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Rate the Dress: Romantic Era Warmth

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

We’ve been having very spring-y weather in Wellington, by which I mean changeable. It’s very four seasons in one day! Wind, rain, sun, and then back again.

So I’ve picked a Rate the Dress for changeable temperatures – although it probably wouldn’t do well in a good spring shower.

Last Week: an 1860s day dress in bright blue

Last week’s bright blue 1860s number had two distinct pools: it’s fabulous (but badly displayed) and; those shoulders and sleeves are just terrible under any circumstances.

The Total: 8.7 out of 10

Not bad, if not as brilliant as the colour.

This week: a 1820s dress & spencer ensemble

So many of you loved last week’s bright blue, but you know I’m always a fan of white-on-white texture, or (in this case) palest blush on ivory texture.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

This 1820s ensemble consists of a dress, and a spencer to wear over the dress.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

The silk fabrics, light colour and elaborate trims suggest both pieces were for very fine occasions. By itself the dress could be worn to dinners, and even country balls: the addition of the spencer makes the outfit suitable for formal outdoor wear and church.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

The dress features a moderately low, square neckline, trimmed with half-bow ‘leaf’ shapes that mirror each other as they frame the neckline, coming together to form a flat bow shape at the centre front.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

Typically of late teens and early 20s fashion the dress is cut without a train and features a padded and quilted hem with elaborate trimming that mimics the neckline trim.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

The long sleeves of the dress are trimmed with more bows and half-bows, forming a faux cuff, or a band holding the sleeve snug to the arm.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

Long sleeves suggest the dress was meant to be worn as formal daywear, or for dinners, as ball dresses or evening dresses would have had shorter sleeves. However, some period writing suggests that in the country, and further away from fashionable centres, women were more likely to blur the rules, so a dress like this might have been worn to a ball.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

With the addition of the spencer, it might also have been worn to a wedding – perhaps even the wearer’s own. It’s certainly fancy enough, and while white wedding dresses wouldn’t be de rigueur until after Queen Victoria’s 1840 wedding, lighter shades were common for wedding attire in the 1810s and 20s, even as the overall fashion palette moved away from Regency white.

Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection
Dress and Spencer, c. 1820, Silk:alpaca mixture, trimmed with silk, The John Bright Collection

So, what do you think of this ensemble? Another boring example of the early 19th century obsession with non-colours, or an elegant expression of texture and restraint?

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!)

29 Comments

  1. Elaine says

    This is lovely and elegant, with beautiful subtle colors. The trim is gorgeous and is balanced well. I’m not crazy about the quilted hem, but I don’t know what might work instead. It needs something to give weight to the bottom, but what? The ubiquitous ruffles or rosettes/puffs are right out. 9.5/10

  2. Lovely! I really like white on white and the trim on this dress makes it interesting without being over the top.

    9/10

  3. ElOmbu says

    Beautiful! I love the quilted hem and while I’m not usually a fan of bows, I love these and the piping is just over the top. Those weird claw things on the shoulders of the spencer are kind of Schiapparelli-esque, aren’t they?

    Also- SILK AND ALPACA! Alpaca? really? I also love the pleats on the bodice of the dress. 9.5 out of 10.

  4. Kathy Hanyok says

    I thin it’s beautiful! A true labor of love. I love to think of that hem swinging as the wearer moves and maybe dances. 10

  5. WOW! I really like this dress as well. It is in beautiful condition, especially considering its age! I am especially fond of the very pale pink. I love pink. The workmanship put into this dress!!! Lots of details without looking gaudy. I rte this beauty a 10/10.

  6. Disien says

    Absolutely exquisite. Stunning design and technically amazing – everything hand constructed, the piping is incredible. The white on white emphasizes the skill of the person who made these outstanding garments. Top marks from me and if I could give it more than 10 I would, 10/10

  7. I love the leaf and bow motifs of the trim. Interesting, but not too frilly. And the versatility of this outfit pleases me. The only detail I don’t like are the tabs on the cuffs of the spencer.

    9.5 out of 10.

  8. Christine gregory says

    The details are beautiful but I feel like the bows on the bottom interfere with flow and make it stiff.

    Or maybe I don’t like plain white?

    7/10

  9. Nancy Tomasheski says

    I love it.
    All the details are coherent – which we will recall is not always the case 😉 – and delightful. It doesn’t look unfinished or plain without the spencer, working well both ways.
    10/10

  10. I’m not usually fond of the 1820’s but this is lovely! It’s got a good amount of detail, and the restrained colour scheme probably looked very nice when worn on an actual human.
    I’m intrigued by the “silk/alpaca mixture” part of the description. It sounds incredibly soft and I really want to touch it.
    Those two piped thingies on the dress bodice are a bit odd though, and remind me too much of super hero costumes.

    9/10

  11. I’m a huge fan of detail work using piping on a silk like this, many of the wedding gowns I have made used similar techniques albeit in very different shapes and styles. It’s so deliciously textured and structured. It’s nice to see no lace on a gown too.
    10/10

  12. Jules says

    I love this one! The spencer’s shoulder details, in particular, wish I could magic up some better pictures of those… The (non-)colour is very pleasing to me, and I love the simple cut with intriguing trim texture.

    10/10

  13. Remarkable. I love the quiet sophistication of tone-on-tone, and the skill level of the decorative elements is stunning.

    10 of 10

  14. Those pesky 1820s hems!
    They almost always take away from the whole for me, but this whole is almost perfect. It’s just that the hem / lower skirt is a tad too chunky and large-scale for my liking. The piped shapes work nicely in smaller scale, adding a bit of texture and ornament. In larger scale, the rather simplified shape becomes a bit ridiculous…
    9/10

  15. PepperReed says

    Absolutely Charming! I adore those bust pleats and the lovely detail on the sleeves. The only thing I wish is that the trim on the dress hem and spencer collar was ‘mirrored’ like the gown itself. Otherwise, just lovely!

    And, Yes Please! on silk/alpaca; that sounds completely lush.

    9.5/10

  16. Penny says

    Charming and elegant. I love the subtle color scheme. Definitely worn by a woman of taste. 10/10

  17. Crumpled Rag says

    This is a gorgeous ensemble with dress and spencer beautifully complementing each other, I just wish they had put bows rather than arrows round the bottom of the dress, that would have made it perfect.
    9.5/10

  18. Brenna says

    I love this! The silk/alpaca would be wonderfully cozy without looking too bulky. The trim is very nicely done, and I especially appreciate the symmetry on the bodice. I’m not sure if I would have chosen slightly different trim for the skirt; the asymmetry and the arrows mean I’m seeing the trim as a never-ending moving circle around the hem of the skirt, which is not restful. As someone else mentioned, bows at the hem, instead of arrows, might have been more to my taste. The arrows on the collar of the spencer has a similar issue.
    Overall, though, I love it! The colors are soft and very pleasant.
    8.5/10

  19. I do like this ensemble! I’ve never been especially keen on the heavy hems of the 1820s, and personally I’d have preferred a slightly light touch (bows perhaps, rather than the larger motifs) but overall it does work well ad is a lovely example of its time.

    A question though – do you know how the dress closes? Is it a centre back closure that my bad eyesight isn’t seeing? Or a drop front?

    9.5/10

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