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Taking off a robe à la française
seasight wrote in little_details
Setting: 18th C France
Research: various costuming/historical fashion sites, "How To Undress A Victorian Lady" article, various historical fiction forums.

Okay so I have my two characters in the throes of passion (or at least some serious foreplay). How do I go about getting the (upper-class, fully dressed) lady out of her dress? Are there laces? Buttons? How many layers? I'm seeing lots and lots of information on how to build/make a dress, but not so much on how to wear it/take it off.

Okay, so the first thing you have to remember is that it's not easy and there are many layers. If you're taking the dress OFF the order is going to be basically the following. Undo the hooks or laces that close the bodice. They can either be straight down the middle and somewhat easy to see like in this example or they may be a bit more hidden by a stomacher (triangular piece of fabric, typically decorated, in the center of a bodice) like this. Once the bodice is undone, the whole bodice and the overskirt will come off as one piece. What you'll be left with at that point is a skirt probably held up by ties on either side as the outermost layer. Immediately under the skirt will be some sort of pannier or bumroll depending on the specifics of the gown, also fastened by ties. Next layer down will be a corset/stays, which will lace either in front, back, or either depending on the formality of the event the woman is dressed for and her social status (laced in back only = more formal and more wealthy because it required a servant always be available to dress/undress you), followed by a chemise. It's not actually THAT hard to get into/out of (other than the stays) by yourself if you know what you're doing, but if her lover is a man of similar station, he may have no clue, frankly.

Hope that helps!

ETA: One thing I forgot to mention, it's entirely possible (likely, even) that things would have been more along the lines of skirt getting rucked up/hands being shoved down bodice of dress than clothing actually being *removed* because of the time/effort involved if you're talking about a scenario where they aren't sure how far they're going to get/how much time they have/when they might be interrupted.

Edited at 2014-04-02 09:50 am (UTC)

Awesome, thank you. Now I'm trying to decide between derailing the sex to make them fiddle with her layers of clothing (which sounds like fun to write) and going straight up the skirt for the fun stuff, if you'll pardon my language. :p

Fumbling with layers of clothing can be fun to write and very entertaining to read, most definitely. Just tossing the skirt up, so to speak, is maybe easier and more realistic, depending on the specifics of the scenario, but you can definitely get away with either approach. Have fun!

This is relevant to my interests as well. Glad to see the question and answer.

Actually, getting the dress off is not that hard, especially if it's open in front over a matching petticoat. A francaise usually closes with a stomacher, an upside-down trapezoid shape, that's pinned on each side to the dress itself. Unpin those, and the dress just slides off the arms like a jacket.

This costumer has several good francaise/sacque gowns:

It's the remaining layers that may get tedious. There are multiple petticoats, probably a top one that matches the francaise, and a skirt support for the francaise (pannier or side hoops/pocket hoops). Those all fasten with ties, so it's a matter of untying them and then letting them slide down/off.

Then there are the stays (corset is a much later term). It's not possible to do anything under those; they are WAY too snug, because that's the point. They need to be unlaced. Then it's just the shift.

It's much easier to undress an 18th c. lady than to get dressed. Particularly pinning the bodice closed!

BTW, a francaise isn't fashionable for all decades of the 18th century. It didn't exist for the first several decades, then it was a very casual gown, and gradually became a standard and then formal gown. By the 1780s it was mostly passé, replaced by the anglaise and variations.

Thanks for all the information! I'm not tooo worried about specific dates, since my prompter was really vague, but it's good information to have.

I do think you'll get a more cohesive, realistic feel to your story if you do pick a 10-20 year span and stick to it. And the costumiers will love you for it... :)

(Edit: I see below that you say it is AU. Even still, I think you should pick a decade or so for the costume. The reason for that is that the layers vary somewhat and, e.g. certain undergarments give a correct shape for their decade of dress but not for later ones. If you don't want to end up accidentally mis-matching your layers, chosing a decade and sticking to it is your best bet.)

Edited at 2014-04-03 07:01 am (UTC)

The biggie is perhaps not so much getting her undressed as getting her dressed again.

But To Marry An English Lord by Gail MacColl has some passages on the difficulties of maintaining discrete affairs including the clothes problem. You may want to check it out.

I will bear that in mind. Thanks. And another book for the reading list. :D

Bear in mind that the lady doesn't usually dress or undress herself, but the man has probably done so before. He'll actually have more experience removing her clothes than she does.

If you're just looking for quick access, sexual congress at the time could easily occur with almost no undressing. Underwear (as in knickers or pantalets) wasn't a universal item, and usually had openings -- nobody wanted to have to undress to use the privy, after all! Men's clothing also allowed easy, shall we say, deployment.

If the lady is wearing an evening dress, the breasts can literally be scooped out from inside the corset, and stuffed back in (unless she's flat-chested). The man can also reach into her bodice. For foreplay, he can run a finger along the line where the bodice begins, and either start reaching in or tugging out, depending on how much of a hurry he's in.

Edited at 2014-04-02 01:08 pm (UTC)

All very good points. And the equivalent of knickers or drawers were pretty much unknown in the 18th century for women.

And, indeed, underwear was also not universal for men. Men's shirts came down to about the knee but the side seam was split from about hip to hem. Thus, men often just tucked the front and back halves of the shirt backwards/forwards between the legs and then kept the shirt tails in place by pulling the breeches up over. Underpants were uncommon.

This is rather graphically illustrated in Hogarth's 'After' (note how all that was needed for the deed was to unbutton the fall-front on his breeches and pull the front shirt tail out of the way, then push up her skirts a bit). In contrast, here's 'Before'.

I will bear this all in mind. Thanks for your help, I literally have no frame of reference for sex and historical clothing and how they work together. :) It helps to know my limits!

How fortuitous! I have just been researching an almost identical question (though I'm already a costumer, so had a head start on good search terms). Firstly, bear in mind that you will have more luck if you narrow down your time-window as fashions changed quite a bit during the 18th Century.

The places I found most helpful were:
- Youtube, particularly this video on how to put on a front-lacing corset (though bear in mind that not all corsets of that century were front-lacing), this video on the layers during 1750-1770 and this video on the layers during 1780-1790.
- the astounding Rocking the Rococo (though it's somewhat more helpful for figuring out things like 'how did a lady get fitted for a ball dress')
- Colonial Willamsburg's clothing page, and in particular their interactive 'dress the part' feature.
- Facebook costuming groups

Heh! Thanks! I like the corset/layers videos- that's a lot of cloth to wrangle. I can't believe anyone had passionate love affairs back then, looking at all that hardware. Men today can barely handle a bra clasp. But maybe it can be a plot point. :P

Really, thank you very much.

Edited at 2014-04-03 05:42 am (UTC)

Oh, I forgot another very useful thing. The V&A has two dolls (Lord and Lady Clapham), who are a bit earlier than you want (1690-1700) but do have all of their layers. Very useful for mens layers, in particular, and because each doll has both a formal and an informal outfit (though I'm not sure how applicable the specifics of the outfits are for the Rococo).

I have worn 18th-century lady's kit all day for a week at a time, so I reckon I'm well qualified to help you. A bit more information would be helpful though:

- When in the 18th century are they? Very different clothes in different periods.

- For what occasion are they, particularly the lady, dressed? Formal court wear? A less formal party? Morning undress? A masquerade or pleasure gardens? The boudoir? Country walks or sport (this would be less typical for a lady in France than in Britain, admittedly)?

- Are they confident of not being disturbed, or is it going to have to be a quickie?

- Is she going to have to get dressed and go home afterwards (i.e. be fit to be seen), and if so is there a confidential servant on hand to assist with re-dressing her?

Oh, wow, all this information is fantastic. The story isn't set at any specific time (it was prompted as a short revolutionary france au, by which I think they mean anything between 1740s-1790s), so I suppose you (or I) could take your pick! The characters in question are a princess in whatever would pass for her casual day wear (like I said, AU fic) and her (established, long-time) lover. They're reasonably certain of not being disturbed, I guess, for the purposes of this story.

(If it were longer than 2k I would be all about the waiting-for-marriage angst but I'm trying to resist getting sucked in. This was supposed to be short and snappy! :p)

If she's going to have to be fit to be seen afterwards I suppose it would be better not to undress completely? OTOH I'm perfectly happy to have them get bogged down in the intricacies of undressing her. That could be funny.

And thanks!

If she's receiving him in her own boudoir, then they have very few problems. Deshabillé du lever for a lady in 18th-century France consisted of:

- a fine white chemise, very decolleteé, that went on over the head

- silk stockings, gartered above or below the knee, and embroidered mules

- several petticoats (which includes what we would call a skirt), probably fastened with ties but possibly a hook and eye

- an unboned (often quilted) or very lightly-boned support bodice, in English called a 'waistcoat' or 'jumps' and in French a 'corset' (the diminutive distinguishing it from the fully-boned corps worn under formal dress)

- a jacket: tight or loose, quilted, silken or gauzy, short or long, depending on the decade and the season. Might be called a casaquin, a manteau-de-lit or a mantelet. Generally fastened with ribbon ties, a brooch or a sash, or might simply hang loose.

- a white muslin cap, floppy or starched, large or small, simple or frilled, depending on the fashion of the year, trimmed with coloured ribbon.

All of this could come off and be put back on very easily. If they are French all of it might indeed come off, whereas 18th-century English people resolutely kept their shirts and shifts on. All Hogarth's brothel scenes, for example, show this; and there's a quaint bit in Fanny Hill when Fanny, in a brothel, spies on one of her colleagues having sex with a young Genoese merchant, who strips right off and insists that his girl does too - both girls are quite shocked by this naughty foreign notion!

You can see some images of the kind of garments here, here , here and here.

But if you actually want a bit more difficulty and delay, you can have her wearing her stays (corps)rather than jumps, which he will have to unlace for her. I can testify that this can be an extremely sexy process. ;-) NB that whether front-or back-laced, 18th-century stays always fasten with a single very long lace - you start lacing at the bottom and tie off at the top, tucking the end inside the stays between the breasts. If they are back-lacing there may well be a busk (a long strip of wood, metal, ivory or similar) in a pocket inside the centre front of the stays to keep it rigid. A quick way to get comfortable in your stays is to take the busk out (or someone takes it out for you); you can also use it to rap a gentleman's knuckles if his hands strayed too far too fast. As you can see, there's plenty of scope for fun here.

If they are meeting away from home, the easiest would be a masquerade ball or similar event, at which the appropriate outer garment was a grand domino. If you snuck off into a private room or secluded grove for a bit of hanky-panky, provided you didn't muss your hair too much you only had to put your domino back on to be perfectly comme il faut again.

If you actually want her to be fully dressed and have this kind of encounter away from home, then there's really no alternative to staying fully dressed; she would just have to hitch up hoops and chemise and he would have to unbutton his breeches flap. Not ideal - and varying from inconvenient to damned uncomfortable depending on what style of hoop petticoat is a la mode that year - but quick.

The postscript (for a lady) to an illicit encounter was a surprisingly popular subject for 18th-century French artists; here are some examples, and if you image-Google 'toilette intime' you'll get plenty more.

Edited at 2014-04-03 05:23 pm (UTC)

I browsed around and eventually picked this one, which according to the blog it was on dates from the 1770s. Let me see if I've got this right: unpin the stomacher, remove the gown, untie/remove petticoats and hoops, unlace corset (from top to bottom), chemise up and over the head, get busy with the fun stuff?

Yes, an English sack c 1770. It would need fairly modest side-hoops, not nearly as big as formal French court sack hoops.

Almost right, except that the stomacher is pinned to the stays (it may have tabs for this purpose) and the gown is pinned to it so has to come off first. Also, remember the essential accessories it would never have been worn without.

- Headgear. Maybe no more than a 'pompon' of (probably artificial) flowers/ribbons. In formal French court dress, lace 'lappets' (démodé elsewhere) were obligatory.

- Long gloves/mittens were obligatory in French court dress. Bracelets could be worn over them, and would certainly be worn in formal dress if no gloves. Might be only black velvet ribbons.

- Either a lawn/gauze/muslin neck-handkerchief (tucked into the neckline or covering the shoulders and meeting/crossing in front) or a lace mantle over the dress and a 'tucker' - a piece of ruffled lace tucked and pinned inside the top of the stays.

- Unless the handkerchief crossed quite high up, there would be a choker-style necklace - from a velvet band to a cascade of diamonds - or lace or pleated-ribbon ruff.

- Might well be a posy or single rose tucked inside a teeny bottle pinned inside the stays, or a ribbon bow, fastened with a tack-stitch or two, whose theoretical function was to secure the ends of the handkerchief.

This portrait of Lady Hertford, the wife of the British ambassador in Paris, illustrates French court dress rules in 1765; this one of Queen Charlotte shows English court dress in 1781. Martha, Countess of Elgin, models Scottish formal fashion, midway between the two, in 1763-4; pompon, bosom-rose, ribbon choker and mantle are all clearly shown.

So, the vital stages are:

1: pluck off the rose or the bosom-bow and cast it carelessly aside. (This is about the only thing that can be done carelessly without causing expensive damage, and that does seem to have been one of its functions: observe this engraving of a sexy supper for four, where the ladies' roses and the bow of one of them have already hit the deck.)

2: Slip off the mantle / unpin the handkerchief. A handkerchief will certainly be secured with pins - don't yank it off unless the lady is so rich and rampant that she won't mind it being ruined.

2: Unpin the gown from the stays and pull it off. (It won't slide off, due to the narrow back and tight sleeves.)

4: Untie the ties of the silk petticoat, the other petticoats worn over the hoop (there will be others, otherwise the bones of the hoop would show through the silk) and the hoops, let them all fall to the floor - the side-hoop worn with this style of sack will collapse flat, unlike a crinoline, as it has no vertical ribs - and she steps out of them. (Infinitely easier than trying to get the petticoats off over the head - the only way to get them off with the hoop in situ.)

5: Unlace the stays, discard. (They are so rigid that they will stay body-shaped: see here). Formal stays back-lace, so you don't even need to unpin the stomacher (which is pinned only to the gown, not the petticoats) and tucker - just leave them.

And there she is, ready for action. A matter of taste whether she takes off her pompon, jewellery and stockings, and even her red-heeled silk shoes; some 18th-century men were rather into ladies in shoes. And if they're into slow stripping as part of foreplay, of course you can have him remove her tucker and unpin her stomacher; you just don't have to.

Whoops, I forgot her pockets! They will be tied round her waist under her gown and at least her top petticoat - they may be under more layers than that - and accessed by slits in those garments.

Oh my goodness, thank you! This is ridiculously helpful. :D