Historical Costume 1780s : Polonaise Gown

Polonaise not Panniers!

1780 polonaise replica

1780 polonaise replica

1787 polonaise original

1787 polonaise original

This blog looks at the lovely Georgian polonaise gown, as a follow-up to my earlier blogs about the hard work of the seamstress and the lady’s maid. We marvel at these gowns in museums — and most of us know that every stitch was hand-sewn — but do we stop to think about the detail of the process?

Shown left is a modern replica of a 1780 polonaise gown, made in plain white fabric to show off the detail of construction. Shown right is an original gown dating from the late 1780s and with the back only partly lifted.

Normally, the back of the polonaise would be lifted in two or more places to show the petticoat beneath, as shown below.

1780 polonaise replica

1780 polonaise replica
original in Hereford Museum

1780 polonaise © Victoria & Albert Museum

1780 polonaise
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Isn’t the polonaise style elegant? So much more appealing than those huge side panniers that made a woman much too wide to go through a normal door without turning sideways on.

If you enlarge the V&A picture you can see the gorgeous detail of the ruches on the skirt back.

And below are 3 images of a French polonaise from the V&A, showing the back (with 2 dark buttons at the waist for attaching loops), the front (which would have had a “false front” to fill the gap), and the back looped up in two places onto those silk-covered buttons. I admit to preferring the looped version.

1780 French polonaise gown showing effect of looped skirts © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

How to discover the seamstress’s secrets? Make it yourself!

I was lucky enough to visit the Hereford Museum’s Exhibition: Shades of White: the changing shape of women a couple of years ago and to meet its creator, Professor Nancy Hills, Head of Theatre Costume Design, Caine College, Utah State University. She led the project which recreated real costumes from the Hereford Museum  and Berrington Hall (Wade) collections (with the assistance of their costume curator, Althea Mackenzie).

All the exhibition’s replicas were made in shades of white so that the intricacies of cut and construction could be seen; the workmanship was fantastic and a visitor could get up close and personal with the garments.  (Professor Hills has also done a fascinating TEDx talk on Make Do and Mend about fashion in times of war. Worth a listen and it includes some really interesting illustrations and little-known facts about topics like WWII rationing.)

Sewing a polonaise

So… if you’re going to sew a polonaise, what do you need? Try this pattern for size…

Only 5 shapes, so it wouldn’t be too difficult, you’d think? I’d have thought so too, until I realised that the bodice sections had to be stiffened with a linen lining and there were nine darts to be sewn on each sleeve. Also, that long skinny piece at the centre back looks exceedingly difficult to sew, to my amateur eyes. Then I looked underneath the skirt and saw all that detailed pleating where the skirt joined the back of the bodice. A seamstress’s nightmare? 

This view from underneath also shows how the ties work to achieve the ruched back of the overskirt. Really very simple and very clever. The tie on the 1780 original polonaise on which the replica was based, shown below, looks much the same.

And here’s the detail of the neckline at the back of the bodice of the original 1780 gown. Just look at all those seams, so intricately and beautifully stitched together. If you look closely, you’ll see that that difficult centre piece was not cut on the double, but as two single pieces that were then stitched together. Double seamstressly nightmare?***

Nancy Bradfield’s incredibly useful book, Costume in Detail, 1730-1930, includes detailed drawings of this very polonaise gown from 1780 (pp 65-66). She notes that the (double) tape ties for the ruches are underneath, 12 inches up from the hem; and there are two sets of loops underneath: 2.5 inches and 14 inches below the waist.

I would add that the waist measurement was not the vaunted 16 inches, but a slightly more reassuring 24 😉

Wearing a polonaise

The polonaise is a very clever style. The elegant ruches are achieved by simple ties underneath and the height can be adjusted to suit the occasion. If you have a particularly beautiful petticoat — perhaps an embroidered one — you can pull the ruches high to show it off. Sometimes the ruches are achieved by attaching loops from underneath to buttons on the outside (as in the V&A French example above).

But what about the front? How is it fastened? They didn’t have zips or velcro in those days. They did have buttons but there is no sign that buttons were used on the front of the original polonaise gowns that I’ve seen in museums. It seems that the front was usually fastened with nothing more than pins.

Front view of original 1787 polonaise showing green quilted petticoat
The bodice front (shown unfastened here) appears to have been held together with pins

Bradfield says that the1780  gown would “probably have been worn over a muslin petticoat”. She also notes that the signs of wear on the bodice suggest that it was just pinned together.

With ordinary pins.

Yes, you would need to be wearing a sturdy corset because, if you breathed out too much, you’d stab yourself on your own pins.

The 19th century polonaise

The polonaise had legs, as they say. It appeared again, a century or so later, in various guises such as those shown below.

1870 polonaise style gown

1870 polonaise-style gown

Lots of polonaise gowns on the cover of sheet music in 1872

1883 gown, captioned “Misses’ Polonaise Costume” but perhaps not very flattering?

Why a polonaise for the historical costume blog? Why not Regency?

I love the polonaise style, partly because it’s so elegant, partly because my Regency-era heroine wore one at the masked ball in His Cavalry Lady I based it on the 1780 gown shown as a white replica in the pictures above.

Why choose a polonaise? Well, my heroine was serving as a cavalry officer in the Russian army during the Napoleonic Wars — yes, I know some readers doubt such a disguise was possible, but i assure you it was; my heroine was based on a Russian woman (Nadezhda Durova) who served and fought in the Russian cavalry for ten years without being discovered. We tend to forget that, in those days, soldiers didn’t bathe or change their clothes nearly as often as we do!

My heroine had to find a gown from a previous era that she could put on without assistance since she needed to maintain her male guise. The polonaise overdress, worn over a front-lacing corset and a drawstring petticoat, could be put on like a coat.
Ideal for a woman masquerading as a man masquerading as a woman, no?

Joanna Maitland, author


PS I’m planning more of these blogs about the detail of historical costume and how particular styles were created and worn. Next up — the caraco.
What’s a caraco?

Find out in the next blog in this Historical Costume series, coming soon. 

*** Late news: I wasn’t able to say how long the poor seamstress would take to create a polonaise by hand but a recent blog from Two Nerdy History Girls has done just that. And the answer? For a much simpler version of the polonaise, the answer was just over 10 hours of solid sewing by a skilled mantua-maker. That blog also provides useful information about how mantua-makers worked and how gowns were priced to the customer.

12 thoughts on “Historical Costume 1780s : Polonaise Gown

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Jan, glad you agree. I know it’s not strictly my period, but I couldn’t resist the polonaise, especially as I had all those pics of the Shades of White exhibition. Getting hands-on with those replicas was like being set loose in a sweetie shop. Would have been the same for you too, probably?

  1. lesley2cats

    I love these posts. As a panto queen, the Polonaise is a hugely familiar style, have worn one several times – it’s the standard for Cinderella. Mind you, I didn’t know what it was called. So pleased my wardrobe mistresses had sewing machines…

    1. Joanna Post author

      Have you pics, Lesley, of you in costume? Would love to see. Agree about the sewing machines. So many gowns were incredibly complicated to sew by hand and would have taken hours and hours and hours. Next blog in the series — the caraco — is possibly even more complex to sew.

        1. Joanna Post author

          Oh goody. {Rubs hands in anticipation}

          If you’d like to email to me, Lesley, I can post here on this blog so everyone can admire 😉

    1. Joanna Post author

      Love the idea of “repelling boarders” Elizabeth. I’ve just been working on a future costume blog, including a wedding dress, and even that had a bodice secured by pins. Could make for an interesting wedding night, perhaps?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Sue. Once I get into costume stuff, there’s no stopping me, I fear. Next up, there’ll be the caraco, then I’ll be into Regency costume… Could be a series that runs and runs.

      Is there any aspect of costume you’d particularly like me to cover? (Not after 1830, though. Victoriana ain’t my bag)

    1. Joanna Post author

      You’re welcome, Ros. Researching costume isn’t work for me; pure pleasure. I’m planning a series of these, so do visit again for the next episodes.

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