to more informal styles of the last quarter of the century. While the robe à la française with its loose flowing pleats extending from the upper back to the hem was worn over wide panniers, the bodice of the robe à l'anglaise fitted tightly into the small of the back ending in a deep point and the closely pleated skirts were supported by crescent-shaped pads with cork or horsehair, familiarly referred to as "bum rolls." Other changes made to the dress include a center-front edge-to-edge closing, rather than a stomacher to fill in the opening, and sleeves that cup the elbow and likely would have been accessorized with fine cotton or gauze cuffs, rather than the multiple pendant self-ruffles and lace engageants typical of the robe à la française. Additionally, at the time of its alteration, linen loops were stitched to the inside seams of the skirt in order that it could be drawn up into the exuberant swags of the robe à la polonaise, another fashionable style of the 1770s and 1780s.
Woven in Spitalfields, London, the ivory satin self-figured with diminutive sprigs and trailing vines and brocaded with sprays of roses and pansies and scattered blue flowers dates to about 1770 to 1775. Although many eighteenth-century dresses were altered 10 or even 20 years after the silk was produced, this example was reworked within just a few years. The soft drape of the lightweight fabric lent itself well to the more fitted construction of the new styles.
Provenance: The dress is believed to have been belonged to Catherine Beekman (1762-1839), wife of Elisha Boudinot (1749-1819), a lawyer and a New Jersey Supreme Court Justice from 1798 to 1804. Married in 1805, Beekman was Boudinot's third wife. A portrait of Catherine Beekman at age five by John Durand is in the collection of the New-York Historical Society (1962.73). An embroidered muslin dress with matching fichu, ca. 1798, also believed to have belonged to Catherine Beekman, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1992.119.1a-c).
For more information, see the Cora Ginsburg Summer 2019 catalogue.