How to Make a Contouche

also known as sack back dress, saque, or robe à la française


When this most elegant of 18th century dresses first appeared in the 1710s, it resembled a wrapping gown. It had no waist and there were no fastenings as it was pulled over the head. The front was sewn closed from the waist down, bound with ribbon all down its front, or left hanging open. Contouches were worn as deshabillé or undress, i.e. informal day wear. Sleeves had relatively simple cuffs of a rectangular shape with 2-3 pleats to make them narrower at the nick of the elbow.

Until the 1740s, the contouche gradually developed a waist, opened in front, became more decorated and, like all dresses, wider. By the middle of the century, the contouche had developed variations that could be worn for formal off-court occasions, e.g. weddings and soirées. Sleeves now were decorated with double and triple flounces, not counting the lace flounces attached to the chemise sleeves.

The painter Watteau was so fascinated by the play of the large pleats in back that he painted them over and over again. Today these pleats are known as Watteau pleats.

The française is relatively well suited for historical sewing novices because it is only fitted round the front and easily adjusted to two or three dress sizes. Therefore I have decided to keep some differences between historical and modern sewing techniques out of it: A novice will probably have enough difficulties with the differenece i have not left out, the fitting, the unusually large amount of fabric to handle etc. It's not much I've left out, just details that probably only the most advanced reenactors even know about, and even fewer would spot while the dress is being worn. If you consider yourself advanced enough to want to know about them, please check out the Open Robe How-to. The techniques described there apply to Françaises as well. (Unfortunately I haven't been able to transate it yet.)

Even a novice, however, should have some prior sewing experience. You shouldn't reach for a book when I mention seam allowances or backstitching, or wonder how to attach a sleeve. I.e. you should at least know how to sew a modern blouse or jacket.

Important warning: Please read the remarks on period sewing technique and the complete instructions before even buying the fabric. You may find hints on variations or special cases that have a bearing on an earlier stage of the process, and in some cases even on the amount of fabric you need.

This how-to is written so that you will create a 1750s-60s française if you follow it.

You should have the corset finished first: The robe can only fit properly if it is draped on the corseted figure. The panier should also be finished since its size and shape determine the length and width of the skirt and thus, the fabric consumption.

The sequence of the following chapters follows the sequence of steps that has proven sensible in practice:

  1. Preparations and material
  2. The pattern
  3. The lining
  4. Cutting the robe
  5. Draping
  6. Sleeves and the rest
  7. Petticoat
  8. Variations




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