Saturday, January 05, 2008

And Now for Something Completely Different (Or, Dresses and Robes)

NOTE: The primary purpose of this post is to figure out how to illustrate (because what fun is a blog without pictures these days?). Also to show that I can post on non-political topics.

Last spring I went to a sale of folk costumes which included, besides women's dresses and men's pants and tunics, a North African men's robe. What I found most interesting was that, although dresses and robes are both undivided below the waist and open at the bottom, one could tell them apart at a glance. This difference was not just that dresses are for women and robes are for men, so the dresses had a more feminine style. This was mostly true, but secondary. (And besides, women do sometimes wear robes as well). The real difference between a dress and a robe was something else -- the waist. Dresses have them, robes don't. (And, not by coincidence, the waist is more clearly marked in women than in men).

Can there be any doubt which of these is a dress and which is a robe?









Left, women's robe. Even on women, a robe has no waist built into the garment.

The "waist" of a dress need not be a woman's natural waistline. Some dresses have waists just under the breasts. Others have waists somewhere around the hips. I have even seen a dress that only flared out into the skirt a few inches above the knees, a very low "waist" indeed!



Above, Empire waist, just below the breasts.

Right, flapper, with her waist about hip level.

My dictionary defines a robe as "a long, loose, flowing outer garment." To this definition, I would add that a robe is a long, loose garment in which a single piece of fabric hangs straight from collar to hem without any waist build into the garment. (Of course, it can be belted). A dress has one or more pieces of fabric from collar to hem, and always accentuates some sort of "waist," whether by gathering a skirt into a top, by the use of elastic, or by narrowing down with darts.

Another conclusion follows from this distinction between dresses and robes. A dress is a much more elaborate cut of garment than a robe. Making an ornate dress means not only adding ornaments to it, but making an elaborate cut to the dress itself. A robe is an inherently simple cut, with only one piece of fabric between collar and hem. If a robe can be ornate (and who would doubt it can), then the ornateness must be from decorations added to the simple cut.
Above, bustles. Freed from the restriction of a single piece of fabric from collar to hem, there is almost no limit on how elaborate the cut and style of a dress can be.

Right: This ceremonial robe is ornate in its embroidery and decorations, but the basic cut remains simple.

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