The Mysterious Contouche

Posted by muhammad nasrudin

I have always been a little bit confused about the contouche.  It doesn't come up when I check period French dictionaries, and modern sources define it as either the robe battante/volante, the robe à la française, or both.  When I bought a second-hand copy of The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Fashion (1972), I was happy to see the use of contouche to mean the volante, because it was the earliest published source I had for it and now I could start tracking it back.  However, as is common with this kind of book, there was no citation to show where it came from.  (I should mention that I'm not a fan of the term, as it doesn't seem very useful to me, since it's either unspecific and ambiguous or just unnecessary.  At the same time, I try to accept that there was overlap in definitions, and that every single different term doesn't necessarily have its own specific shades of meaning.)

German Wikipedia brought me to the origin being "Kontusch" in Hungarian, meaning a pleated garment.  I started searching for period Hungarian dictionaries, and Google Books helpfully pointed out that I probably meant "Kontusz" when I didn't get any results. There are academic sources, but the most accessible description is on Wikipedia: "a type of outer garment worn by the Hungarian, Polish, Belarusian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian male nobility".  In the seventeenth century, it became "a notable element of male Polish national and Ukrainian cossack attire".

Anyway, what brought me to this now was that I was pinning frenziedly from Winterthur's online collections when I found this plate:

Tailor's Wife, Martin Engelbrecht, ca. 1730; Winterthur 1955.135.2
This image of a tailor's wife shows her carrying various tools of his trade, all helpfully labeled in French and German.  Scissors, thread, needles, iron ... and her upper garment, which is labeled contouche!  While this garment is unfitted and pleated like the volante, it is also only about knee-length.

Köhler's History of Costume (1928, reprinted in 1963) is actually my earliest non-period source, and it is more specific than the Pictorial Encyclopedia (which describes it as "a comfortable morning gown in the 18th century"): "... wide overdresses.  These resembled long cloaks with sleeves, without any shaping at the waist; they hung from the shoulders to the feet, gradually widening downward. ... they were open all down the front ..."  It also states that "short contouches, reaching to the knees and worn only indoors, were popular in Germany, and were known as Cossäcklein."  Which fits with the print, and since that's German it's impossible to say what it definitively means for French or English women (although since the woman is outside, that does bring it into question).  So I look further.

Mercure historique, 1740, p. 380
To me, it's a little suspicious that this reference (which is in a list of women's clothing, although I'm not sure of the context) mentions a petticoat and contouche together and of the same fabric, since the long battante doesn't tend to show a petticoat.

Then I sort of went off on a tangent, and started looking up robe volante and robe battante.  I don't think I came across any uses of the latter, but the former is mentioned fairly frequently.

Travels through Germany, etc., 1755, p. 15

Dictionnaire universel, 1771, p. 459
"A robe volante is a summer gown made of very light taffeta. ... Casaque volante is a casaque for wearing in the summer."

Contouche actually seems to come up the most on Google Books with French-German dictionaries, which perhaps implies that it was only used on the Continent.

So, no exciting revelations this time, just ponderings.