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Robe à la française
American, the silk French, 1760s
This superb gown, made at a time when American colonists still had much in common culturally and fashionably with their British brethren, leads the modern observer down a curious path as twisting as the pattern on the silk from which it is made. Its discovery in an American estate is intriguing because of its conspicuous use of yards of French silk at a time when such goods were contraband.The silk itself is a faint aquamarine blue cannelé (channeled) silk, incorporating an extra floating patterning warp bound at intervals, resulting in a distinctively ribbed texture. Scattered bouquets of carnations and peonies in shades of burgundy, coral, peach, and rose pink, offset by bright blue blossoms with frisé centers, alternate repeatedly in opposing directions among frilled ivory meanders traced with delicate green foliate trails. Supplementary silk wefts bound in twill form these leafy garlands, while the colorful pattern is formed of discontinuous brocading wefts. The complexity of the weave structure does not necessarily hint at Lyon as a locus of manufacture as Huguenot weavers in London's Spitalfields district were capable of equally elaborate feats, but the style of the flowers and pattern, with undulating streamers layered with sprays, is distinctly French and specific to the 1760s. By contrast, a pronounced formality, characterized by an orderly and controlled layout, is not common in English examples, which convey a greater sense of spontaneity. Double-layered sleeve ruffles, serpentine bands of self-fabric ruching down the bodice and skirt edges, and coordinating fly fringe trim further support a dating of this dress to the mid-1760s or early 1770s.

American taste from the 1740s through the 1770s shows a preference for white or light colored silks brocaded with polychrome scattered flowers, if surviving textiles with colonial histories are used as a guide. Martha Washington's sister, Elizabeth Dandridge, wore a sack gown (the Anglicized term for the robe à la française) like this, with a matching petticoat. However, by the time of the American Revolution, fashions in Europe were already changing, and silks were being supplanted by challengers. By 1776, political correctness demanded wearing simpler garments of American homespun or milled cottons, linens, or woolens.

For more information, see the Cora Ginsburg 2017 catalogue.

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