The Victorian world saw an explosion of advancement, growth, and manufacturing. Factories were raising from the gentile fields of Europe, and America was stalking and pouncing on the power of steam and mechanization with a covetous hunger. From all the clank and soot arose new millionaires, all eager to establish themselves in society and ensure themselves a place in social/congregational heaven. But how so? How can these nouveau riche of Western Society be squeezed into an inherited pattern whose foremost requirement is that entrants not be nouveau riche? How can society create order with such seeming economic chaos? Easy. Give those mass produced parlor sets crotch mahogany veneer. Make all the new stuff nobly pay tribute to the old.
My next project will be something of a revival of a revival – a purple plaid polonaise c. 1874-1876. The Victorian Polonaise was meant to be a revival of a Roccoco style ‘gown’ for the aristocracy that was intended to copy the dress of rustic Polish peasants. Of course the Rococo Polonaise and the Victorian Polonaise little resemble that which the 18th century Polish peasant actually wore and were made of much more expensive materials, but that’s beside the point.
The Victorian Polonaise is something of an evolution of an evolution. In the age of Marie Anntoinette, when dressing like a simple, silk-clad, puffed, and embroidered peasant girl was a la mode, fashions were adopted by designers that wished to give elegance to the ‘simplicity’ of peasant life. In order for designers to credibly claim their designs were peasant-chic, they would slap names on their garments to evoke some foreign, and perceived simplistic culture.
La Polonaise was a safe bet for a name of such a garment, first because Poland was a long way away from France, and second, because the former queen, and grandmother of the current King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Leszczyńska, was Polish and reknowned for her piety, simplicity and charity. Unlike Marie-Anntoinette, she had a well-deserved reputation for charity, piety, thrift in a decadent court, and she was popular. Also, Poland was poorer than France, so there must be simple peasants there.
What was a Polonaise? Basically a bodice that is shorter in front and with a very long back. The original intention of the 1770s Polonaise was to bunch the back, so as to imitate peasants who pull their robes up out of the dirt. Aristocracy, you see, didn’t need to pull their robes up from the dirt because they had peasants to walk on when the ground was muddy. [It’s a joke]
The Polonaise came into style just about the same time as the bustle. As the Victorian era grew older, it became sportier and sportier, loosing the old pick-up-from-the-dirt idea and turning instead into to simply a long-backed bodice. Some of them were made with faked shorter bodices, with long attached ‘tail’ or skirts. Eventually, they just became something of a jacket, but retained the name.
The Polonaise has likely existed in some form or another for quite some time. I remember seeing images of Tudor women, working class women from the 17th century, and 17th century courtiers wearing gowns of a similar concept. An Elizabethan gown ‘In the Polish style’ meant simply that it was high-necked, without a train, front closing, and decorated with horizontal braid across the front opening. That which would be most similar to the Polonaise was called an “open gown” or “loose gown,” which isn’t nearly as catchy, chic, and French as Polonaise. So when the term was coined, it stuck for a little over a century.
The polonaise I intend to make will resemble it’s Rococo ancestors only minimally.