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Rate the Dress: the littlest bodice and the biggest garden of embroidery

This week’s Rate the Dress goes from big 1890s sleeves, to little tiny 1790s bodices

Last week: an 1890s reception gown in pumpkin orange 

Many of you loved the Anne reference, but not everyone is a puffed sleeve fan. It lost some points just for the sleeves. And gained some just for the sleeves. And lost some points just for the colour. And gained some just for the colour. The one thing everyone seemed to agree on was a not-sure-ness about the scale of the beading and the chiffon overlay.

The Total: 7.9 out of 10

Well, and improvement on the week before, and almost good enough to count as a proper success.

This week: a 1790s dress and matching fichu

This dress represents a very brief and specific moment of fashion, where the last remnants of 18th century styles, in the form of fichu and an open overskirt, meet the extremely brief bodice of the early Regency/Empire silhouette.

Ensemble, ca. 1798, probably, European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.119.1a–c
Ensemble, ca. 1798, probably, European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.119.1a–c

When I say extremely brief, I mean it. The bodice appears to be no more than four inches deep.

Ensemble, ca. 1798, probably, European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.119.1a–c

It’s a style that appeared for only a few years at the very end of the 18th century.

Ensemble, ca. 1798, probably, European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.119.1a–c

I imagine that the dress would look quite different depending on the style of stays it was worn over.

Ensemble, ca. 1798, probably, European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.119.1a–c

The inclusion of a matching fichu suggests that the bodice was usually covered, which changes the silhouette significantly.

Ensemble, ca. 1798, probably, European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.119.1a–c

Silhouette aside, the clear and obvious star of the dress is the embroidery, worked in twisted silk thread, each mirrored floral motif a unique design.

Ensemble, ca. 1798, probably, European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.119.1a–c

Even the scrolling designs that frame each floral spray are unique, a masterwork of inventiveness.

Ensemble, ca. 1798, probably, European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.119.1a–c

Some of the motifs are clearly identifiable, other are more obscure.

Ensemble, ca. 1798, probably, European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.119.1a–c

The embroidery continues on the under-petticoat, although it is obscured by the overskirt at all but the centre front.

Ensemble, ca. 1798, probably, European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.119.1a–c

The embroidery must have been done by a very dedicated embroider, or for a very discerning client.

Ensemble, ca. 1798, probably, European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.119.1a–c

It’s amazing, given the scale and elaborate attention to detail in the embroidery, and the amount of available fabric to work with in the drsess, that it was not adjusted and re-made to later styles. Instead it remains a perfect example of an extremely brief fashion for extremely brief bodices.

Ensemble, ca. 1798, probably, European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.119.1a–c
Ensemble, ca. 1798, probably, European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.119.1a–c
Ensemble, ca. 1798, probably, European, cotton, silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.119.1a–c

What do you think? As an example of its time and type, is this dress a masterpiece, or a mistake?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10

A reminder about rating – feel free to be critical if you don’t like a thing, but make sure that your comments aren’t actually insulting to those who do like a garment.  Our different tastes are what make Rate the Dress so interesting.  It’s no fun when a comment implies that anyone who doesn’t agree with it, or who would wear a garment, is totally lacking in taste.

(as usual, nothing more complicated than a .5.  I also hugely appreciate it if you only do one rating, and set it on a line at the very end of your comment, so I can find it!  And 0 is not on a scale of 1 to 10.  Thanks in advance!)

50 Comments

  1. Without the fichu it looks more like a muumuu and somehow off-balance, but the fichu makes it more visually pleasing.

    The embroidery is heavenly, and I love the way the open front of the skirt allows for an interplay with even more embroidery.

    9 of 10

  2. Laura S says

    It’s not my favourite shape or style or period, but the sheer technical genius and design quality make this outstanding, imo.

    10 out of 10

  3. wendy l says

    the silhouette from the side is not to my liking – what’s with the humpy back? this brings it down from an 11 to

    10 out of 10

  4. Linda Olson says

    LOVE the embroidery – but the design is either more spring party or almost nightdress. 8

  5. Tracy Gordon says

    This looks extremely comfortable! And the artistry in the needlework is exquisite! I think it would be like wearing the prettiest cloud in the world. A true 10!

  6. Alison says

    I’m with Laura S here – not my favourite period, style, colour, silhouette, anything ….. and yet, and yet … Sometimes the whole is just so much more than the sum of the parts. Oh, and the embroidery is stunning. I’m so glad it has survived for more than 200 years. 10

  7. Kaerla Fellows says

    I don’t care for the sillhouette, but the embroidery really is lovely.

    3 out of 10.

  8. Gillian Stapleton says

    That is a teeny tiny bodice indeed! The embroidery is absolutely stunning.
    10/10

    • Donna says

      I tend to rate by what I’d look good in and as a bosomy woman, I’m not a fan of skimpy tops. That said, as a needleworker I love this! The variety of designs and the stitches used to execute them is impressive and the delicate fabric looks to be quite cool on a hot day. ♥️ 10/10

  9. Diana says

    Oh my heavens i must make this dress. I love everything about it 10/10

  10. I had never seen this style, and the delicacy and charm of the dress bring me to tears. The meticulous attention to the emroidery is extraordiary, and the fishu does balance the lines. how lovely, too, for early pregnancy! 10/10 for me.

  11. Kay Dodge says

    Although I am not a fan of the tiny bodice, the dress is a masterpiece! Is there any indication this was ever worn? I like it better with the fischu than without. I will be attempting to copy some of that exquisite embroidery!

  12. With the matching fichu I love it–it’s graceful, and the embroidery is lovely.

    Without the fichu, well…let’s just say I never saw a “waistline” above the breasts before. That decidedly looks rather odd.

    But as a whole costume, it’s a grand success.

    9.5 out of 10.

  13. Nannynorfolk says

    Although it’s a bit nightdressy it’s rather lovely, and think of all the hours it must have taken to embroider this. It must hav been for a special occasion, a wedding perhaps?
    10/10

  14. Lee Morgan says

    I love this dress. What a beauty! Often, the discussion of such items relates to the wearer, but generally, and certainly in the case of wealthy women, the garment was not usually made by the wearer but most likely a servant or someone otherwise hired to do the work. An Artist who remains unknown. (Unlike designers of the modern age) I marvel at the spectacular artwork so frequently seen in historical garments. I give this one a 10.

  15. Evie Sharpe says

    I love it! The embroidery and fantastic sheerness of the fabric make for a beautiful gown but I think I have to take off a point for whoever dressed the mannequin; looks like they hiked the dress waaay up to accommodate a too short stand, throwing the original lines off completely. Based on the shoulder seams’ near 45 degree angle, the sleeves should actually be closer to elbow length. Love the matching fichu!

    9 out of 10

  16. Michelle tuegel says

    I think the embroidery work is seriously beautiful and the beautiful sheer cotton fabric.thr colors are perfect and I usually like the empire waist/silhouette but this extreme is to much and makes it look like a sack like maternity dress or more precisely like a nightgown so I’m taking a few points away because of that,but the embroidery and colors and fabric is it’s saving grace.
    8/10

  17. natalie says

    Wow, what a design! The petticoat garden of flowers glimpsed through the robe in back, the vertical garden up front…

    If worn by a small-chested young lady under 20 in the new cupped stays, perhaps the bodice would have fit?

    The very high quality of the muslin and embroidery, as well as the design argues for it being a high-fashion dress.

    10 cubed 🙂

    • Elise says

      Me me me!!! Me at 19! Finally, there is a regency dress that was made for me! 19-year-old me wanted to look nice in regency…but it never would have worked until now.

      How wonderful that it is just barely not-symmetrical. I love how the echoed design on the other side is barely different. I love this dress.

      The best part for me? The embroidery under the sheer. I have a great weakness for sheer fabric over patterned fabric. I am dead and in heaven.

      10/10

  18. Carly says

    This screams ‘hiding a pregnancy’ to me. No matter how pretty the embroidery is, I do not like this at all.

    1

  19. Britta Sjöström says

    This style is new to me, and I think it’s lovely. What a beautiful embroidery!
    10 out of 10

  20. Hearthrose says

    I am in love with that embroidery and the fabric. They get a 10.

    The extremely brief bodice, not so much. Currently, only extremely small girls wear bodices like this, but otherwise the dress is not childlike in the least. -2

    Total score?

    8

  21. dropping stitches says

    The embroidery is incredible. It’s just that good, and perfectly preserved. My grandfathers’ family had an embroidery shop, so seeing this kind of beautiful work gets me a bit nostalgic. I also give high marks for dresses that seem breathable. I don’t love the bodice, but I really don’t care. That needlepoint work says everything to me.

    10/10

  22. Daniel Milford-Cottam says

    The embroidery is stunningly beautiful. The dress does have a funky silhouette, especially without the fichu, but it does look very comfortable and flowing. I imagine it being fun to wear with all the billowing. There’s a lot of charm going on here, so it’s winning me over despite my reservations about it looking slightly like someone dressed as a polonaise bed (bunchy canopy at the top, curtains, matching cover on the bed….)….oh damn now I can’t unsee that.

    8.5/10

  23. Lucy says

    Questioning the silhouette. Looks comfortable but exceptionally blobby.
    Love the embroidery though!
    8/10

  24. Lisa says

    Like some other reviewers, I wonder whether the mannequin is dressed properly. The back of the underskirt is raised higher than the front, so it makes me wonder whether the rear of the dress would really be as, um, puffed out as shown in the side view.

    But with the fichu to balance the skirt, and the out-of-this-world, embroidery, I love it! 9

  25. Sara McDermott says

    The embroidery is stunning, and I love the *fabric* of the dress – but the extreme 1790s shape, exacerbated by the sheer overskirt / train, does detract a little.

    0wch. 7.5/10?

  26. Rachel says

    Last week’s gown left me with a number of confused impressions, particularly because of the protective layer over the bodice. This dress is a much easier read for me. While I don’t love the silhouette without the fichu, the overall dress itself is so gorgeous. So fresh and lavish. All of that billowing fabric. It might swallow the wearer, but to be swallowed in such elegant folds doesn’t sound too bad. The cut reminds me strongly of some 1960s evening gowns.

    Who wouldn’t enjoy trailing around in such a cloud of splendor?

    9.5

  27. Mary says

    I am utterly in love with the embroidery on this dress! The whole effect with the overlay is ethereal. I cannot even imagine how special it must have felt to wear it, and I wonder the occasion.
    10/10

  28. Crumpled Rag says

    It’s absolutely beautiful and the dedication required to embroider all those flowers is immense.
    10

  29. I love this design. While I do think that the silhouette is the least flattering of all the eras, I still love the designs particularly from the back with the train.
    When I followed Cassidy Percoco’s book to make a Regency the dress, the extant bodice was 4″. “4 inches? No flippin’ way!” So I cut it several inches higher. However, I actually wanted a very low-cut bodice (as low as I could get away with and then wear with a fichu or chemisette) but I assumed as a busty person that that was not even close to adequate.
    I was wrong. By the time I was done the completed bodice is 4.5”, and I actually think it’s one of the secrets to dressing Regency as a larger busted person. It’s better to make a tiny bodice and cover it with something if you’re self-conscious than to cut the bodice higher, it ends up minimizing quite a bit. The more fabric covers your chest the larger you’ll look.

  30. Nicole B. says

    This strikes me as utterly exquisite in every way. I want to identify every one of those botanical motifs! (So far I have Viola, Dianthus, and Periwinkle.) The drape of the train in back is gorgeous, and the fabric so deliciously sheer!
    Want.
    10

  31. Ooh. I also hadn’t been aware of this era-mesh-style before and I can’t say the silhouette particularly appeals to me (I immediately thought “maternity dress” myself, and being someone who’s gotten very self-conscious about their own outline, I feel like I’d spend the entire time wearing something like this worrying about how it made me look), but the fabric and the embroidery are just *amazing*. I am definitely in the fluttering sheers fanclub for this one!

    8.5/10

  32. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    The museum says the bodice is “only two and one-half inches from neckline to waist”!!!!

    I’d like to see it on a mannequin with a better period shape – they have awkwardly placed the bodice seam right at nipple level. And perioud underwear: a small-busted woman could wear the tiny bodice with a bit of help from the fichu and a chemise.

    The embroidery, the sheer fabric, the train and rear-gathered fullness … it’s period perfection.

    10/10

  33. Without the fichu it looks like a nightgown, but with it it’s gorgeous. The style isn’t one that displays a woman’s figure to advantage, however it’s still lovely.
    8/10

  34. Susan Pestell says

    10. Absolutely gorgeous, for a very young woman. I would have worn it at 19!

  35. Magdalena says

    I’m really not sure about the whole bodice situation (it just seems rather shapeless), but I love all the embroidery on the skirt, and I quite like the look of the dress without the fichu as well. I gift this dress a solid …
    8/10

  36. Jill Corbie says

    I absolutely love it! I love floral embroidery. The only reason I deduct one point is because I want to wear it, but I’m terrified of wearing white and getting it dirty.

    9/10

  37. Bridget Clancy says

    I am here for the 1790s silhouette, and the stunning embroidery definitely keeps it from being “just another white empire waisted dress”(even though this would be pre-Napoleon taking power so actually pre-Empire). The one thing that bugs me a bit is the bodice is so short that on the model it looks more like a yoke than a bodice. I’m wondering if that is more due to the model than anything else though. Perhaps with period cupped stays on a naturally small chanted lady, the bottom of the bodice might hit just barely under the bust? No, looking at it again, the cut of the bodice suggests not. Wishful thinking on my part, since I would like it more if that were the case. Still, this is really lovely. I’ll give it 8/10. It would probably have gotten 10 if the bodice had made up it’s mind to be a bodice, instead of a yoke.
    8/10

    • Bridget Clancy says

      If anyone has references to fashion plates with this particular cut, I’d be interested. I’ve seen plates of 1790s gowns with very short bodices. But I don’t recall any where the bodice ends above the nipple line. For once I seem to be very much in agreement with the consensus of reviewers here. It doesn’t seem like the most flattering cut. And high or low, I like my clothes to have a waistline. Or if not they best be very fitted, like 1870s princess cut gowns. I’m not sure this cut would be particularly advantageous to any body shape.

      Maybe the dressmaker realized it wasn’t a flattering cut, so he/she gave the lady it was made for a fichu to wear over it, to hide the bodice.

  38. Mimsy says

    I’m divided because I hate the incredibly unflattering shape – or rather, shapelessness, plus a bonus hunchback just in case there was any remaining hint of elegance to be snuffed out – but I think the embroidery is lovely and adore the way the skirt divides down the front. Basically, the front skirt of this dress gets a 10, but overall my score has to be only:

    6

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