The TRC Collection houses some notable types of dress, some of which no longer worn and now completely forgotten. One of these is a type of false sleeve, worn by fashionable ladies until at least the mid-nineteenth century. These were the so-called engageantes.
Engageantes is not a word that is now used on an everyday basis, yet over a 150 years ago, it was an important element in the wardrobe of any fashionable lady in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere. The word engageantes derives from the French word engageant, meaning 'engaging' or 'attaching'. But what are they?
Engageantes are detachable sleeves that were worn underneath the wider sleeves of a women’s bodice or dress. They did not form part of an undergarment such as a chemise, but were independent items. They are sometimes called fake or false sleeves by modern authors, but this is incorrect.
In the 18th and 19th centuries fashionable engageantes ranged in size from very wide to long and narrow, and they could be textured, ruffled, gathered, as well as embroidered or lacy. Usually they were made out of a fine white cloth, but black ones, associated with mourning, were also used.
These garments were popular because they were easy to maintain and washed, they could be replaced quickly and having several pairs meant that the appearance of an outfit could be changed as women used a variety of forms, from plain to elaborate, depending on the circumstances,
18th century engageantes
During the 18th century everyday versions were made of fine cotton or linen and they had the characteristic bent shape of 18th century sleeves. They were generally stitched or tied to the inside of the bodice sleeves and did not have a cuff. Elaborate versions that were worn on special occasions took the form of ruffles or flounces made from fine cotton, linen or lace. They were often associated with open or ‘pagoda’ style bodice sleeves that reached to the elbows.
19th century engageantes
During the 19th century a much wider variety of engageantes was worn. These included daily versions that were worn in a morning, and finer, more decorative forms for afternoon wear. By the mid-19th century they were no longer commonly worn with evening gowns, as these generally had short puff sleeves and women’s arms were often covered with shawls and long gloves or mittens.
20th century engageantes
At the beginning of the 20th century there was a brief re-appearance of engageantes. They were worn with elegant evening wear, but the fashion did not last very long.
The survival of engageantes
Although fashionable ladies stopped wearing separate sleeves, these items survived in the form of the very practical, plain over-sleeves worn from the 19th century onwards by women such as cooks and nurses. Brown and green versions of these sleeves were also issued as part of the military uniform for men and women in eastern Europe.
The use of separate sleeves continued in various forms of regional dress. They can still be found, for example, among a woman’s outfit worn on the island of Marken in The Netherlands. The basic form has remained the same, but there are different colours used to indicate uses such as daily, church, mourning, and so forth.
The TRC will shortly mount a mini-exhibition of these forgotten, but formerly so essential garments.
Gillian Vogelsang, 9th June 2020.