Monday, November 7, 2011

Is it a robe a l'anglaise or a quarter back or both?

Recently a new term has peaked my interest: quarter back. I've gone about for a while now, thinking a quarter back gown was just another way of constructing a robe a l'anglaise, like there were two options, quarter back or en forreau. I asked Nicole over at Diary of a Mantua Maker and she has informed me that, at the millinery shop in Williamsburg, they refer to these as two different types of gown. She has also informed me that museums often categorize their collections in very broad terms, which is probably why I have never seen gowns called this before. I scanned through all the fashion plate books I have and still nothing, and in all the fashion history books I have, I have never come across this term. Only online. I'm so curious why this term is so hard to find information on. 

From what I understand, here are examples of each:

A 1750's Robe a l'anglaise with it's en forreau back,
which is cut as one with the skirt. From the Met Museum.

A 1784-87 gown in the quarter back style, with a bodice cut in
separate pieces from the skirt. This is listed on the
Metropolitan Museum's website as a Robe a l'anglaise.
1991.204a, b. 

Another 1780's dress listed as an Robe a l'anglaise
by the Metropolitan Museum, but cut in the
quarter back style. 1982.291a, b.  

Does anyone have a book or any info that refers to this?

One theory that seems plausible is in regard to language and things getting "lost in translation." So many of the terms we use in fashion history, especially in the 18th century, come from the French language. Could it be possible that the French called both styles of fitted-back gown a l'anglaise, because they were adopted from the English? Then when people use the terms, they use the French, and certain terminology used by english-speaking countries gets lost? Is this why other english terms, like "round gown," "kerchief," etc are less commonly heard, but robe a la _______, fichu, etc are very commonly referred to?

So now I'm wondering if it's inappropriate to refer to both of these styles as a l'anglaise? Or if it is acceptable, and we can still call quarter back gowns an anglaise, like we call jeans, pants, but not all pants are jeans? Ooo I'm itching to find out!

And whatever do we call this one? It is both pleated and separate from the skirt!

1780 -1790. Listed as a robe a l'anglaise
on the LACMA site. M.59.25a. 

Ideas anyone???


  1. Honestly, unfortunately, I don't think they're two different types of gown. I recently did a post on the anglaise, looking at (French) fashion plates, and there are gowns labeled "anglaise" with the quartered back and no mention of having some aspect of another type of gown. (There is one that's got a full waistline seam but is pleated in the back like the one pictured above!) When I search for "quarter back gown" on Google books, the period sources only come up with the phrase broken up.

    What seems most likely to me is that "quarter back gown" is a handy re-enactorism. Generally, I think the en fourreau back fell out of fashion and was replaced by the gown with the full waistline seam, so women didn't really need to distinguish it to their dressmakers - if you were getting a new dress, you wanted the kind with no en fourreau pleats. "Robe a l'anglaise" just means it's fitted to the body, has some kind of seam at the waist, and has a long skirt.

    I think English fashion terms of the era are less used because a) everything sounds more fashionable in French, n'est-ce pas? and b) the "robe a la ___" construction makes everything seem neat and orderly and almost scientific. And some styles I've only ever seen referred to in period sources in French, like the polonaise, circassienne, and levite.

  2. Yes! This I agree with. I am no expert, but as I said, I have never, ever seen "quarter back" in a first hand resource. Perhaps it might have been an American term that was only used in America, but still, even in my books that cover American fashions of that time, I have seen nothing relating to this.

    Or perhaps it is a modern term used to classify?

  3. I think it's got to be modern. Something would come up in Google Books if the phrase existed in the eighteenth century - I've been using it for references to various terms in my thesis, and it normally brings up way more than I need, but there's nothing at all for "quarter back". I think it's probably something similar to "English bodice" or "French bodice", it's just that the gown itself is an actual thing with no apparent other name, so it's got an air of legitimacy.

    I'm going to keep looking, though - maybe there'll be something. Here's a reference to a gown that's pleated in the back ... Strangely, I can't find any references to en fourreau pleats by that name.

  4. Interesting. Thanks for the link. I'll have to start using Google Books more!

  5. Interesting post! I have never heard nor read the term 'quarter back gown' either; however I think it could be related to the cutting/pattern construction process since the back pieces of such a gown in their smallest place make about one quarter of the whole bodice...the rest is made up by the front. I measured this out once for constructing a pattern off an original Anglaise. It struck me as odd, so I checked several others and it has been the same circa-quarter-relation in all gowns I checked. So maybe pattern reference books or tailor's accounts might be a source to consult if this really were a period term...

    1. Well that's interesting. I never thought about it that way. I will have to look more into sources.