Plis Watteau: an 18th century dress with pleats on the back as depicted by Rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684 to 1721) in his romantic paintings.
Also known (rather unbecomingly) as a sack-back gown –
but what’s your view? Over-blown or Over-bearing? Silky-sumptious or sickly sweet? Rococo or roco-off?
Chillax: The sack gown was first a loose, tent-like robe worn in the home or boudoir by relaxing ladies of the late 17th century. Gathers near the shoulders and along the back gave way to a voluminous dress (with no waist); une robe volante (flying dress) or robe battante. The front of the gown skirt was worn either open in the front to reveal a petticoat or stitched closed from the waist down to the hemline. These gowns provided relief from boning and tight sleeves of the formal gowns women had to wear out and in society.
Clandestine: Anecdotal stories from the court of Louis XIV suggest the robe battante was a useful way for the king’s mistresses to conceal clandestine pregnancies; “Madame de Montespan has put on her robe battante, therefore she must be pregnant.” Marie Louise Élisabeth d’Orléans, Duchess of Berry, was also known for wearing this style of gown during the French Regency of 1715-1723; how well it showed off her bosom and face and disguised her baby bump.
Canoodling: French artist Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), who painted in the Rococo style, often depicted women wearing sumptious gowns with back pleats. His work emphasized romantic love; he painted elegant people enjoying conversation or music in the beauty of the French countryside. His most outstanding works include The Embarkation for Cythera (Louvre), Gilles (Louvre), Perspective (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Mezzetin (Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Gersaint’s Shop Sign (Berlin).
This robe à la française came to represent his idealization of aristocratic elegance of the Régence. Art critics have long proclaimed that Watteau, while painting depictions of frivolity and joviality, and the grand fêtes galantes he was known for, was actually painting on a deeper level than many gave him credit for. He painted the upper class, but sold the work to the middle class. He painted elegance and refinement, but lived most of his life under the oppressive reign of Louis XIV.
He died early, aged 37, from tuberculosis
Courtly: By the 18th century these gowns had become more formal; the preserve of royalty and aristocracy. Now with waists, fitted bodices and long full skirts, they were distinguished by a long box-pleated piece of fabric hanging from neck to ankles along their backs. And extravagant trimmings of gauze, feathers, tassels, lace and silk. A perfect way to demonstrate wealth and status and standing.
As the dresses became more fitted through the bodice, the gown came to be known as the robe à l’anglaise. The robe à l’anglaise was especially popular in England and featured a many-pieced bodice with a low neckline. The sack gown went out of style by the end of the century then Greek inspired dresses, such as the robe en chemise, became popular.
Catwalk-ed: The Watteau gown has since inspired several collections by fashion designer Vivenne Westwood. Since the Voyage to Cythera Autumn/Winter 1990 collection she has played with sack-back dresses and petticoats, culminating with a sumptuous green silk and taffeta three-piece ‘Watteau’ evening gown, with an asymmetrical single off-shoulder style and bow-bedecked corset (modelled by Linda Evangelista) in the Courtesan collection of Spring/Summer 1996.
Ceremonial: Today Watteau inspired gowns are more likely to be found in bridal wear than in the drawing room. Viktor & Rolf latest striking gowns from A-line dresses, elegant column dresses, to voluminous ballgowns, suggest silhouettes influenced by Watteau.
Once Watteau gowns were over-blousey cover-ups today they say classy couture.