What the Watteau?! (Part 1)

Afternoon all! It’s been a while I know. But I’m back, and with something a little different for a Sunday afternoon – a brief dabble into garment history. Now, there is a dress at the end of this journey, so feel free to sit this part out if textile history’s not your jam… but for the rest of you fabric fiends – let’s get nerdy…

This story begins a long time ago (ahem, last summer) with an airline losing my bag. Or rather, not losing it, just not quite managing to get it on the same plane as me. Easily done airline, no hard feelings. To take the edge off the 4-5 hour delay, we headed into Bristol and found ourselves wandering the charming streets of Clifton Village – fancy.

Somewhere between the artisanal pottery and avant-garde stationer we came across a little arcade full of vintage shops, wherein I spied a gorgeous 1950’s cocktail dress. From the front it had a standard 50s fit-and-flare silhouette, but at the back was this magical cape type thing. Extra fabric that cascaded down and blended with the hemline of the skirt. The shoplady was not ok with me taking a photo, so I mentally filed it under “work out how to do that” and moved on to browse the vegan bookstore/café next door.

Back home, I began a little interweb research and eventually hit upon something that vaguely resembled what I was going for, albeit a tad too vintage. Behold, the alluringly named “sack-back gown”:

Collage old

Apparently (thanks Wikipedia) the sack-back gown was all the rage in the 1700s: “This style of gown had fabric at the back arranged in box pleats which fell loose from the shoulder to the floor with a slight train.” This style of dress was popularly portrayed by 18th Century painter Antoine Watteau and so the pleated cape part became simply known as a “Watteau”.

paintingThe Watteau, a must-have style for those tricky ballroom/barndance occasions

Ok, still with me? Now, for some reason, the Watteau made a comeback as a design feature in the 1950s and 1960s. I’m not totally sure why (if you are, leave a comment, I’d love to be more informed), but my best guess is that it was part of the whole post-war, post-rationing, let’s celebrate the fact that fabric is available again thing. Because nothing says uber-opulent celebration of fabric like sticking an unnecessary, heavily pleated cape on the back of a full-skirted dress, right? Right. Anyway, the results were, in my humble opinion, pretty freaking great:

Collage modern(For those of you who really want to disappear down a Watteau rabbithole, check out the nerdtastic Pinterest board I made for that purpose. You’re welcome)

Fair to say then, I became pretty obsessed with the idea of a watteau back dress. And yes, life and other projects got in the way, but this plan stayed simmering at the back of my mind, until finally a fabric-buying-spree spurred me into action… I think I’ve mentioned before that the “problem” with buying the local waxprint fabric is that it tends to be sold in massive 5m quantities (for making matching skirt/top/headdress/babycarrier combos). And yes sure you can always use the extra to make furnishings and gifts… but as I sat looking at the lengths and lengths of newly purchased gorgeousness, it occurred to me that maybe the time had come to put that excess yardage to a different use. Maybe it was time to BRING.WATTEAU.BACK.

Tune in for part 2 to see how it turns out…

Siobhan xx

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