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Rate the Dress: a subtle splash of paisley, and two bodices

I honestly didn’t mean to repeat last week’s random button theme this week! I was a bit at a loss as to what to pick for Rate the Dress, and just went browsing. It wasn’t until I’d selected this dress, because I thought it was an interesting play in monochrome textures that I realised that it relies heavily on lots of button-ness for its decoration (and isn’t even monochrome – it’s patterned!). But it’s an interesting garment, so hopefully you’ll enjoy discussing and rating it.

Last Week: a 1910s suit with all the (button) trimmings

Quite a lot of you really liked last week’s suit (9/10 liked), but only a few of you loved it. And enough of you didn’t care for either the fabric, or the jacket closure, to pull the rating down just a little bit more.

The Total: 8.6 out of 10

Very nice, but not spectacular.

This week: 

When I first saw this dress, I assumed it was monochrome: an experiment in what you could do with one fabric, a bit of trim, and lots of fabric manipulation.

Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c

Then I looked closer, and realised that it’s two fabrics: a muted purple, and a small blue and gold paisley print that blends into muted purple from a distance.

Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c
Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c
Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c
Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c

It’s a classic example of Victorian more-is-more-ness, with two fabrics, layers of texture and trim, and details upon details. Even the abalone shell buttons (half of which are purely ornamental – just like last week’s dress) are decorated with flowers and braided rims

Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c
Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c

Interestingly, though the dress is late enough for the sewing machine to be relatively common, all the visible stitching on the dress is done by hand. The elaborate trims and ruffles of the 1870s and 80s were partly made possible by the sewing machine, which made extensive hemming and decorating much faster. However, some of the most expensive dresses were still made entirely by hand, while others combined hand and machine stitching.

Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c
Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c

Without examining it in person it’s impossible to tell if this dress is fully hand sewn, or combines the two techniques. However, the places where the hand sewing is most obvious on this dress are on techniques that most 1870s sewing machines couldn’t do: ruffling, and buttonholes.

Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c
Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c
Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c
Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c

It’s also a perfect example of Victorian practicality. The ensemble comes with two bodices: a fitted cuirasse bodice for more formal indoor wear, and a looser jacket, for wearing on the street.

Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c
Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c

The jacket does not appear to be intended to be worn over the bodice: it’s sleeves are too slim to fit over the decorative ruffled cuffs of the cuirasse bodice, and in any case, a matching jacket over a bodice would be extremely unusual in the context of late 1870s-early 1880s fashion.

Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c
Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c

Instead of being outerwear, the jacket is an outfit extender: helping the owner to make full use of the skirt, which requires the most fabric and time, and thus the most expense. With two bodices, she could get double the use of the skirt.

Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c
Afternoon ensemble, 1878–82, American, silk, abalone. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.87a–c

What do you think?

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.  Phrase criticism as your opinion, rather than a flat fact. 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!)

37 Comments

  1. Martha Tocco says

    This is an amazing dress. The buttons are tiny, lovely eye presents to those lucky people who get to stand in close to the wearer. In the photos here, the dress looks gray to me, but I am assuming from your description that the main fabric is muted purple. The paisley colors are discernible from the pictures. The tailoring is lavish. I am in love with “more-is-more-ness.” I am wondering, since all I know about period fashion is from reading period novels, if perhaps this is the kind of dress one would wear if one were just beginning to put aside deep mourning clothes and moving from black to a muted purple, with dull braid trim, and contrasting fabric of almost invisible color from a distance. The jacket, too, is a fairly sober addition for going out.
    10

  2. Elaine says

    This dress represents just about everything I dislike about Victorian fashion. It is just too much of absolutely everything. And the fringe sets the final excessive touch on it, putting me forcibly in mind of an overdecorated couch. The color is unpleasant and depressing, although that might be due to age. 3/10

  3. Christina Kinsey says

    It’s an interesting idea that it could be a dress for someone just coming out of mourning. The dull purple could make it borderline half mourning but the gold in the Paisley pattern suggests its just on the getting back into colours side of the divide. The colour does bring out the intricate details on the dress and the way the fabrics coordinate is attractive. I like this dress, it’s not overdone with too many confusing contrasts, so l give it an 8.5

  4. Melissa says

    I love the gown but hate the jacket. I love all the use of textures in a mostly one color dress, and the paisley accents are fun. 8 out of 10.

  5. It’s a technical marvel, but I don’t understand the composition. The two random “flags on the caboose“ are particularly weird. The rosette on the hip pocket? The buttoned plackets on the back of the jackets? The resolution of the lower part of the princess seams on the more formal jacket? All very strange. 4/10

  6. I really dislike the Victorian over trim, too much fabric, too much everything aesthetic. This dress pretty much encapsulates that style, the only thing it’s lacking is too much colour! I do like the little touches of paisley fabric though.

    2/10

  7. Lillianne Barrett says

    I think you would have to be a very striking looking woman to pull that dress off. Maybe a lovely still youngish widow like the George Eliot character Gwendolyn Harleth ? Lots of honey coloured hair and maybe the large violet eyes like Elizabeth Taylor was supposed to have? Otherwise that colour would be oppressive on just about every other complexion/hair/eye that I am trying to imagine. 5/10

  8. Daniel Milford-Cottam says

    I like it, I don’t love it, but I do find it quite restful as a harmony of tone and texture, with lots of intriguing detail to occupy the eye.

    My rating demands to be 6.5/10, because 7 feels a bit too generous and 6 a bit too ungenerous, although as I said, I still like it.

  9. ElOmbu says

    Yep, mauve/mourning, totally buy that. (See: Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World for a wonderful read for fabric geeks.) Not a fan–I actually really like the asymmetry of the back of the jacket, but to me the skirt just looks like someone from Tara took the roman shades off the window instead of full length drapes. Then instead of making a dress, they just wrapped the shades around their skirt. Is that too mean? If so, consider my hand slapped. 3/10.

  10. Sharon says

    I’m mostly drawn to this dress because of its dusty violet color that allows all the needlework to seem like texture rather than an effort that is overwhelmingly fussy. The jacket bodice is quite striking from the front view, but the tabs at the lower part of the back side are unbalanced and awkward. I really appreciate the sewing handwork, but some of the design elements are patchy, like they were an afterthought to the garment’s plan. 6

  11. Kathy Hanyok says

    I do admire the tenacity of the seamstress — many hours of work went into this gown. Other than that, I”m not sure. Too fussy, I think, and it can’t be comfortable(but that’s Victorian).The buttons are beautiful. But I hate the second jacket. 5/10

    • Diane K Kafka says

      Me too, but the color can go out stage left! Maybe a muted purple or iris. Grey is not my favorite.

  12. Tammy says

    The dress both amazing and awful all at the same time. The skill and practicality are appealing. The color and decorations are just too much. I rate this a 5/10.

  13. J H Madison says

    I like the dress overall, but, find it too fussy/too much/to asymmetrical for my tastes. 6/10

  14. Nakia says

    I’m not usually one for drab colors, but the details won me over. 10/10!

  15. dropping stitches says

    Ahoy matey! Piratey, but fantastic! I love the fabric, color, ruching/ruffles, and the buttons! I don’t normally like fringe, but it works here, somehow, because of the way it scoops down and around the hips instead of just boringly added to the hem in a straight line. This matches the color well, and because so much is going on, it looks good. I don’t like the loose jacket at all. It hides the ornate skirt gathers and looks sloppy to me. The fitted bodice is severe, buttoned up to the neck. I know you can’t bend to lift those skirts off the ground, but I love it. I want to wear it and shuffle along, taking shallow breaths as I go (because walking and breathing are going to be work in this one!)

    (Taking off 1/2 point for the loose jacket)
    9.5/10

  16. Penny says

    Love the dress, a great example of the asymmetry popular at the time.
    I love the juxtaposition of the intricate pleating and the subtle colors.
    The buttons-sigh….they make the dress.
    I have the feeling that when worn it was the picture of subtle elegance!
    Not so much the jacket, it’s sadly lacking compared to the skirt, even pockets would have given it that something that it’s missing. But that just might be my modern taste?
    9/10

  17. Nannynorfolk says

    The dress looks like it is a second stage mourning dress, the victorians had various strict stages of mourning for different lengths of time depending on who had died. I don’t think that colour would have worn normally.
    Although there’s lots of lovely workmanship I don’t like that era of dresses, must have been so constricted to wear.
    So 4/10

  18. I almost made grabby hands at the computer screen before remembering that’s weird and I’m at work.

    I love that color, (and my current pleather jacket reflects that). I love that the paisley blends so well at a distance, but when you move closer it provides some contrast and some context for the decorations. I also love the first bodice and how well it matches the skirt. I am a little disappointed with how the jacket bodice seems like more of an afterthought, though I do love the contrast collar.

    9/10

  19. The paisley print used as an accent fabric is lovely–but it’s hard to see against the background of the grayish fabric of the rest of the dress! The fabric pleating and draping is also good. But as a whole, the color gives an overwhelming impression of drabness, which is made worse when the jacket is worn as the jacket hides the detailing on the bodice.

    In short, the trims (the paisley fabric, fringe, and buttons) are nice, but they blend in with the main dress fabric so much that their effect is lost.

    6.5 out of 10.

  20. Malin says

    I like it… The colour is plain but pretty and the accents with the discreetly patterned fabric works really well. I even like the fringe, I think it breaks off the plain colour a little. All the ruching and fabric manipulation is a bit much. All inall:
    8/10

  21. I have to agree with Tammy’s assessment of “amazing and awful’.” I like the bodice and the way the two fabrics complement each other, but loathe the skirt (all that bulk and lumpiness and the fringe that looks more like Spanish moss or something equally biological) and find the outdoor jacket just sad.
    The seamstress was obviously skilled to the utmost, but I just wish the that skill could have been expressed in a more graceful way.
    6 of 10

  22. Keith Greene says

    Post 1840 dressmaking, and tailoring, techniques fascinate me. This incredible example is poised right at the beginning of the most complicated period, from a sewers perspective, ever created. The close up of the bodice waist shows what a feat of engineering (the corset) combined with pattern drafting on bodice and corset. Having made reproductions of similar garments gives me an immense amount of respect for the artist/craftsman who created this. The use of fabric is sublime, not at all a modern esthetic. With the two bodices – couldn’t help but wonder if an evening or dinner bodice was also created that’s now lost – this dress gets a 10 out of 10 for practical use, intresting use of color and texture. Just great. Would love to examine it in person.

  23. Debbie Farthing says

    I own a bustle gown that is very similar to this one- the bodice with the tails drawn back into bustle, abalone buttons, and a skirt that employs almost every dressmakers’ skill. My dress does not have any trim.
    I think this one is a bit over the top but I love the subtle combination of the plain and paisley fabrics. They almost invite others to come closer to see the details.
    8.5/10

  24. It’s easy to imagine a young woman fairly recently widowed wearing this dress to a formal afternoon function. Not today’s aesthetic, but for the year, is a lovely example. Fantastic workmanship. 8/10

  25. vivien dwyer says

    A bit complicated for me but for some reason I do like that jacket! 4/10

  26. Helene says

    I’m at loss of words, or maybe even thinking capacity after looking at this dress. I like the shape and the colour, but that is it. Poor dress, I want to like you, but you just have so much going on, you make my head hurt.
    I think it’s the straight lines, combined with diagonals and then curvy lines, and that is just on the skirt, combined with the very curved lower part of the jacket it’s so over the top.
    Jacket number two doesn’t help up the situation at all for me. I think I like symmetry too much and the buttoned flaps in the back of the jacket makes it look very odd, now if there had been mirrored flaps on the other side of the mid back seem I might have understood it, now it’s an enigma.
    So poor dress you are getting the lowest grade I have ever given a dress here 4/10. So very sorry!

  27. I love the original bodice and all the work in it.
    The skirt is amazing, so many crazy details.
    That second looser jacket…… I really hate the back details with the random paisley fabric -1.5 for that.

    8.5/10

  28. Jill Corbie says

    I like the color combination and the paisley accents but I hate basically everything else, especially the asymmetry. Also the fringe.
    6/10.

  29. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    Muted and excessive in the same dress … neat trick.

    I like the close coordination of print and solid, the interplay of straight and curves in the pleats and swags. and the buttons are lovely. And the fringe is not just fringe, it’s decorated fringe. It’s like a low relief carving.

    But that jacket looks like the seamstress handed over the last of the fabric and someone later decides, “you know we really should do something with this remnant” because it has none of the design features of the dress. it’s closest sartorial relative is the peasant jackets of the Mao era.

    I’m rating the dress and pretending I never saw the jacket.

    10

  30. I think it’s just spectacular. It sits just perfectly in between these two Victorian commandments of “You must wear your worth” and “If your dress is tawdry, you’re asking for -it-.”
    I mean to say that if you were to pass this on dress on the street you might not be inclined to look twice; it’s a bit of a drab color, and the trimmings, while abundant, don’t really pop out and catch your eye. At a glance it reads as unassuming. But then you look again and oh my. All those little pleats and gathers. Those little buttons. Those swatches that you assumed were self-fabric turn out to be an entirely different patterned fabric for which the average color just perfectly matches the color of the main fabric. It’s incredibly well thought out to admit the absolute maximum amount of STUFF onto a single garment without being gaudy. Or to put it another way; it isn’t distracting and yet I could stare at it all day.

    It does have a few flaws though. The grey silk fringe is the only element of the dress that has a ‘loud’ contrast, so it visually detracts from the less conspicuous self-fabric and paisley details. The little rosette on the hip seems ill-advised. The other problem is that second jacket. I understand that as the ‘going about errands’ bodice it’s meant to NOT turn heads. But its shaping isn’t quite right–it makes the mannequin look like a lump–and as far as visual interest goes, those asymmetrical paisley tabs look like an afterthought rather than a design feature.

    8.5/10

  31. Mary Nelson says

    Rating 8.0. I like the muted color and most of the details. The assymetry of the front under the swag is not pleasing to my eye. I even like the jacket as a lovely and practical item for wearing on the street. I like this style because it doesn’t have the huge bustle.

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