As far as I can tell, a French lining is a closely fitting interior structure that is usually not the same shape as the finished garment we see. It is different from “flat lining,” or a “dropped in” lining shaped like the dress or skirt, or a coat lining that merely allows the coat to slide over other fabrics more easily.
“A French lining gives a perfection of fit that can be attained by no other means…. It makes an excellent foundation for the draped waists [blouses] now in vogue…. For stout figures a French lining is almost indispensable, and this design will prove most welcome, for it conforms to the newest lines. When made of thin material it may be used as a foundation for Summer dresses or waists, and when made of lawn or silk it is also an excellent foundation for the draped evening dresses now worn.” — Delineator, June 1914. p. 74
When you have a garment that is tightly fitted, “flat lining” [a lining whose pieces are the same shape as the fashion fabric and are sewed at the same time] will take some of the stress off the seams and the fashion fabric. But when you see a vintage garment that fits very closely in back, but appears to be loosely fitted in front, expect a French lining.
When you have a garment that is draped, or bloused, or which has complicated concealed closures, it will behave better with an invisible, body-hugging lining.
How do you get into it?
This sheer lingerie dress with a blouson top has a simple French lining made of net.
The bias cut lining, which takes the strain of the hooks and eyes, fastens at the center front.
The lining fastens at center front; the fashion fabric layer fastens with hooks and bars at the side and shoulder! The sleeves are attached to the French lining. The skirt opens at side front.
The “French Lining” pattern could be purchased separately, but was often included in a dress or blouse pattern.
The French lining was meant to fit very tightly, and is the support for the fashion fabrics. It ensures that the weight of the dress is suspended from the shoulders, that the folds and blousing aren’t pulled out of place, and that the wearer always looks neat as a fashion plate. In No. 7317, the cross-over drape in front ties at center back.
Changing Body Shapes Seen in French Lining Patterns
These French lining patterns reflect the changing body shape as corsets changed.
French Lining Included in Patterns
The French lining is often based on a princess seamed pattern (like all of those above,) since this permits an extremely tight fit, perfectly contoured to the body. (A French lining also looks very much like the covering of a professional dressmaker’s mannequin.) When you are draping on a professional dress form, you can feel the underlying seams through your muslin — very handy for locating the exact bust point or side seam, or placing a dart.
Once the French lining was perfectly fitted to a woman’s body, she could also use it to figure out (Oops, accidental pun!) alterations to commercial patterns.
[I was taught to call an individually fitted basic pattern a “sloper;” they’re handy to have if you are making multiple costumes for the same actor — or several pairs of trousers for yourself! Fitting patterns are still sold.]
Incredibly, the Commercial Pattern Archive at University of Rhode Island has the pattern for this waist! (If you just create a Log-in, you can use this wonderful site — over 64,000 patterns and growing! — for free.) There’s always a link to CoPA in my “Sites with Great Information” sidebar.
You can almost guess from the illustrations which garments need a French lining: if you think, “That dress defies gravity! How can that be possible?” or “How did she get into that?” you are probably looking at a dress that has a French lining.
They definitely did not have a zipper down the back! A tight fit in back and a concealed opening usually means a French lining; you can probably deduce the rest….