Buy our French Gown pattern and be fashionable!
Buy our full-size paper patterns with complete instructions and historical notes for 1560s-70s Elizabethan Lady's overgown and kirtle known as a "French Gown". Included are overgown, boned kirtle, farthingale, forepart, sleeves, and directions for a smock and partlet with ruffled collar.
Kirtle and gown fits busts 30½"-48" and waists 23"-41". All Sizes in one envelope. Historical notes and embellishment suggestions included.
Kirtle, Overgown, Forepart and Sleeves: light weight to coat weight wool, velvet or silk brocade, light linen for lining
Partlet, Smock: light linen
Farthingale: medium-weight silk or linen, reed or cane for hoops
Kirtle or gown: 6 yds 45" or 4½ yds 60" wide
Lining (optional): 6 yds 45” or 4½ yds 60” wide
Smock 3 yds at least 60” wide
Sleeves 2 yds at least 45” wide
Forepart 2 yds at least 45” wide
Farthingale 3 yds at least 45” wide
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Below is an excerpt from the historical notes you will receive as part of this pattern:
The “French” Gown
The study of historical costume is a discipline that yearns for classification. We wish to know what combination of bodice, sleeve, and skirt shapes were called by which names by their wearers as well as precisely when the style showed up on the fashion scene and when it faded into obscurity. This arrangement would allow us to outfit interpreters in the precise clothing for their year of portrayal and nation of birth.
Unfortunately, human artifacts are rarely so easily classified.
What is a French gown? Is it the style the French wore? Is it a style that was made popular by a French fashionista? Or is it simply a gown with elements that the writer thinks of as “French” ignoring the true origins of the design?
The later is probably the truth as we find the terms used in Elizabeth’s wardrobe accounts. In 1567, her ambassador to Paris asks that a French tailor to be found to make gowns for her.
The distinguishing characteristics of a French gown are a pointed bodice descending below the natural waistline, an arched neckline, often split down the front by the opening, padded shoulder rolls, open skirts showing a forepart of kirtle, and stiffened by a farthingale. This style of gown began to be seen in England in about 1559 and persisted in fashion until the 1580s. Elizabeth I’s Phoenix portrait from 1575 as well as the Pelican portrait of 1572 show this style of gown as do many other portraits of the Queen (including van der Meulen’s 1565 full-length depiction of her, reproduced at left), although some of them are so heavily decorated and exaggerated, the style is hardly discernable.
Interestingly, the gown we typically call “The Tudor Gown” was called a French Gown by its contemporaries in the 1530s, 40s and 50s. The immediate predecessor in fashion to the style we are discussing, it shared with it many characteristics: the stiff shape of the skirts, the use of a kirtle underneath, even the split in the front of the skirts and a contrasting forepart. The neckline and the sleeves, however, are entirely new. And in the earlier version, we did not see any ruffs.
Let us turn to a real French example. The 1564 portrait of Elizabeth of Valois, daughter of Catherine de’ Medici and Henri II of France, shows her wearing a gown of the type we described above. In this portrait, the Queen Consort of Spain wears a coral-coloured brocade gown decorated at the front edges of the open skirt and hem with gold embroidery that echoes the design of the brocade. This decoration continues on the center front and top of her arched bodice. Her chest is covered with a richly embellished partlet with a high collar ending in a jeweled ruff. Her wrists are similarly adorned with pearled ruffles. The short sleeves of her gown are padded and scalloped at the edges and the long sleeves of a fabric that coordinates with the forepart her gown skirts open to reveal. The gown skirts are clearly held out by means of a farthingale. At the time this portrait was painted, Elizabeth of Valois had been in Spain for five years, but clearly French fashion still held sway.
At right we have a picture of a Frenchwoman wearing what we can only assume is a French gown (from Habitus Nostrae Aetatis, circa 1556). The typical shoulder rolls and skirt stretched over a farthingale are in evidence. Two elements diverge from the other depictions of “French gowns” we have thusfar shown: the bodice is not arched (although it may be obscured by the partlet) and the gown clearly closes down the back, not the front. It is possible that this is an early variation that existed in the 1550s but disappeared by the 1560s and 70s. We also notice that the skirts are no open in front like those we have previously observed. If the skirts are not open, there is no reason the bodice needs to open in front. So this could simply be a variation. In any case, the similarities of the clothing of Frenchwomen of the time and the “French Gown” as seen in portraits of noblewomen from other countries is clear.
The French Gown created a tableau upon which the sartorial embellishers could show their art to its fullest extent. The 1565 portrait of the Countess of Kildare, shown at left, is a stunning example of this. Lady Elizabeth FitzGerald is only shown from the breast up in this portrait, but the decoration of those visible bits are beautiful. Her black bodice and sleeve rolls are decorated with silver paillettes and silver chain. Between the waves of these stitches are puffs of white linen shot with red and yellow threads. Her red partlet and matching cap are encrusted with pearls and bits of gold. Her ruff appears to be embroidered in red and edged with yellow. The cross with hanging pearls on her chest and the gold chains around her neck nearly pale in comparison to the decoration of her gown.
Helena Snakeborg wears a similar gown in her 1569 portrait at left, but it is not so richly decorated. What it lacks in finery, it makes up for in colour. Her sleeves and partlet are embroidered with red flowers with gold paillettes at their centers. Gold, black and red strips of trim outline her bodice edges and decorate its front. This same trim separated the puffs on her shoulder rolls. A twisted cord outlines her bodice edges and the bodice is open slightly at the top. A ruff edged in gold sits under her chin but the partlet that supports it is open on her chest to reveal a jewel. Other jewels and chain decorate her cap and her neck.
You might be asking yourself how long this style remained the fashion in France. A 1575 tapestry shows Margaret of Valois, third daughter of Catherine de’ Medici and wife of Henry IV, still wearing it. Her red brocade gown is open in front to show a blue forepart over a farthingale. The top of her bodice is trimmed similarly to the hem of her skirts, but there is no obvious front opening. Shoulder rolls are in evidence, but they are much less elaborate than we have seen before. This may be a change in fashion through the decades. Or it could be due to the limitations of the medium of tapestry (or the inability of the tapestry maker) to depict fine details.
By the 1570s, the French Gown became the quintessential Elizabethan gown. Portraits show Queen Elizabeth I in highly decorated versions, but simpler versions are known to have been in her wardrobe. The woodcut at right shows Elizabeth on a stag hunt. She wears a simple gown for riding, but the shoulder rolls, vertical decoration, arched bodice, and open skirts are all present.
By the 1580s, something new was evolving in fashion. Yet we can still find examples of the French gown in portraiture. The unknown lady shown at left was sketched in the 1580. The shoulder rolls and farthingale have become exaggerated and the top of the bodice is obscured by an outsize ruff. But the element of the typical French gown are still there and will remain in fashion until the French farthingale sweeps everything away in the 1590s.
Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion: The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c1560-1620. 1985: Macmillan, London.
Arnold, Janet. Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d. 1988: W.S. Maney & Son Ltd., Leeds.
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This information © 2011 Kass McGann and Reconstructing History