Last week’s Rate the Dress was an extremely mauve 1860s extravaganza with gold straw embroidery. Some things you all agreed on. By and large, everyone was very impressed by the straw embroidery, but not everyone liked the way it worked with the mauve, or the combination of motifs in the embroidery. Some things split you into two groups. Generally you were either very pro-bow, or very anti-bow when it came to the evening bodice, and very pro-mauve, or anti-mauve when it came to the colour. The trickiest thing divided you into more opinions than I could count. Was the day bodice cut for a fuller figure, or for a fashionably shapeless silhouette? (I lean towards the former, because as a dressmaker, I don’t think you could get the shape to stay without a body’s curves under it to support it). And, whichever you believed, was the shape a nice change, or frumpy?
The shape was very tricky indeed, because it brought up the issue of body shapes, and how we talk about them. In Rate the Dress I mostly present extant historical garments in good condition. Every bit of academic research into extant garments suggests that a hugely disproportionate amount of smaller-sized garments survive in good enough condition to end up in museums, for a number of reasons, including that people are most likely to save garments from events that happen early in life (weddings, first balls, etc), when they are likely to be smaller, and that small-sized garments have less possibilities for re-making. Museums also present garments to ‘their best advantage’, which can mean that modern tastes influence how they are presented (aka, they get pinned in – I’ve seen it happen in person more than once) and (depending on museum budget), on standard mannequins, which are usually smaller in size. This means that we’re used to seeing dresses that look small and fit an ‘ideal’ body shape. When I showed something that didn’t, it was jarring, because we’ve been trained by society to think of something else as pretty.
I try to show a range of shapes and sizes in Rate the Dress, to give a broader view of the past. It’s a huge pity that so much of the extant garments are so small, and that paintings and fashion plates also show idealised shapes: these keep us from seeing a realistic view of garments in the past, and maybe make it easier to be hyper-critical of historical body shapes, and not as kind, or thoughtful, as we could be, when discussing them.
Historically, just as today, there were women of all sorts of shapes and sizes. Historically, and today, we all deserve to have clothes that we love, and that we feel good in, whatever our shape. And we deserve to not be judged on our shape – from any end of the spectrum. We’re here to Rate the Dress, and that does involve imagining the person in it, and while we can rate their taste, let’s not rate their body. Society is hard enough on women without us being hard on each other.
Luckily for last week’s Rate the Dress rating, most of you thought it was awesome that the wearer didn’t care if she fit the fashionable ideal (or did, or was pregnant!), and just decided to rock her mauve madness anyway. So, if only for the admirable chutzpah that would compel any woman, of any shape, to go for broke in mauve and gold with flowers and zig-zags and step-y shapes and fringe, she came in at 7.7 out of 10.
Since it’s the week after Easter, I’ve used that as my theme for this week’s Rate the Dress pick. However, rather than something in Easter egg pastels, I’ve toned down the colours a lot from last week, and gone for a shades-of-white ‘lingerie gown’ covered in a flower garden of embroidery.
I love terminology and fashion categories, but find things that blur the lines between categories fascinating. While the light cotton fabric, and the lace insertion on this dress are typical of lingerie frocks (so named, because they feature fabrics, decoration and construction details used on lingerie), the floral embroidery is so lush and heavy that it almost takes the dress out of the category of lingerie dresses, into something more formal. It’s clearly a very luxurious example of a lingerie gown, and one that could have been worn to the most formal of occasions for which lingerie frocks were acceptable: garden parties and daytime receptions, rather than just as a nice summertime around-the-house dress for someone well off enough that their around-the-house time would never include actual housework!
(I should add that lingerie frocks were also worn as wedding dresses, particularly by more rural and less well-off brides, as those with money would opt for silk.).
The dress apparently belonged to the donor’s grandmother, Katherine Sperry Beinecke, daughter of Thomas Sperry of Cranford, New Jersey, founder of S & H Green Stamp (a rewards programme – collect enough and get a prize).
Sadly, there is no other information regarding whether Katherine made the dress herself, had it made for her by a family member, commissioned it from a dressmaker, or purchased it ready made (this last is quite unlikely, given how unique this garment is, and how perfectly it would have had to fit her figure). The four other clothing items related to Katherine which were donated to the MFA all feature elaborate, inventive, exquisitely done handiwork, indicating that it was definitely characteristic of her taste. Her family, while not high society, probably had the money to indulge her taste: or her leisure time, if she embroidered it herself.
I’ve found Katherine on Geni, and she was born in 1893, making her between 15 & 20 when this dress was fashionable (based on my dating: the MFA says 1905-10, I’d say 1907-12). Her family home burned down in 1912 when she was 20, so either this dress survived the fire (perhaps she was wearing it, away at school…etc.) or it post-dates the fire. She was married in February 1917.
Lingerie frocks were usually worn by young women, and while the white colours and floral embellishments of this example speak of innocence and youth, there is something very assured in the cut, shaping and elaborate embellishments, which may tell us a bit about Katherine’s personality.
What do you think? A little over-done for a garment that was supposed to be about simplicity and innocence? Or a delicious elevation of a style that could be a little they-all-look-the-same?
Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10