There is a style to gown referred to in Elizabethan accounts as a French Gown. These varied significantly but appear to have the following elements in common:
- Bodice was wide and low cut and rose in a soft curve rather than being cut straight across and would be worn with a partlet or high necked shirt/shift.
- It had short sleeves (normally simply a puff of sleeve) allowing for an under sleeve (usually removable) to be displayed.
- The skirt often opened at the front but I’m not sure if this is a defining element or optional as many portraits cut off before this point – the front opening allows for the display of the forepart which might or might not match the sleeves.
- Even when they opened at the skirt front they were still laced at the back – probably the side-back.
- They were usually trained (but could be converted into Round Gowns by removing the train and some may even have had removable trains).
They would be worn with a kirtle that did not have a bodice i.e. an underskirt, and /or forepart, which would be worn over a farthingale (still in the Spanish style at this point) . The name kirtle was used (in England) equally for those with and without bodices and this can be confusing, especially as kirtles could be worn on their own on occasion (see Robes of Estate research) and were very visible when worn with a loose gown.
Here are a few French Gowns for inspiration. There are hundreds of good Elizabethan costume sites out there with plenty of pictures so this is just a selection.
Jeanne d’Albret, c.1550 by School of Clouet
This one has fabulous cutworked undersleeves – unfortunately you can’t see the cuffs at all.
Notice that the bodice is very plain and it probably does up at the back – probably laced at the side-back like Eleanora di Toledo’s burial gown as detailed in Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold.
French Ball of 1555
This is a handy wee picture as it shows the backs of some gowns which appear to be flat e.g. not done up centre back. This suggests the side-back closure might be more common.
The lady on the far left has tippets hanging down from the sleeves – these were not unusual, in the famous Phoenix portrait Elizabeth 1 is wearing a red French gown with tippets.
These gowns have a train, but its not huge – very suitable for a ball or similar public event where a long train would be impractical.
Claudia de Beaune, c. 1560 by School of Clouet
This is one of my favourites – its trimmed with very fine strips of white fur. This is the gown that my green gown is based on.
The partlet is studded all over with pearls, this was very common for those wealthy enough to afford it. The under sleeves seem quite plan and loose – possibly they were white-worked?
Note that so far all these gowns are black. Black was a very popular colour in the period but Elizabeth’s wardrobe featured French and Round gowns in many different colours.
Madeleine de Gaignon de Saint-Bohere, c.1560 School of Clouet
There are a great many of these Clouet and School of Clouet pencil drawings and most of them show French Women in French Gowns so I’m not going to show many of them here.
This bodice has a bit more decoration than those above and note the network, probably cord, on the partlet.
La Damoyselle, c. 1560-67 French School
One of a series of wood cuts.
This simple gown hangs closed but does appear to open at the skirt front, although it must do up at the back.
Isabel Valois, Queen of Spain, 1565 by Sancho Coello
This is actually the picture that made me decide to try ‘Elizabethan’ and my ‘pink’ gown was based on this. Also the slashed sleeves and matching (unslashed) forepart are the model for my own slashed silk damask sleeves and forepart.
At first glance the embroidery on the gown gives the impression that it might close at the front but a closer look shows that the arching embroidery across the top edge is continuous so I would posit that this gown closes side-back or possibly back.
Gabrielle du Rochechouarte, 1574 by Corneille de Lyon.
Note the unusually long sleeves, rather like some Dutch gowns and some English loose gowns.
I love the simple bodice and the use of aglets at the slashes / puffs but who has a waist that small!!
My French Gowns
My first attempt at Elizabethan was a pink gown which was fairly typical of a french gown but doesn’t curve up enough at the front really.
My second French gown was made for Lochac mid-winter coronation 2007.