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Robe à la Polonaise

Silk Polonaise dress, English, about 1780

Silk Polonaise dress, English, about 1780

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Woman's dress, Polonaise gown, or robe à la Polonaise, worn with matching petticoat (1932.51.m), in cream brocaded silk woven with a weft-patterned design from selvedge to selvedge with self-coloured stripes and small round clusters of self-coloured flowers, brocaded using supplementary weft threads with medium and small clusters of flowers and foliage in pink and green silk (material 19 5/8" wide with two woven green stripes in selvedge). Closed bodice with low wide décolletage with small turned-down collar with wide v-shape at centre back edged with cream, pink and green fly fringe. Open robe effect with calf-length panels from neck to hem cut without waist seams. Front in two panels attached around neckline to closed bodice beneath, open at front falling loose with inverted v-shaped opening with straight dart either side, trimmed with robings of box pleated brocaded silk edged with cream, pink and green fly fringe. Closed bodice formed with compere-style front panels underneath, fastening centre front with hooks and eyes. Back cut in four panels without waist seams. Elbow-length sleeves with separate cuffs caught up with a horizontal pleat at the front of the elbow and trimmed with cream, pink and green fly fringe. Skirt, three quarter length, of five widths of brocaded silk continuing from bodice with pleated robings continuing around hem. Skirt looped up into three puffs en polonaise with cream, pink and green fly fringe with looped tassel at top of both gathers. Bodice lined in linen with three bones at the back.

This Polonaise gown or robe à la Polonaise would have been worn with its matching petticoat. This style of dress is named after Poland which featured prominently in European news following its division by Russia, Prussia and Austria in 1772.

The dress was worn by Mary Mcdowell, daughter of William Mcdowall of Castle Semple. In 1779 Mary married George Houston of Johnstone Castle, a local landowner and textile industrialist who founded textile mills on the Black Cart Water and accompanying town for his workers in 1782. They had two sons, Ludovic born on 10 May 1780 and William born on 18 September 1781.

The large size of the closed bodice in comparison to Mary's other surviving gowns suggests that it may have been worn while Mary was pregnant. This is supported by the diaries of Mrs Jean Houston, Mary's mother-in-law, which record that Mary was still dining out with family friends in August 1781 and did not 'begin to make ready for her inlying' for William’s birth until 10 September. Jean later writes that on 1 October 'my dau[ghter] was in the Drawing Room at Dinner she is only 13 day bought to bed' which suggests that Mary had an uncommonly short lying-in period of only three weeks.

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