The Robe à la Française Reproduction

DRESS & ESCAPISM - THE DRESS RESEARCH EXHIBITION SERIES

Anne Bissonnette, PhD, Josée Chartrand, MA, and Katelin Karbonik co-curators of the series

Part 1 of 3: Dress Artifacts & Curatorial Practices
A Virtual (and Evolving) Exhibition
Anne Bissonnette, Lead Curator
June 30, 2020 – June 30, 2021


Home | The Blair Suit Reproduction | The Robe à la Française Reproduction | The Mid-1790s Chintz Gown | The Chemise Dress | The 1796  Reproduction Wedding Gown | The Housemaid's Dress


The robe à la française reproduction
Made by Carolyn Dowdell
Silk, cotton or linen lining
Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection, Department of Human Ecology, University of Alberta
Mount, photographs, and montage by Anne Bissonnette©

Several graduate students in the Department of Human Ecology have conducted experiential research through the process of making reproduction historical garments. This was the case for the research of MA student Carolyn Dowdell who reproduced a blue silk robe à la française, as well as several other women’s ensembles and underpinnings typical of 1770s high fashion. The pieces were not featured in her 2010 thesis, The Fruits of Nimble Finger: Garment Construction and the Working Lives of Eighteenth-Century English Needlewomen,” but were nonetheless a building block in her journey.

Like the tailors and mantua-makers at Colonial Williamsburg, Dowdell spent hours sewing by hand in reproduction period clothing using tools and techniques of the period. She also accessed museum artifacts to gain a deeper understanding of labour practices and work conditions in 18th-century England. Her approach to women’s needle skills through observing and reproducing women’s garments was a turning point for her as she learnt to question sources she had previously relied upon:

 

“One of the most valuable, fascinating, yet also frustrating consequences of using actual artefacts for the study of dress is how frequently they differ from the paintings and illustrations routinely treated as authoritative representations. At first, being confronted with an artefact that does not conform to any familiar image is unsettling, and the first reaction may be to assume that the artefact is unrepresentative. However, when one moves past the dictates of historical fashion plates and recognizes that the artefact is a survivor of lived history, it becomes the authority and proves the lie of the image.”[1]

 

Reproduction gowns can serve scholarly goals and broaden current curatorial practices. Dowdell’s work at the University of Alberta and her 2015 PhD at Queen’s University, “The Multiple Lives of Clothes: Alteration and Reuse of Women’s Eighteenth-Century Apparel in England,” advocates for the close examination of historical clothing to push boundaries of knowledge. The gown she produced presented in this exhibition is also able to fit larger and taller bodies, which enables us to dress it on a contemporary, larger-sized mannequin.

While rigorous in nature, museum exhibitions are, like stage and film, impacted by current fashion and aesthetics which are dominated by a multitude of stereotypes. From the subject-matter and artifacts selected to the ways objects are mounted and staged, a curator is an individual “of the world and in the word, but also [one who] shapes the world.”[2] The curator’s eye is influenced by contemporary fashion and spectacles, but they also hold the power to influence others through their work. The on-going tendency of curators to select and present relatively small-sized garments on white mannequins they see as neutral can, for instance, affect individuals of different sizes and races who may not see themselves in the story presented. This greatly impacts efforts to represent diversity and to de-colonize popular conceptions of history. Clothing, more than any other type of artifacts, can help change people’s ability to relate to history as visitors often love to imagine themselves wearing a garment on display.

Figure 1
Off white striped floral robe à la française and matching petticoat
Unknown creator, France, 1775-mid 1780s
Silk brocaded exterior, bodice lined in linen
Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection, Department of Human Ecology, University of Alberta
Purchase (2014.1.1ab)

Worn with:

Whitework engageantes
Unknown creator, England, 18th century
Cotton Mull plain weave with whitework embroidery
Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection, Department of Human Ecology, University of Alberta
Purchase (2014.1.8)

Ivory shoes
Unknown creator, Europe, ca. 1785
Silk satin, cotton or linen lining
Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection, Department of Human Ecology, University of Alberta
Purchase (2017.7.1)

Paste buckles
Unknown creator, England, 18th century
Metal and rhinestones
Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection, Department of Human Ecology, University of Alberta
Purchase (2017.7.2)

Mount, paper hair, photographs, and montage by Anne Bissonnette©

Figure 2
Hand-colored engraving on laid paper from Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français, 41e Cahier (bis) des Costumes Français, 36e suites d'Habillemens à la mode en 1784. Pour servir de supplément au 6e Cahier des Coeffures.
Plate xx 263, "Grande Robe Françoise qui étoit celle d’étiquette au voyage de Fontainebleau 1783."
Designed by: Pierre-Thomas LeClerc (French, about 1740–after 1799)
Engraved by: Pierre-Charles Baquoy (1759–1829)
Publisher: Esnauts et Rapilly (French, 18th century)
Paris, France, 1784
38.1 x 24.1 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection (44.1577)
www.mfa.org
Link to museum artifact

Figure 3
Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom
mid-18th century
oil on canvas (80 × 56.2 cm)
Art Gallery of Ontario
Purchase, with funds from the European Curatorial Committee, 2020 (2019/2437)
Link to museum artifact

 

Do you know of other interesting strategies to address racial stereotypes in museum exhibitions?

Share your thoughts by e-mailing anne.bissonnette@ualberta.ca and join the conversation about diversity in exhibition design!

 

 


[1] Carlyn Dowdell, “The Fruits of Nimble Finger: Garment Construction and the Working Lives of Eighteenth-Century English Needlewomen” (master’s thesis, University of Alberta, 2010), 118, https://era.library.ualberta.ca/items/92d65301-774c-4472-90e0-3a93f409352a.

[2] A quote used by Karl Aspelund to contextualize fashion designers. See Karl Aspelund, Fashioning Society: A Hundred Years of Haute Couture by Six Designers (New York, NY: Fairchild Books: 2009), xv.

Support for the exhibition was provided by a KIAS Dialogue Grant from the Kule Institute for Advanced Study and a CIP Artist Project Grant by the Edmonton Arts Council and the City of Edmonton.

 

 

 

 

 

This exhibition also draws on research supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The following individuals have contributed to Dr. Bissonnette’s research thus far: Josée Chartrand, Meg Furler, Peggy Isley, Katelin Karbonik, Patricia Siferd, and Sarah Woodyard.