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The Robe Volante, the First Comfortable Dress in France, Sells for $150,000

The sweatpants of its day for courtiers, the style was a rebellion against the elaborate, corseted dresses of Louis XIV’s court

Robe volante, c. 1730 (Palais Galliera)
smithsonian.com

When is a dress worth $150,000? When it allows an entire generation of women to breathe freely for the first time. Or at least elite women at the French court. According to Susan Stamberg at NPR a robe volante from around 1730, one of only three known in the world, fetched that price at an auction in France earlier this year and is now part of the collection of the Palais Galliera, a fashion museum in Paris.

The volante, or "flying dress," marked a transition away from the increasingly restrictive corseted dresses of the previous century. Joan de Jean, fashion expert and the author of The Age of Comfort, tells Stamberg that the dress was a reaction to previous styles in Louis XIV’s court. The obligatory fashions of the court were so over the top that women became weary of the costumes. “No one wants to get dressed up anymore,” says de Jean. “Everyone just wants to be comfortable.”

The robe volante, still pretty burdensome by today’s standards, was the result. For women in the 1700s, though, the style was very freeing and and lacked elaborate corsets or caging. It was adopted by young women in and out of court, becoming something of a democratic dress. Because the style sometimes allowed a glimpse of a wearers ankle, it also eroticized women’s lower legs.

A press release from the Palais Galliera says detractors claimed the dress, which originated in India, was created for the king’s mistress, Madame de Montespan, to hide her pregnancies. The style was deemed inappropriate for court, and soon was modified into the more formal robe à la française​, which dominated women’s fashion until the French Revolution.

The robe volante that sold at auction is a yellow damask fabric sewn with silver and green thread. The fabric includes images of pagodas and exotic fruit. The Palais Galliera write that they believe the dress belonged to Françoise de La Chaise of Aix​, wife of Pierre-Francois de Montaigu, who was the French ambassador to Venice and secretary to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The other two existing robes volante are housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Kyoto Costume Institute.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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