Madam Du Barry's Robe a la Francaise

Saturday, September 8, 2018

18th Century Robe a la Francaise based on American Duchess and Simplicity's 8578

I'm finishing my second year of reenacting, and while I've accumulated a generous beginner's kit and an all-season wardrobe, I don't have anything for fancy events. In fact, I've skipped a few of them because I simply didn't have anything to wear. While no one would shun me for it, I'd probably shun myself. So many things to sew, so little time! As it says in my profile, my sewing philosophy is quality over quantity. In my youth I used to pinch pennies in order to make. all. the. things. Everything was made from quilting cottons and poly blends from Joann's. Now I save up to buy the fabric I want and take my time to make it. And boy did I save up and take my time with this project!

I knew I wanted a robe a la francaise. I've been dreaming about those frothy dresses since the pastel perfection that was Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. But let's face it, I'm probably more of a Du Barry than a Marie.

Thus, I'm calling this gown Madam Du Barry's Robe a la Francaise.

Give me all of that extra...

While planning, I had a hard time choosing a color. I enlisted my friends to help me decide, which dissuaded me from green and gold, which are my go-to colors, and steered me to red. I was hesitant about the shade because it's not a color often found in existent clothes from that period. I imagine it was expensive due to the cochineal, and I didn't want to seem too historically inaccurate. Why put in all that work only to have it stay in the closet? However, I was reassured by many that I wouldn't seem too extraordinary to have a red gown, as long as the red wasn't too orange or neon bright.


I searched high and low for the source, other than pinterest and tumblr, but only found lo-res images. Apparently, it's c. 1740s from the Leeds Museum. 

Let's also not forget that one red dress that took the costuming community by storm...

The Fabric:

Now that I've chosen my color, what shade of red should I pick? My idea was to follow the beauty gurus recommendation on choosing a lipstick. Since I have a bit of yellow undertone to my skin, I chose a cool color. Luckily enough, silk baron had many shades of red and I narrowed it down to their cranberry taffeta. 

One thing I knew is I wanted this dress to be big. Not robe a la cour big, but I was fond of the idea that I'd have to turn sideways to fit into doors. Go big or go home is my second sewing philosophy, so I knew I needed a lot of fabric and bought enough that would equate to a monthly payment on a car loan.

In case you'd like to know what 15 yards of silk looks like.

Let me tell you, Silk Baron is awesome. Shipping was fast. Customer service was excellent. The fabric itself is a lovely weight. Smooth, crisp, and bright. Also it arrived all in one length, so that's super impressive. 

The Pattern:

I picked up the Simplicity 8578 and 8579 by American Duchess months ago, so I knew that I already had a pattern that could work before the project began. There were some major alterations, nothing complicated, just very fabric consuming to achieve the look I wanted.

The Undergarments:

Before I could even begin, I had to make the panniers. I was kinda bummed when I opened 8579 and found that they weren't pocket hoops. They're held together by tape, which is easy and straight-forward, but I was looking forward to have a secret compartment for smuggling liquor into dry events. Or food. You can always do with more food.

I couldn't tell you how I adapted their panniers into pocket hoops in a straightforward manner. It was a lot of pinning, basting, sewing, ripping, resewing before I got the shape I wanted. Even then, it still wasn't perfect or pretty. 

I also wanted to change the shape of the pocket hoops. I was one of the many drooling over @ashleyyea's robe a la francaise on 18 c sewing, and inquired about her hip supports. Indeed, they were bigger, but also had a flared bottom, which is not included in the 8579 pattern. So I extended the first boning channel by an inch, then flaring it out to 3.5" at the bottom edge.

After buying 15 yards of taffeta, I felt anxious at the idea of buying more fabric, so I used a yard of kona cotton, cheap poly ribbon, and bias tape in my stash to put it all together. It worked, though it doesn't look as professional on the inside as it does on the outside. In hindsight, I wish I used canvas instead of kona and a sturdy ribbon for the bone casings. Despite the quality of materials, even after a few wears, everything is still holding up. 

The adjustment worked beautifully. I got the silhouette of a grand pannier without committing to that giant circus tent. 

The Construction:

Before I even started cutting into my muslin, I bought some special tools from amazon to enhance my workmanship. First, silk pins. A collection of organ needles, including size 75/11 for taffeta. I can't recommend these needles enough! They're cheap, plentiful, and strong! Nothing like the needles you get at Joanns. Lastly, the magnificent 10" gingher scissors to slide through those long panels like butter. 

And yes, I'm machine sewing most of the gown to save on time. I'm a tailor. I live at a sewing machine. It's become my second nature just to sneeze piecework out all day long. So, warning, so-not-historically accurate construction ahead. 

Okay, let's get to work!

I started with a muslin, which fit great on the first try-on! This pattern is designed without that dreaded +4-7" ease you'd normally see on commercial patterns, so you really have to measure well and choose the best size on the envelope back. Usually I'm cutting out a size 2 on most of the big 4 patterns, this one, I cut a size 10!

It fits! It fits! Now lets begin with the lining. 

Side note: I have the The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking: How to Hand Sew Georgian Gowns and Wear Them With Style book, and while I was going back and forth between the two, I stayed with the paper pattern instructions through most of it, and there's a few reasons why. I have problems with my vision. While their robe a la francaise is a frothy delight, the pictures of its construction is hard on my eyes. It was difficult for me to see the details on white fabric, especially without a contrasting colored thread. Either way, I'm always straying from instructions and doing things my own way once I get started so it wasn't a complete hindrance. I think anyone using Simplicity 8578 can make a successful gown on the pattern instructions alone. 

I used a 3oz tissue linen for the lining, which I use for all my gowns. Looking back, I wish I used something heavier, maybe a 4-5oz linen, just to support the weight of the taffeta, only because your using the lining much more than you would in an english gown to keep everything form fitting around your stays. 

I'm using some tricks of the trade in the construction. Even the silk pins left holes in the silk, so use as little as possible. When sewing, hold the fabric together, taunt, and sew. Unfortunately, I don't have an I had to be careful not to pull to hard or it slipped right from out of the presser foot. 

I also used...gasp!...synthetic thread. I tried using silk thread, but my local shop didn't have a thread that matched, so I went with the trusted classic Coats and Clarks. 

A few days after the initial cutting. Cat for scale.

Honestly, the first few weeks were a chaotic mess. There were panels everywhere. It swallowed my room. Even my cat had a hard time coping. 

The sacque pleats:

Now to the most important detail on the francaise! The pleats! I did something a little different. I sewed the first pleat together, en fourreau style. I think it looks neater, and a bit easier construction wise. 





Like every 18th century gown, take your time with your back. It's the first thing people examine, and you never want to finish up hand sewing them down only to rip them out later. I spent a lot of time with my ruler making sure the pleats were even and straight. 

When I was happy with them, pinned my lining to the back, and used a prick stitch to secure them down. Handsewing through all those layers of taffeta wasn't easy, and because it was the beginning of summer my hands began to sweat. I would spend a lot of time doing a few stitches before running to the bathroom to wash my hands and returning to do a few more. 

Another change I made was adding a facing to the back. I couldn't imagine rolling all those thick pleats over the edge. I figured it was a good idea to prevent bulk, and the self-fabric trimming was going to hide it anyway. Don't fret, it will be cut to size later to avoid fraying as I wrestle with this monster.

One of the steps I became confused about was stitching the interior pleats onto the lining. It was one of those moments where I was going back and forth from the guide book to the pattern instructions to figure it out since I've never done it before.

Open up the lining, revealing the center back pleat. You want to sew on the edge of the second pleat from the center. The one I'm holding. Sew right through that baby. It won't show on the outside, and you get better security than if you sewed just through one layer.

I used a backstitch for strength. I held the fabric like that so I could feel the needle as I went through the three layers, making sure I didn't catch the bottom pleat. 

Then I followed the rest of the instructions to sew the bodice front and skirt front together.

Snag #1:

While the pleats look awesome, I had some issues with the skirt. It just wasn't enough fabric over the enlarged panniers. You'd think I'd account for that as I cut out the skirt pieces...and I did...just not enough. 

What's a girl to do? Well, with 15 flippin' yards, I added another panel!

In case of an emergency, my gown will double for a parachute.

As you can see, the extra piece left the hem a bit uneven. Eventually I had to add a piece to the center back to even it.



After pressing, you couldn't even notice the piecing. And it's period technique after all! 

Snag #2:

When cutting my sleeves, I ran out of lining, so another piecing project occurred.

Then right after I finished, I found three yards of linen hidden in the back of the closet. Oh well, at least I left that yardage untouched for another project. 

The sleeves:

Instead of two sleeve flounces, I cut out three for maximum fanciness. Even if they're historically inspired, I really loved the fantastically pretty sleeve flounces in the second season of Outlander. 

The way I added a third is by cutting out the lower flounce with an extra inch at the top.

I also bought a pinking iron for that decorative scalloped edge. However, the iron was dull and would't even cut through a layer. I asked my dad if he could sharpen it, and while he got the iron pretty sharp, it thinned the metal to a point where it shattered on the first try. And it still didn't cut through taffeta. I think it's the last time I try a pinking iron.

Needing to make progress with my gown, I tested out using my gingher pinkers on a scrap of fabric and I was impressed about how easy and quick it was. It was the best solution I could come up with before I shelled out more money for tools that might not work.

My method was to baste all the layers together and cut the scallops with the gingher pinkers. I eyedballed it, so it's not perfect, but after a few scallops, I figured out the best movement with my wrist to keep the scallops consistently sized. The nicest part of it was the ginghers went through all those layers effortlessly, and the matching scallops were oh so satisfying.

Stacking the three layers, I used my machine to stitch two rows of running stitches for gathering.

Once I hand stitched the gathers down with spaced backstitches, I went around and removed the machine stitches with a ripper. Voila! An easy cheat for perfect sleeves!

As the contrast, I bought this beautiful metallic lace for $15 from etsy. It's badly photographed, but I took a chance and opening the package was an utter surprise. It's absolutely perfect! 

I had to figure out how to inverse the flounce so that the decorative border remained uncut. My thinking was to just flip the pattern piece upside down. There was some adjusting necessary, cutting a bit of excess at the top so it didn't overhang, but my theory was correct!

I turned the flounce backwards and just whipped stitched the contrast on the edge. In hindsight, it would've been easier to just add this layer on the bottom to the three flounces, but stupid has to shine through somewhere. Sigh.

The one issue I have with 8578 is the sleeves. There is something wrong with these sleeve. At first, everything looks fine...

Until you try to set them...

After exhausting the troubleshooting guide in the back the American Duchess book, I had to look somewhere else for help. I took the simplicity sleeve pattern and compared it to the sleeve from my L&S fashionable gown. 

The armhole is much deeper at the bottom. So I took a risk and deepened the armhole and it worked alright. The only issue I had was that it made it difficult to pleat. In order to save all my hard work, I gathered the sleeve cap. Not historically accurate, but it salvaged all that handsewing. This is totally an issue I've could've avoided if I had also done a mock-up of the sleeves. So please, before you cut into silk and do all that handwork, mockup your sleeves!

The self-fabric trim:

The original plan for the trim was something similar to the gown above, a tapered box-pleated serpentine design, interwoven with puffs and trimmed with silver fringe. However, the silver fringe got lost in the mail and never arrived, and after all the hiccups I knew I had to lower my expectations to get this dress in working order. So, I focused mainly on the serpentine design on the skirt front.

I used the scrap from the panel pieces for the trim. I measured 6-7" at the bottom, all the way down to 2-3" at the top. I didn't measure the length, but I imagine from the picture it's roughly 2 yards long. 

To minimize frying, I left the trim plain as I fussed with the placement. I sat on the floor, turned on netflix, and went to work. Just like the sacque pleats, it took some pinning and sighs of frustation before I found a design that fit into the skirt panel, and even then it required some asymmetry to fit. 

I don't have any clear pictures of transferring the design. I basically basted the outline through both skirt panels with tailoring tacks, then I used a frixion pen to trace along the loose threads.

To pink, I folded the 2-ply fabric over and basted along the edge. I really didn't care if it left holes at this point. My deadline was approaching and I needed to quicken my productivity, even if quality was sacrificed.

One day, I'd like to add the puffs and the silver fringe. 

The Underskirt:

I really didn't have a set plan for the underskirt design, nor any strong desire to follow a certain example found on my pinterest board, so loosely followed the pattern found in the amazing Costume Close-Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790, which is an essential book for the 18th century costumer and reenactor. 

The idea was to have ties bustling the second tier, as seen in the book, but I never got around to it. That's a task for another day.

The Finishing Touches:

By this point, I was already 2 months deep into this project. Every weekend was dominated by this scarlet monster and I. was. done. Imagine my excitement when I get to the point of tacking the lining to the bodice fronts!

I left a little edge of silk to hide the lining from sight.

Detailed shot of the back facing and the handstitched sacque pleats. It's not perfectly straight, but the trim will hide that.

I'm a sucker for pictures of gown guts. I hope you are too.

Adding the box trim along the neckline.

The Stomacher:

I always save the stomacher for last. I wanted an eschelle stomacher, mainly because of Louise's gown in Outlander, and I'm still a little girl who's a sucker for bows. 

Give me all the pretty!

Anyhow, of course I couldn't just stop at bows. I still had a lot of scraps leftover from my silver lace since I only utilized the border. I figured I should try not the waste the remanent and piece the embroideries together as contrast.

Kinda off topic, but do you notice something different in this picture? Gasp! The colors are true and lacks that tungsten yellow that's in most of my pictures??? Well, I finally got myself a craft light! I purchased the Brighttech Litespan LED Crafting Lamp lamp from amazon and I highly recommend it, as long as you don't require a fully adjustable neck. It's half the price of the expensive Ottlite, which retails around $200 when it's not on sale, and does the same job!

I also did my due diligence added tabs to keep my closing pins from destroying the silk. 

Please excuse the messy craft space.

The bows were simple enough. Just five pinked bands, decreasing in width and length, and sewn together at the edge. Then I took a small scrap, folded the raw edges under, and bound the middle to form a bow. No special knots or folds required.

Then I whipstitched the bows to the stomacher.

Voila! It's done!

Now excuse me as I go rest from this massive project!

The Gown:

My girondole earrings from Queen and Cavendish.

Final Thoughts: I don't know if I'll ever attempt another Robe a la Francaise. It was a little tricky at first, especially with all the panels I added, and I think that one big gown is enough for me. Can't imagine going to that many balls in the rural countryside. There was a lot of hindsight regret in this project, which hopefully benefits those thinking about attempting this pattern, or any Francaise. I think I could've saved a lot of time if I had a professional dressform to drape the fabric on, and I wouldn't recommend attempting a Francaise unless you had one, or at least a friend to help you fit the gown as you wore it. For the price of the pattern, you get a deal. You save a lot of time since you don't have to draft anything from a book, a lot of the guesswork is eliminated through the pattern marking, and it's relatively historically accurate, unlike some of Simplicity's past attempts at 18th century wear. 

In the future, I'd like to add some fly fringe and add a few more bows to the stomacher. Until then, it's good to go for fancy ball events!

If you're interested in how I attempted that magnificent hairstyle, please check out Kendra's book 18th Century Hair & Wig Styling: History & Step-by-Step Techniques. It's a masterpiece of research, with plenty of period examples and advice on how to achieve a stunning hairstyle for your costumery and reenacting.


  1. Bravo!!! This gown is a masterpiece!

  2. Lovely gown. Re: hand sewing silk with sweaty hands: if you rinse your hands with alcohol and let it evaporate, it stops them from sweating as much.

    1. Thank you for the comment, and the great tip! Didn't even think of that! I'll definitely use it next summer!

  3. Oh my gosh.... the gown is amazing, a masterpiece and you look georgious. Thank you for sharing all the steps

  4. you look so much like du Barry from the movie that i'm dying. I started making a robe a la francaise too, it's going surprisingly well so far, compared to the fact that i'm 13 years old and have no sewing experience. Yes, it's beyond stupid to use this as a first project, but oh well.


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