19th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: A member of the wedding, 1896

Last week the reaction to Madame Bergeret’s pretty princess playing at peasant dress was generally enthusiastic, with most of you liking it for the sake of how much your 6 year old self would have loved it.  Some were uncomfortable with the idea of all that luxury pretending to be simplicity, especially considering the eventual consequences of that sort of deliberate blindness, bringing the rating down a notch to a rounded 8 out of 10.

This week I’m leaving the Historical Sew Fortnightly behind as inspiration, and taking inspiration from my own life.  Mr D and I spent the weekend at a wedding.  He was actually in the wedding party, and my job was to make sure the men looked perfect.  In between adjusting collars, putting in cufflinks (awesome cufflinks btw), and stabbing myself with buttonhole pins I thought about wedding fashions, and the whole tradition of wedding parties.

So, in the best tradition of wedding clothes, here is the most dreaded of wedding garments: the bridesmaid dress.  They never fit right, they never look good on your body shape, and the best you can hope is that the bride didn’t purposely pick something that looks dreadful on you.  However, one might hope this wouldn’t be the case if your bridesmaid dress was by the House of Worth.

Bridesmaid dress, House of Worth  (French, 1858–1956), silk with pearl trim, 1896, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bridesmaid dress, House of Worth (French, 1858–1956), silk with pearl trim, 1896, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bridesmaid dress, House of Worth  (French, 1858–1956), silk with pearl trim, 1896, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bridesmaid dress, House of Worth (French, 1858–1956), silk with pearl trim, 1896, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bridesmaid dress, House of Worth  (French, 1858–1956), silk with pearl trim, 1896, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bridesmaid dress, House of Worth (French, 1858–1956), silk with pearl trim, 1896, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The fit on this dress is clearly superb, but what about the rest of it?  Does it look like a colour to flatter?  Does the design say elegance and taste, or a spiteful bride?  As a bridesmaid in 1896, would you wince when you saw the dress, or hug the bride in delight?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10

50 Comments

  1. 7.5.

    For the mid 1890s, this is perfectly lovely, trendy, and well-proportioned (even though I personally hate the gigot sleeves). It seems like a popular color scheme, too. I think the bride would actually pull off saying “you can wear it again!” about this dress, if she chose it for her bridesmaid.

    Most of my rating is because the color would be hard to pull off with most skin tones. Also, the fluffy stuff coming out of the princess seams reminds me more of a gaping wound than a fashion decision. So, -3 for that.

    I have to add .5 back in though, because the surprise watteau back is lovely.

  2. For whatever reason, I kind of like it though the sleeves might be a wee bit too full for my taste. I do like the bodice design. – 7 out of 10 I think.

    (I let my bridesmaids pick their own dresses with a few requests- “Sunday Best” (appropriate coverage, level of dressiness, etc) and a green close-ish to my Alma Mater’s green (ended up ranging from evergreen to pear). Hoping they’ll do the same since they ended up picking dresses they loved and have worn again.)

    • Elise says

      Me too! Since one of my bridesmaids was from Germany, I couldn’t exactly tell her to go to David’s Bridal! I picked “Blue”, and the result was a gorgeous array of sky blue to ocean blue to cobalt to navy.

    • Lynne says

      This is a brilliant idea! They would look good, and still have dresses that would be assets in their wardrobes. This should happen more often. Bravo!

  3. Brenda says

    It doesn’t help that I’m not really a fan on 1890’s fashion to start with. But the huge puffed sleeves look like something that belong to a grotesque winged creature. The abrupt contrast between the ornate fabric of the sleeves/shoulders/neck and the stark, plain fabric that seems to engulf most of the dress makes the dress look unfinished. And the color? Way too dull (particularly the plain fabric). Then again, perhaps this was a fashionable color for a wedding back then. I would have given it lower, but you’re right, the fit IS superb and the fabric design of the sleeves/shoulders/neck is pretty. 4/10

  4. I’d give it a 6.

    It’s lovely, but looks rather like it was made as a beautiful whole dress, then covered it with a drop sheet for a “guess what the rest looks like!” competition as an after wedding game. So, not technically bad but blank. If there had been a band of matching gold trim around the bottom I think it would look a bit more balanced. I also agree with Rae that the colour is bit iffy with some skin tones.

  5. Rating: 8

    Oh my! I’ve never participated in a rate the dress before, but couldn’t resist on this one. Personally, I find it atrocious. But am forced to give it a rating of 8 for style, execution, and pure audacity. The pearls keep me from going higher, as they look kinda cheap. The overall effect reminds me of the little I know about aesthetic dress actually. I wonder if The House of Worth was being influenced by the artistic climate of the time?

    I did an exhibition of wedding dresses a few years ago, and I remember being struck by an 1840s (I think) plate in Godey’s where the bride’s gown was very modest (covering up to the neck, with long sleeves) but the bridesmaids’ dresses were completely décolletée! Clearly they were hoping to catch the eye of some unsuspecting usher…

  6. Courtney F. says

    8

    I would personally prefer the sleeves in a little more restrained of a cut, not hanging down toward the elbows, but on the whole, I’m very pleased by the design here. The extremes of the dress’ silhouette and the sumptuous gold damask are balanced by the simplicity of the bodice and skirt. Elegant and rich-looking without being over-the-top…which is quite the accomplishment for a dress of this period!

  7. Oh dear, bridesmaids dresses are always awful, aren’t they?

    The fit is great, but the dress is mostly just a big blob of bland cream. The brocade is pretty, but the way it attaches to the top of the bodice is awkward, and the sleeves are way out of proportion.
    The only nice parts are the collar and the bottom half of the sleeves.
    3/10

    Regarding last weeks dress, why did so many people lower their rating because of the context? This is “Rate the dress” not “Rate the social situation”.

    • ..whatI don’t think a dress can be separated from its social situation. A Depression Era dress made of flour sacks is going to speak so strongly of the time that produced it that you have to consider the cleverness that went into piecing the sacks, and matching the sack patterns. To merely discard it as “Ewww…what ugly fabric” does fashion history an injustice. The frills and flounces and conspicuous consumption on a 1880s dress are a result of innovations in fabric production and sewing which allowed the extravagant use of fabric and extensive machine sewing. A severely cut, Medieval inspired 1880s dress which deviates considerably from this pattern is going to speak so loudly of the personality and opinions of the wearer that to disregard that would be impossible.

      Many people Rate the Dress based on their preference for certain eras, or how the dress would look on them. It’s not how I generally think of things, but it’s a perfectly valid way to go about it. The joy of Rate the Dress is that we all come at it from a different perspective, and bring our own experience and opinions.

      • Oh, okay.
        Personally, I just see pictures as pictures, nothing more or less. I guess that comes from aspergers though, I don’t really understand how most people think about such things. Thank you for the explanation.

      • Elise says

        You know, I wanted to post on this, too. I know that “the author is dead” upon publication, but I actually have a hard time reading books whose authors are known jerks. I can’t watch films starring crappy people, and I can’t *not* see identity and symbolism in clothes.

        In hindsight, it’s hard to look at a 30s dress without feeling a sense of doom for what was to come in the next decade. And the post about the fun swimwear throughout the last century made me snap to the life-sucking force of today’s fundamentalist Christians who shoehorn their daughters into subordinate roles complete with a sense of sex-abuse victim-blaming for exposed flesh, and thus the need to fetishise old styles–especially swim styles.

        But you know what? For a small moment, I can see an item for what it is–just like you–and it’s fun. I like my view, too, just as much.

        Looking forward to reading your posts!

  8. ewa says

    The general minimalist look of the dress doesn’t really bother me, I like the gold sleeves in contrast to the ecru rest of the dress. The front of the bodice seems too bland for me, though, and I don’t like the gold wedges that appear there. I would definitely add something bolder in that place. I’m giving the dress an 8.

  9. Divine. While there are aspects of it that do not please our modern sense of proportion, I still love it. I love the Aesthetic influences referencing Renaissance dress in the sumptuous silk brocade and cut of the sleeves and the gorgeous splits with puffs that add interest to all that beige. Speaking of which, they are cleverly flattering also, bringing in the shape of the waist as they do.
    This dress also reminds me of Stella McCartney’s infamous illusion dress, with its expanse of perfectly fitting flesh coloured fabric. In some ways it is doing the same thing – playing with the eye.
    I think the cut of the skirt is exquisite, but of course it is! And the little watteau back, not sure why that is in a dress that has lot more to do with 1550 than 1750 but ah well.
    As for it as a choice of bridesmaid’s dress, without seeing the bride’s dress it is difficult to comment. If I reverse engineered a bridal gown from this, it would be by Worth naturally, have a similar line and cut, but with more embellishment, a huge train, possibly a greater watteau falling into said train, and generally look like it stepped out of a painting by John William Waterhouse.
    9 out of 10.

    • PPS One of the success factors in a wedding or bridesmaid’s dress, especially in these more formal times, is how it looks with a bouquet. Bouquets from this era were enormous waterfalls of flowers, and the simple front of this dress is a perfect backdrop for the look. As the formal photographs would have been a big consideration, and in these the flowers would have been front and centre, I think it is even better. I am revising my score to a 10!! 🙂

  10. I have very mixed emotions about this dress.

    On the one hand, I love the gold brocade! It’s a beautiful color and a lovely pattern. I also like the fit through the bodice, the wonderful pearl detailing just under the collarbones and down the sides, and the cut of the skirt.

    On the other hand, I know from having made an 1890’s dress that it’s the one silhouette I’m guaranteed to look dreadful in. The big sleeves make me look even shorter than I am, and dumpy along with it. I’m also not a fan of the big, plain, pale beige section of this dress. I suspect it was meant to evoke a medieval surcote, but instead it makes me wonder whether Worth’s client asked for that fabric as some sort of misguided economy measure. There’s a tall redhead somewhere that would (perhaps did, back in the 1890s?) rock this gown, but that redhead is definitely not me. Even in the abstract, I really wonder about using that lovely gold fabric only on the upper bodice and sleeves.

    So although this is much better than the average run of (modern) bridesmaid gowns, it’s not a 10. I’ll say 7.

  11. The sleeves overwhelm it, a little less fulness would have been much more tasteful. I’ll give it a 7/10 mostly because of those sleeves.

  12. It’s a very sculptural dress. It looks great as a sculpture, but I am not at all sure it would achieve the same level of greatness on a person. It may just swallow them up. Or look way too bland on them despite the sleeves and brocade and pearls.
    8/10. I thought of giving it a 7/10, but then I realised it deserves a point for back interest – important in a dress most people are likely to see from the back!

  13. Zach says

    The fit is indeed wonderful, but I just don’t know what I think about the dress, besides that. The brocade is wonderful, as is the lace, but I don’t see that beige color looking good on anyone except the white mannequin! This really isn’t one of my favorite era (it has a very low ranking in my book, actually), and I think it would be prettier to my eyes if it were bumped up a decade, or so. I also think the Watteau pleats in the back should be moved down to the top of the beige layer. It’s a bridesmaid dress though! Even if it is Worth…

    I don’t know…. How about six and a half? Sure, that sounds fine.

  14. Elise says

    Gag! That neck! Agh! And the sleeves and “gaping wounds” as someone put it…6/10

  15. Lynne says

    I think I’d cry. Dear Worth, why?? That glorious gold fabric, that lovely sleek line – and acres and acres of beige?! Where’s the badge, Madge? (For those of you who remember Dame Edna.)

    The high neck is great, and so is the shoulder line. I’d even forgive the gargantuan leg-o-mutton (must have been a ram!) sleeves, for the sake of the gold. So sad. I’d unpick the lot and re-use the gold. 5 out of 10.

    I was a bridesmaid twice. I made the dresses and paid for them. One was teal crimplene, one was pale pink crimplene. Both fabric chosen by the brides. Sigh. All that work for two unwearable dresses. I hold gloomy views about the whole bridesmaid thing.

  16. Sixer says

    Rating: 8/10

    I caught my breath when I saw this dress and then I looked at the pictures again and went “awww, please don’t tell me this is just a pair of sleeves?”

    The color of the dress proper is very, very odd and normally wouldn’t be attractive, but remembering 1) that this dress is really only meant to be worn once, and 2) was part of a larger picture makes it seem a rather clever artistic decision. Plus the outrageous size and color of the sleeves somehow beg for a little severity in neckline and skirt. Imagine if the whole dress were orange brocade. Horrors.

    The style for this dress seems so different from Every Other Dress Out There, and that’s probably largely due to the contrast in colors. So yes, even though I thought Anne Shirley’s biggest fault was her love of puffed sleeves, I really do like this dress. Even if it looked awful on me I would gladly wear it to my friends wedding – I think it would be a lot fun!

  17. Mel the Redcap says

    Are gigantic ham-shaped sleeves the 1896 equivalent of tight satin with a butt-bow? 😛

    I like the lines of the main dress. I love the gold accent fabric, though I have to agree with a previous commenter that I’d prefer for more of it to have been used in the skirt somehow. The sleeves, however, stop me cold! 4.5/10

  18. Natalie says

    The Bridesmaid’s Plea

    Mama, dear mama, if you love me at all,
    Sneak me some rouge, or I fear I shall fall
    Down all in a faint, sallow and wan,
    A beige drab duckling, oh far, far from a swan!

    2 out of 10, out of mere mercy

  19. Belinda says

    Oh wow… Normally I really detest the 1890s silhouette, but I can really see a late Renaissance influence going on what with the pearls and the brocade, and it makes the sleeves actually work! (Worth, you clever beastie, you!)

    What makes it for me are the pearl-bordered ruching (is that ruching?) details along the princess seams at the front. People are gonna think me strange, but I love them. They somehow amp up the opulence and interest without being overpowering.

    I can really see it as a clever piece of a larger wedding design. It makes me wonder what the bride’s dress was like, the bouquet, which church they chose…

    7.5/10 (because I still don’t like the 1890s even if this is a great dress)

  20. I actually gasped when I saw this! For me, it’s a definite 10! The simplicity of the main dress, combined with those huge leg-o-mutton sleeves is stunning!

  21. I always find the 1890’s funny. Lovely lines until you get to the outrageous sleeves – of course, the same could be said of us in the 1980’s!

    For the time, the lines are perfect. However, the color makes it look like muslin for the dress with hints of brocade – like the dressmaker spent all the money on the sleeves and forgot about buying fabric for the rest of the dress! I know it isn’t muslin but the color just isn’t appealing at all.

    Now, if we went with the lovely 1890’s mauve, the dress would get a much higher rating – actually any color would get this dress a higher rating. It looks too much like a blank canvas to me.

    The skirt to the dress also seems a bit plain for the era. I know the bridesmaids aren’t supposed to outshine the bride but would it be too much to ask for a bit of lace? A hint of trim? Something other than seam lines? I’d love maybe a hint of embroidery at the front of the skirt but there really isn’t much there.

    Overall: 5/10 because the sleeves are epic

  22. I’m actually quite taken by this dress. I can’t say I LIKE leg-o-mutton sleeves but I find these surprisingly tasteful, especially given the time period. I think the over-done sleeves elevate an otherwise boring but well fitted beige dress into something elegant yet understated. If the whole dress was more vividly colored I think the overall effect might be a bit garish. This way it draws attention but does not clamor for it.
    I am torn by the trim because I like the overall effect but am not sure I love the execution.
    Overall, 8/10. Maybe 8.5.

  23. Daniel says

    It’s beautifully cut and constructed, particularly the Watteau back. That’s undeniable. The brocade – all I can say is, thank goodness it is nowhere near a pink or flesh colour, or the effect would not be nice. The colour… ugh. Not a fan of this neutral beige non-colour, particularly in such a large unrelieved mass of baby-food-glop. The sleeves are striking and the brocade fabric is lovely, but the pearl beading looks surprisingly tacky, cheap and lumpy. Also, the ruched dart insets… No. Just no. That is SO not a good look, especially against the stark simplicity of the rest of the dress. It just focuses attention on these ruchy bits. I do like and appreciate the artistic elements of the dress and its cut and concept are pretty good, but two points off for utter beigeness, and one point off for cheap beading, and two points off for the disturbing ruched dart things (they disturb me. Not sure why, but they really do disturb me, and besides, they don’t even look balanced/symmetrical enough) leaves one with 5/10, but I’ll give it an extra point for the back view because it’s so beautfully draped and cut, so my final rating is 6/10.

  24. Sue H says

    This is a marvelous medley of historical styles in a historical gown. Lovely in itself as well, though the sleeves are out of our current comfort zone. I cannot like the color but can see it is quite elegant and works to downplay all the extravagances of the gown. 9/10

  25. 7. i would really like the dress except for the high tight neck. I know that was the style, but it is the one major thing I hate about the era. All I can think about is strangulation.

  26. I really like this dress but I don’t know why! I am so not a fan of the giant poofy sleeves ever, but here I think they work. And I love the fabric combination. The fit of the dress is stunning. And it has enough detail to be elegant and interesting but not so much as to be tacky or over the top. As a bridesmaid dress it would have been fantastic.

    8/10

  27. Elizabeth says

    9.5, it’s almost perfect, but I’d say the sleeves are just a tad too puffy to balance the skirt.
    Seems most people don’t like the beige but it goes perfectly with the (gorgeous) gold, and as a bridesmaid would go well in a line up with the bride in white.
    The lines, the silhouette, that little bit of gold on the bodice, I love it!

  28. Amber says

    This is the first time I’ve posted but I thought this dress was beautiful and I’d rate it 9. I find it lovely and precious.

  29. I rate this one an 8.

    I love it. I am not usually a fan of poofy sleeves within my own personal aesthetics, but with this dress and in the context of the period, I think it’s lovely. It has a geometry about it, something about the restraint of the body, but the fitted quality of the tailoring. I think it’s beautiful. And, I actually love the color, too.

    The -2 comes from the back of the dress, specifically the back neck. It looked somewhat strange, but hopefully the wearer had a Gibson-girl look going and her flowing hair/tendrils covered up the back neck. Thanks for sharing this one with us. It’s really beautiful.

  30. Gail says

    It’s better-looking and fitting than most bride’s maids dress I have seen. The colors very pleasing together. I love the beautiful detail using the different sized pearls. It reminds me of the Art Nouvaeu style , wanting to add more curves and organic elements into the dress.
    At first, I was thinking: “They couldn’t afford more brocade or something.”
    However the “lack” of brocade seems to be balanced by the gigot sleeves, the fit, the pearls etc. So it really worked out great.

    9/10

  31. PS – in the photos it almost looks like the bottom part of the front princess seams has been resewn, ever so slightly off. Just the last 12 inches or so. I cannot help speculating whether there was some kind of embellishment like the one on the bodice set into the bottom of the seams that was later unpicked and the seam resewn.
    It makes me itch to look at the inside!!

    • Oh, very observant! I had noticed that bit of skirt didn’t look quite as pressed and neat, but didn’t really stop to think about it. Perhaps it did have a bit of embellishment.

  32. Kim says

    As a bridesmaids dress, this works. It won’t upstage the bride’s dress (very important to the bride’s parents who are paying for the wedding), it looks interesting from the back (important for the people in the pews, as that is the view they see), and the princess lines of the dress flatter the majority of young women (helpful for the bride as this keeps the complaints down from the bridesmaids).

    I will assume that the wedding took place in the cold season, given the high collar (really – a turtle neck that is not a knit!). The collar is edged in lace, which should make it look very pretty against most skin, if the lace is soft – otherwise skin will blotch. If not fitted correctly, the collar edge will be extremely uncomfortable. So a half point deduction there.

    The pearls and brocade give the dress a bit of “bling”, which should further please the bridesmaids. The sleeves are right with the times.

    So did Worth get it right? As much as possible, given that the dress is not suppose to please the wearer (bridesmaid) but someone else (bride and / or bride’s mother).

    9.5/10

  33. Lylassandra says

    1/10. The contrast is just so great between the plain fabric and the sleeves as to be hideous.

  34. PatW says

    The droopy sleeves are a bit miscalculated, but I like this. I’ll give it a 9

  35. Aargh! It may be beautifully fitted, but it looks like a gold silk dress with a beautifully fitted sheet of brown paper attached to it with upholstery tacks. Although I do take Mrs C’s point that a large part of it would have been hidden by an enormous bouquet.

    2/10 because as bridesmaids’ dresses go, I have seen (and been forced to wear) worse!

  36. metmuseum.orgI know I’m too late to factor into the math, but I love this dress. It’s been a favorite of mine over the years. I have it saved as “The Golden Girl” in my files. 🙂

    I think what makes this dress almost overwhelming for most people is the brassy orange color. Orange is such a volatile color. People either love it or hate it. I, personally, adore orange and pearls and cream and the slight echo of a medieval kirtle….

    I rate it a 10/10. Given a chance, no matter how badly it clashes with my ruddy cheeks, I would wear this dress and feel beautiful in it!

    Also, just as an extra treat, the bridal dress that accompanies this elegant bridesmaid gown is almost the same shape, but all in creamy white with brocade and lace.
    You can see it here: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80002625

    • You’re not too late! I count the ratings up on the Monday night, so you’re well in.

      I’m so excited that you found the wedding dress that goes with it! Thank you!

    • Oh wow, this makes me love the bridesmaids dresses even more! How lovely would it have looked to see the contrast in the sleeves when lined up around the bride! Thanks for sharing the link to the wedding dress. 🙂

    • How intriguing! I did a rummage through their wedding dresses to see if there was an obvious match,and I did wonder about that one. It is lovely isn’t it!

  37. Wanda/Dawn says

    I love the 90s and I love Worth! 8/10 because gold and beige are not the best colors on me.

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