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Rate the Dress: a flower garden in white, ca 1910

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

32 Comments

  1. The embroidery and lace on this gown are exquisitely well done, though I’m not sure I like the actual flower motifs that much; they are a bit fleshy and real for my taste.

    And I’m even less sure how to rate a lingerie frock–a type of dress which has never been to my personal taste. (My favorite fancy dress, as a child of 8 or so, was black velvet with a white sailor collar. :-))

    On a girl of 15 to 20, as Katherine was when she would have been wearing this dress, it would be charming, though in general it might be a bit on the bland side, fleshy plant embroidery or no! I also think that it would look prettier if worn with a broad ribbon for a belt in a pastel color–yellow, green, pink, or blue would all do.

    7 out of 10.

  2. Emma Capponi says

    10/10 in love with this gown! I would happily wear it today and wait for a vampire to come ravish me. Everything is gorgeous, but I’m especially drawn to the variations of texture, from the sheer right through to the heavy raised embroidery. The silhouette is simple enough to let the fabric really shine, and the monochrome means nothing is too overwhelming. I wish I could vote twice I love this one so much!

  3. Do we know anything of what Katherine looked like? Skin tone and hair colour could really make a difference to how this dress looked ‘in action’.
    I admire the hours of work that must have gone into the embroidery. I regret that the first thing it made me think was “What? It’s a net curtain over a mannequin!”

  4. Elise says

    I found the embroidery off-putting. Some of it looked like Japonisme, and then it looked like wisteria vines. Both are beautiful on their own, but seemed to whack off-balance in this dress. Poo. It does help to be one color, and I do like the cathedral windows running throughout. I just cannot get a sense of pattern. Can I white dress be too busy? For me, it is too busy. Meh. 7/10.

  5. I like lingerie dresses on the whole – they make one think that life was lived entirely in a gazebo in clement weather. The embroidery is impressive, but I don’t care for the scale of it; the size of the individual motifs seems more suitable for upholstery or wallpaper than a garment of this sort

    8.5 of 10

  6. I think my rating is so low because, although it is a lovely dress, I don’t particularly “feel” it – for me, I find the “chunky” embroidery beautiful and very attractive in itself, but it feels a bit strange on such an otherwise light and dainty dress, especially with the delicate insertions that are at such odds with the chunkier crochet-lace-looking insertions. For being all in one colour, there is a lot of clashing and swearing at each other going on in the design elements here – and I didn’t even think it was possible for a monotone dress to clash/swear with itself! It also seems that the heavy embroidery has stayed much whiter than the rest of the dress, but even when I try to imagine it all in one tone of snowiness, it doesn’t really look much improved for it, or any more homogeneous.

    The other thing that kind of frustrates me here is that I kind of want it to have a bit more shape – I know it’s form fitting and all, but I kinda wish there was a bit more pouf and flouf, just so that it doesn’t look quite so much like the heavy embroidery is clinging a bit TOO lovingly to the wearer’s body, it kind of feels a bit octopus-ey even.

    So. Yes. It’s either 4 or 6/10, so let’s say 5/10 as that’s halfway.

  7. Baa says

    The embroidery is beautiful, it seems to be off size (?) This dress didn’t appear overnight it took some time to complete but it looks overdone too much of a good thing. Wish I could have seen it on the wearer though.im sure she looked stunning. I wonder if she had long dark hair with a shine to it & perhaps a pretty curl? Just is a bit busy to me taken all together but separately the embroidery is beautiful so 5/10

  8. Hearthrose says

    I am normally mad for lingerie gowns. I am normally mad for embroidery. And an embellished white dress, even modern, typically sends me into a swoon.

    And the bits, taken separately, are really lovely. So is the overall shape of the dress (and well-done to that dressmaker!) The hem is delightful, too.

    However.

    The heaviness of the embroidered pieces (and their bright-white color) do not match the delicacy of the fabric of the rest of the dress. Perhaps the color not-matching has been enhanced by the years past – but that doesn’t change the texture issue.

    Also, there is some unfortunate embroidery placement going on that reminds me of Eve’s figleaf. One tries to be more mature than that, but it’s glaringly obvious.

    Because the disparate parts make me feel like I’m looking at a upcycled tablecloth…

    5/10

  9. Mary Ann Hadley says

    I agree that the large flower shapes are too heavy, strangely placed and cause the sleeves to pull downward. I love lingerie dresses. I have a wonderful picture of my grandmother in one, and I plan on recreating it. That said, I will use lightweight lace appliques and strips of handmade lace, mainly on the bodice.
    I wonder if this lady received the large embroidered pieces from a loved one, and felt she had to use them? 7/10

  10. Wendy says

    10/10. Beautiful embroidery. Ethereal and earth all at once. I would be extremely happy to wear this. White, sheer, feminine. Love!!

  11. Re: last week’s mauve dress, I didn’t rate it, but I saw it and assumed it was for a small woman. I’m not very knowledgeable about vintage fashion (though I love it!) and because the evening bodice was so small, and because you said it was “almost as if” it had been cinched in (which I interpreted as you saying that it wasn’t actually cinched); and because you mentioned a trend for loose sacque day bodices, I think many people would assume that the dress was for a thin person and that, therefore, the sacque was unflattering, or some kind of extravagant maternity wear.

    Maybe a more fair way to gauge your readers’ impressions of larger-than-fashion-ideal sizes would be to have an unambiguous example–but maybe ambiguous was what you were going for!

    On the other hand it does seem judgmental for people to have assumed that a large woman wearing this dress would be particularly audacious or bold, when brightly-coloured but smaller-sized outfits don’t get that reaction–as if a large person just stepping outside is itself almost bold!

    Now to rate this week’s dress – my first impression is that such heavy embroidery and such a thick-looking and modestly-cut underdress in such a plain styling would suit a darker colour. For all that embroidery it looks so plain – it would help to see it accessorized. Also the heavy handwork on such a delicate base fabric makes me nervous of it tearing!

    I think this would be best as a wedding dress for an older-than-average bride. Actually when I think of it like that it seems beautiful, and fitting – 10/10!

    • I’m not really trying to gauge people’s impressions of larger-than-fashion ideal sizes, just to present an as-accurate-as-possible impression of the range of sizes that existed. 🙂

      I thought that listing 7 things that I thought were really fascinating about the dress and including “#4 The fact that it’s clearly not made for a little tiny woman.” (which I then unpicked a little, in terms of the contrast between the day and evening bodice, and what might be going on to cause the disparity), made it pretty obvious that I thought this was a dress in a less-than-small size. 🙂

      It really is interesting all the different ways in which we look at a garments and interpret them! The joy of Rate the Dress! Thank you for joining in!

      • Ya I completely missed that — If I remember looking over it, somehow the small evening bodice caught and stuck in my mind the most . . . that’s what I get for just skimming something that deserved more time!

  12. You are amazing. Thank you for putting this all into such perfect words. I get so overwhelmed with feeling about it I can’t use my words! Or I just use the wrong ones! You put it so very well.
    This dress, the embroidery is OMG so gorgeous! I love the art nouveau shapes and stylised blooms so much. The more I look, the more I swoon. I love how the embroidery is so carefully positioned to work with the dress style. What an incredible work of art.
    That’s why I can’t quite get my head around it. It must have been for something pretty special, her wedding dress maybe? Would she choose this super fashionable style over a silk dress?
    I give it a 9 because the workwomanship is so breathtaking, and only knocking off that last point because not being able to see it in a context of what it was worn for leaves me a tiny bit off centre about it.

  13. Elizabeth says

    I love this dress! I love the simple silhouette of it made more interesting by the motifs, with the boldness of the embroidery offset with the delicacy of the lacy bits in between (don’t know the term). It’s like a snowy garden. I think the sleeves are my favourite part, with the ruffle and the big leaf at the end. It looks like it would have felt nice to wear too, lovely and breezy. 10/10

  14. SueAnne says

    I have more mixed feelings with this dress than any of the other RTDs, in that I bounce back and forth between loving the amount of detail and the general daintiness of lingerie frocks and cringing at the apparent bulkiness of the embellishments. Up close on the bodice, they look wonderful, but from afar, AKA in the zoomed out photos, they seem out of place and awkward, like there’s just too much going on. The flowers on the skirt in particular seem a bit huge for my taste.

    However, anyone challenging the norms of fashion in creative ways gets bonus points in my book, especially with such elaborate detail work. 8/10 from me!

    P.S. “Society is hard enough on women without us being hard on each other.” Yes! Thank you for the positivity! <3

  15. LoriWatk says

    I almost agree with everyone that has commented… almost. The design is far too busy to suit me. I try very hard to imagine it on a person rather then just a piece of fabric thrown onto a mannequin. I try to see it moving but with this my mind goes straight to a curtain moving on a spring breeze and trust me that’s putting it kindly. After reading everything written about last week’s mauve madness I am also envisioning this on someone that is not an ideal (horrible way to put that) size. The human body is an amazing thing and a woman’s body is a miracle to behold. No offense to men as I have sons and brothers (long story behind the many men in my family and the few women). I’ve tried to see this on my lovely daughter and that didn’t really suit my thinking. I realize that this took quite a bit of time to make, the craftsmanship is very nice but its way too busy, especially since its all white. I agree that it might look better with a belt, in a nice soft color maybe a mint green or even a dark navy blue. I like the sleeves and that’s about it. So I have to say 4, no – 7, no – 3, NO lets go with 5. Because I can get a sense of this dress but can’t quite like it more then 5.

  16. I love this dress, I would wear it today with a couple of modifications. In fact, I’d like to marry again just to have an opportunity to wear something as magnificent as this. The embroidery, the lace, the cut, amazing! 10/10 without a doubt and this is my first rate! I didn’t know lingerie frocks were a thing, I need to read more about them. Also I never thought before about the size of the vintage garments, I always assumed people were smaller then plus the use of corset/bum rolls to shape the body helped to achieved those imposible silhouettes. I will put more attention to garments display at museums to check if a garment is pinned, very interesting indeed.

  17. Definitely a case of “less than the sum of its parts” for me! I love lingerie dresses generally, but this one somehow manages to clash with itself – an impressive feat for an all white dress. The embroidery is impressive, and the insertion is very pretty, but together they seem like a bit of a mess to me. Either-or, please, not both! I appreciate the work that went into the dress, and I like the panache that would be required to wear it (rather than it wearing her!), but that doesn’t really make me like it any more.

    6/10

  18. M.K. Carroll says

    Now I can’t stop thinking of this as a costume for Ophelia! This is a beautiful textile but doesn’t work for me as a dress – as a costume meant to have details visible from a distance it may be more effective. 6/10

  19. I have to admit lingerie gowns don’t generally appeal to me, and I struggle to rate them objectively without comparing them to 20th century lace curtains/tablecloths. This one is, to my mind, a good example of the type. I like the embroidery and overall silhouette. 8/10

  20. Cathy Nieuwenhuijsen says

    Omg, that is so blurgh for me 2 out 10, love your blog first comment from a chch kiwi .

  21. Emelie says

    How incredibly dreary and dull! It’s like a mix-up between a jellyfish out of water and a hideously ornate tablecloth. The embroideries are absolutely not fit for the base fabric, to heavy and overdone! And I know that lightly coloured frocks would have been all the rage at roughly the time of this being made, but that is no excuse to look like you’re wearing half your grandmother’s linen closet. Ad some colour young woman!

    2/10

  22. I think everyne else raising objections to it has already raised most if not all of my own objections to it.
    The one objection I’m not sure has been raised yet is, it just looks – crumpled? And I’m not sure if it’s just the age and presentation, or if it’s the (already brought-up) disparity of textures whacking it out of shape.
    For something with so much work in it, it’s underwhelming, and I’ve seen examples of the style with slightly less work and a lot more impact, and so it’s mostly a fail from me, and I’m adding my voice to the fives. 5/10

  23. JessieRoo says

    Possibly the most perfect lingerie dress ever. The heaviness and brighter white color of the embroidery make for a much more sophisticated and interesting design that feels very modern-I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the same fabric used by Anthropology or any other trendy modern clothing company.
    I’d happily wear it as is (well, I wouldn’t mind if the neck was lower..), probably with some sturdy, practical shoes-like my old oxfords- and an army green jacket..if I had one!
    10/10

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