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Rate the Dress: 1860s florals and swags

I’ve been on a bit of a roll lately – two extremely popular Rate the Dresses in a row!  Last week’s Florentine noblewoman in green sailed in with a spectacular 9.3 out of 10, just missing out on pipping the princess from a fortnight before to the post – much to my disappointment, as I personally LOVE the green dress, and give it a perfect 10.  (actually, if we include my scores, the princess drops to 9.3 and this bumps up to 9.4 😉 )

Oddly enough, my favourite things about the painting – the reality of the partlet strings, and the faithfulness with which the artist rendered the sitters hands, rather than turning them into generic, idealised hands, were also the things it was most criticised for.

This dress, from the (envy-inspiring) collection of Alexandre Vasilliev, would be a fairly unremarkable example of 1860s fashion, in a classic pairing of red and grey, were it not for the spectacular trompe-l’oeil floral and ribbon pattern bordering the skirt.

Dress, early 1860s, Collection of Alexandre Vasilliev

Dress, early 1860s, Collection of Alexandre Vasilliev

The lush floral pattern, whether it is printed on or woven-in, is an extravagant display of the technological advances in dyeing, printing and fabric weaving that characterised the mid-19th century.  The design, with its lavish use of colour, is absolutely typical of mid-century taste, and links the simpler silhouette and main overall colour of the dress to the desire for the new that would make any innovation, no matter how ostentatious, popular.

Detail of dress, 1860s, Alexandre Vaselliev

Detail of dress, 1860s, Alexandre Vaselliev

The florals and colours of the dress are echoed in the bonnet it is shown with, linking back to the natural imagery and the ribbon motif.

Dress, early 1860s, Alexandre Vaselliev

Dress, early 1860s, Alexandre Vaselliev

What do you think?  A good balance of modesty and ostentation, or gauche and showy?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10

31 Comments

  1. Although I find the color combination lovely, both sophisticated and appealing, I had an immediately negative reaction to the floral swags and oversize “bunting” on the skirt. For me the scale is just way too big, more suitable as a wall stencil than clothing.

    7 of 10

  2. Rachel says

    To me, it doesn’t quite please the eye. Even if the embellishment is 2-D, it’s still heavy, dark, clunky, those big flowers and the thick dark ribbon. Having garlands of flowers and greenery all over your dress is hard to pull off at the best of times. It probably made a better impression in its own time, but it isn’t a concept that’s aged well. At least, it doesn’t make a good case for itself here.

    The bands around the sleeves are cute. I do like those. With the little scalloped cuffs.

    The silhouette isn’t very interesting, but I wouldn’t say anything about the dress is ugly, soooooo …. how about 5/10?

  3. The fabric is AMAZING and the accessorising is spot on – that bonnet goes almost perfectly, although the red ribbons are not QUITE a match.

    However, to me, the cut is not great – the bodice in particular looks incredibly clunky, particularly alongside the delicacy and depth of decoration on the skirt – the fabric is amazing, which makes the bodice seem all the more frowsty and frumpy, and the straight across waistband is made to look even thicker by the skimpy ribbon around it. I really want to see this dress with a much more defined basque/bodice and less right-angled banding and trimming. Actually I’d probably love it with pagoda sleeves trimmed with bows of black and red striped ribbon. It looks like the bodice is trimmed with black and red TARTAN ribbon, which is just too much – should be striped ribbon to match the design in the print.

    If this dress was made in a far less ostentatiously luxe fabric, it would look really humble and modest.

    For the skirt and the bonnet, 8/10 – 2 points off as the pleating into the waistband isn’t quite sensitive enough to the fabric it’s pleating. However, the bodice – which looks like it belongs to a completely other social stratosphere, jarringly so for the rest of the ensemble; and particularly the visually offensive tartan ribbon (which just doesn’t sync with the rest of the outfit and annoys me more and more as I look at it) – drags the whole down to 5.5/10

    • Actually, peering much closer, it looks like the “tartan” is actually strips printed with the same ribbon print as the skirt, with the shading and all – giving it that plaid effect. But it’s very oddly done – it’s like the dressmaker cut out the ribbons from some spare fabric and then cut them in half again to make trimming, which is a really bodgey, clumsy way of doing it, and really makes me wonder what the story is behind this dress. I know you could buy fabric trimmings to match expensive silks like this, but the way these trimmings are done really doesn’t look right at all.

      I can’t help but wonder if at a later date, someone tried to “improve” this dress. Does it look like the bodice is the same fabric as the skirt? The more I squint at it, it seems as if the bodice doesn’t quite match the grey in the skirt, and is made from a VERY slightly different shade of grey fabric. Given how clunky and clumsy the bodice is for the dress, and how awkward that horizontal waist seam is, I wonder whether we’re looking at a later “restoration” where someone had this amazing skirt and tried to make a bodice to match it, maybe because the original bodice was seriously damaged, and used remnants of the bodice fabric to get the trimming to tie it all together.

      I’ve seen an amazing exhibition of Alexandre Vasilliev’s collection in Vilnius – he has an incredible collection, but he basically buys up LOTS of museum deaccessions and cast-offs – he bought a LOT of stuff from the Brooklyn Museum when they transferred the best stuff to the Met, and a lot of it was visibly in quite bad condition (extremely shattered silks, shredding fabric, etc – I was amazed that some of it had been exhibited in the state it was in) or very obviously repaired – you can see where a quite large tear in the skirt has been darned and repaired in these pictures.

      This makes the dress a really tough piece to rate – you are trying to determine which parts are original and which parts are restoration/repair.

      • It’s a hard call about the bodice. The skirt is actually two different colours – a lighter one between the swags and a darker one in the main parts, plus it looks like there may be some pretty serious fading (that pale grey is a shade I hugely associate with fugitive dyes), which makes it really difficult to tell from three pictures if the bodice actually matches or not.

        This is one of those pieces I’d really love to be able to inspect up close! So many mysteries to the construction!

  4. The print on the fabric of the skirt is a gimmick. It’s somewhat cute but feels like mis-appropriated interior decorator’s fabric. This skirt would have made fantastic curtains or wallpaper.

    In fact, the longer I look at it, the more I see the room this dress should be. The room is a ten. This dress is not. 6/10.

  5. I really liked the bonnet and bodice…and then scrolled down for an immediate NOPE reaction. It’s very pretty, but does not belong on a dress. Maybe on a wall or tablecloth. 4/10.

  6. Oh, my. The dark colored bunting just seems too dark for the rest of the dress. I just don’t think the black is necessary. 5/10

  7. Buttercup says

    I don’t think the colour of the fabric and the bunting across the bottom of the dress complement each other. It’s like it doesn’t know if it wants to be austere eg. the colour or it wants to go to a party eg. the bunting. I rate this dress 5 out of 10.

  8. Katie says

    Ugh, there’s so many elements of this dress that I love, but the scale of the bunting just kills it for me. I’m going to be generous and give this one a 7/10.

  9. Kaela says

    10. I love it. I recently saw a reenactor with a similar vibrant rose print fabric attached at the hem of her skirt. I thought it was not authentic, but after seeing this, I guess it was. I also love the combination of very light gray with a luscious cranberry colored trim. And the trim is placed very tastefully, unlike many trimmed gowns. Now I want to make one! Wonder where I could find such fabulous fabric….

  10. Pros: The winter white and red color scheme is lovely; both lively and restrained. The floral bonnet harmonizes beautifully with the dress, too. The embroidery (if it’s that; I think that is what it is) is well-executed, and the placement of the red bands on the jacket is spot-on.

    Cons: The bold, swaggy ribbon-design ornamentation on the skirt looks way too much like a period wallpaper motif for me to like it on a dress. (I’m quite aware that it’s consistent with period taste, but this is an area where period taste for the 1860s and I part company.) The vertical lines of green leaves and buds I like, but the ribbon swag confection is too much. I’m not fond of the boxy look of the barely waist-length jacket either, but that’s a minor point.

    Overall, a 7 out of 10 from me.

  11. Elina G says

    The silhuette is ok for the times, but otherwise this is an example of why I don’t like the 1800s (except for very early and very late). The ribbon pattern smaller, further down the hem and without the flowers would make the overall look more elegant. The bonnet with its flowers and giant bow would have been a super cute frame around missy’s face. As Daniel pointed out the bodice and skirt are only a near match. The skirt fabric looks like the designer couldn’t decide who should have the leading role, Miss Flower or Miss Bunting. Might have actually worked better if there had been more stuff in the pattern. Now it’s only half way there or too much. Better as curtains, but not in my window. Like the gray colour of the skirt though. Sorry dress, tough luck for you coming right after that Florentine dream. 5/10

  12. At first glance I liked the dress, but the more I look at it I feel that the flowers are off. They would look better on some pillows or on a wall, on the dress they feel strangely flat. The ribbons is very well done, and it took some time for me to realize that it was painted on and not an actual ribbon. It’s as if the dress is done more to show off technique than what actually look the best, in this case just the ribbon and some tredimensional trimming would have given it a higher score from me. It’s not bad, but I can’t give it more than 7/10.

  13. I typically view these things in terms of how they would have been viewed in the day and how they would pan out as a reproduction worn today. I think it would have been a show stopper in the day (whether that is a good thing likely had a lot to do with who wore it and where-she’d have to be pretty out going I think). But if I tried to reproduce it and wear it, I think it would look terrible on me-I don’t have the right personality to pull it off. I also think that to modern eyes, it would be icky. The print is just to big for our senisibilities. And I think that other costumers would question its accuracy. It isn’t a common look so they’d think I went mad in the curtain section of a thrift store (as Kaela pointed out). 4/10

  14. Anna says

    I really love the garland motif on a skirt i mean it’s not just a standard pattern it was made so it looks like an actual garland is hanging from the waist. Thought it would look much better with a evening/ball bodice, which would accentuate the “specialness” of the skirt. But then not every special occasion was celebrated during evenings, weddings for exemple. Actually it would make a lovely wedding dress. 9,5/10

  15. Anna Marie says

    I think the skirt is really fabulous! The sedate bodice with the swoopingly exciting skirt fabric is wonderful—it’s a great way to take an otherwise ordinary and restrained dress up a notch! A sort of subdued extravagance. I can see where the folks who think it looks like curtains or wallpaper are coming from, but I think this is precisely the way to incorporate the aesthetics of this type of fabric into clothing. A daring evening bodice would put the whole thing over the top, but daring print with sedate cut is a win in my book! 9/10

  16. Julia Ergane says

    Like Daniel, I think the bodice is the draw back of this dress. However, I love the fabric in which the skirt is made. Yummy. I also forgive some of the little errors which the dressmaker made. It needs a new bodice, thus my rating of 8/10.

  17. Lalaith says

    I like it, oddly enough. It looks like a Christmas dress. But the silhouette is a bit off, so 7/10.

  18. Erin says

    I absolutely adore this! Now admittedly I am awfully weak for over-the-top florals, but the effect of that print is so spectacular. For me it has just the right wow factor. I also think that the bodice trim does a good job of balancing out the lower “ribbon”. The only thing I don’t care for is that the waist seems to be fitting the mannequin a little strangely, like the form is leaning back at the waist or something. The dress is amazing, though, so it gets a 10/10 from me.

  19. Grace Darling says

    What a hoot! Can’t go past an outfit that makes you burst out laughing…

    Curiously, I was just reading about the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC)
    and the Sanitary Fairs that were held to raise funds/support/relief for sick and wounded soldiers
    in the Civil War. That looks like just the sort of frock for a lady to move through the fair…..

    Love the ‘Darrell Lea’ crimon bow!

    A joy-filled garment….8/10

  20. 7/10 for me. I have a thing for border prints, especially floral border prints. The ribbon bit is a little weird imo.

  21. I like the border print but the waistline looks off to me. It just looks like the person that made the dress got the best fabric but didn’t have the best sewing skills. The bodice doesn’t look fitted enough – making the mannequin look quite dumpy. The thin bit of ribbon at the waistline looks too thin – a nice wide red sash would help this dress greatly. I think the pleats going in at the front, rather than out, is not doing the outfit any favors. It’s like the red bow of the bonnet is trying to hide the sins of the bodice. 5/10 because the fabric is fabulous

  22. India says

    I think those skirts would have looked amazing in motion as the swags and garlands billowed and flowed. Seeing them on an inanimate model doesn’t do them justice; they definitely need a living, breathing woman to be seen at their best. The hat, too, is lovely. It would frame and flatter any face. But the bodice? It almost looks like it belongs to another dress. In fact, in a way it looks as if it was originally designed as a matching, if boxy, jacket rather than an integral part of the dress. How do you score an outfit of two halves, one you love and one that does nothing for you? 6/10 perhaps?
    ps I wasn’t criticising last week’s dress, which I liked a lot, when I mentioned how the hands were painted. I positively liked that they looked real because they made her look real.

  23. Mary says

    5/10 Not feeling it. Don’t care for the hat either — too much ribbon. As is often the case, fashion isn’t always a girl’s best friend.

  24. apricots says

    Unlike many others, I actually love this dress! The flowers are a beautiful pop of colour and the way the leaves/flowers run down the dress and blend in with the creases looks great. I love the tartan wrapping around the flowers, and its use on the bodice and arms to tie the dress together. The bonnet is maybe a bit much but hey, why not.

    9/10.

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