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Rate the Dress: A Spill of Yellow Silk

I had one goal choosing this week’s Rate the Dress: it had to be orange.

Which is why it’s yellow. Close enough? Life right now is about accepting compromise and imperfection, and being OK with what you have. So we have yellow.

Last Week: a late Victorian dress in muted pink

Last week’s Rate the Dress definitely had its fan club, but it also had its naysayers. Those fell into the category of people who liked everything about the dress except the lace, or maybe the sleeve ruffles, or the category of people who liked pretty much nothing about the dress.

The resulting total?

The Total: 7.4 out of 10

A whole point down from last week! And very representative of all the people who liked the dress except for one or two elements.

This week: an almost-certainly-a-tea-gown in warm yellow

This week’s Rate the Dress is from the Helen Larson Private Collection that was sold by Whitakers a couple of years ago.

Gown (tea gown) ca. 1887, Helen Larson Private Collection sold by Whitaker Auctions
Gown (tea gown) ca. 1887, Helen Larson Private Collection sold by Whitaker Auctions

The unusual train of this dress, which spills from between the shoulder blades and hangs down the back like fairies wings, combined with the overall cut and lush elements, makes me reasonably confident in identifying it as a tea gown: a garment of “elaborate design and infinite cost…absolutely useless, and utterly ridiculous” – but extremely fashionable and covetable.

Gown (tea gown) ca. 1887, Helen Larson Private Collection sold by Whitaker Auctions

A tea gown was an elaborate garment for indoor wear only, acceptable only at dinners with close friends (and, despite the name, wasn’t particularly worn for afternoon, or any other kind, of tea). Tea gowns, especially ones like this, were extremely expensive, and thus were the ultimate status statements: a garment as pricey as the dearest ballgown, but which could only be worn at the most intimate and informal of events.

Gown (tea gown) ca. 1887, Helen Larson Private Collection sold by Whitaker Auctions
Gown (tea gown) ca. 1887, Helen Larson Private Collection sold by Whitaker Auctions

1880s tea gowns usually featured ‘exotic’ or historical elements, like Indian embroidery, or 18th century inspired watteau backs. The quirky train on this dress is definitely whimsical enough to qualify.

Gown (tea gown) ca. 1887, Helen Larson Private Collection sold by Whitaker Auctions

Some 1880s and 90s tea gowns also feature a corselet/swiss waist effect. The way the brocade that forms the back bodice and sides of the train wraps around the front of the dress definitely fits that trend.

Gown (tea gown) ca. 1887, Helen Larson Private Collection sold by Whitaker Auctions
Gown (tea gown) ca. 1887, Helen Larson Private Collection sold by Whitaker Auctions

If this dress isn’t a tea gown, it’s a reception gown worn by an exceedingly daring and adventurous woman.

Gown (tea gown) ca. 1887, Helen Larson Private Collection sold by Whitaker Auctions
Gown (tea gown) ca. 1887, Helen Larson Private Collection sold by Whitaker Auctions

She was brave enough to sport a butterfly train spilling from her back, beaded fringe round her hips, heavy gold and sequinned trim, and sundry other embellishments on the bodice that we can’t quite see, and ostrich feathers curling around her neck, all in sunny yellow.

Gown (tea gown) ca. 1887, Helen Larson Private Collection sold by Whitaker Auctions
Gown (tea gown) ca. 1887, Helen Larson Private Collection sold by Whitaker Auctions

She was willing to pay a pretty penny for all this too. While the label suggests the dress was made in Chicago, and the construction definitely isn’t couture level, it’s very nice, and would certainly have been an expensive purchase.

Gown (tea gown) ca. 1887, Helen Larson Private Collection sold by Whitaker Auctions
Gown (tea gown) ca. 1887, Helen Larson Private Collection sold by Whitaker Auctions

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

32 Comments

  1. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    The leafy stripe is wonderful fabric, as is the solid ribbed (faille?). The color is good. The tailoring is good. The trim is unique, and the leaf-shapes reflect the fabric.

    BUT … the train erupts from her T1-T4 vertebral region like some alien creature or a petticoat caught in the zipper – perhaps they didn’t have enough for a full Watteau train? The fancy trim at the front hemline and the floof around the neckline both end abruptly as if they bought too little.

    8.5

  2. Cranky Prognathodon says

    This dress is gorgeous and ridiculous in a good way! I love the train! I’m not enthused with the neckline trim, as the lace seems to be fighting the shaping or application, and the feathers are very . . . meh (aged poorly?). Not bad, not great, just meh.
    9/10

  3. nofixedstars says

    it’s…weird? and i say that as someone who generally likes tea dresses. i’m all about odd trims, and acres of fabric swishing about, and eccentricity, and there are a number of things i really like about this dress…but the overall impression is weirdness.

    i like: the colour. i’d look like death in it, but it’s lovely, in the abstract and on other people.
    i like the waist/bodice treatment greatly.
    i like the fabrics.
    i like the idea of a tea dress.
    i like the trims, individually, even the marabou bits at the collar.

    i am neutral about: the watteau-esque bit at the back. i am not a huge fan of those, ever; not on the original gowns, not as a court gown addition, not here. but it is not a deal-breaker for me if i adore everything else. the placement and attachment style of this one, though, is certainly odd.

    i do not like: the way the trims are deployed. the ornate trim at the hem isn’t carried all the way around the back, and doesn’t reappear on the hem edge of the wingy-thingy. the marabou fluff at the neck stops at the shoulders instead of continuing to the back closure.
    the number of different types of trim used in combination: it’s as if the seamstress emptied her work-table drawers, finding a bit of this and a bit of that, and had the whole mess dyed to match, and stuck trim on randomly until it was all used.

    the oddity of the back drape, and the peculiarity of the trim use (too many kinds, not carried through around the dress, the whole “i made a thing and dyed it afterward” look to it makes a (relatively) simple dress look rather bizarre. it’s like the longer you look at it, the more it falls apart before your eyes…almost as if it were a theatre piece, never meant to be seen close-up or from the back.

    rating: 6/10

    • Elise says

      The theatre comment is a really interesting take along with the bits and bobs. I remember a Rate the Dress that was assembled in Minnesota or some other “provincial” place. In that review, it seemed obvious to me that neither the wearer nor the seamstress had good access to fashion plates, and so the dress was not beautiful. But since the seamstress and wearer were obviously doing their best with little information, and I loved that dress.

      But a dress made in Chicago would have had the access to fashion, would have had the access to trim, and would have had the access to society matrons upholding standards of aesthetics. There is no reason for this dress to be so obviously poorly-trimmed.

      Now, I really want to know the story of the dress. Bits and Bobs that needed using? A bit of snobbery where the nouveau-riche wearer was persuaded by an unscrupulous salesperson to buy something expensive but ugly? A stingy husband/father who would only allow X amount of trim to be bought???

  4. I love it. It’s a bit batty, in my opinion, but the fact that it’s bright yellow is so cheerful that I don’t care! I don’t really like most of the elements, but I love them together. I’m not crazy about the leaf print, the ostrich feathers remind me vaguely of a hairy chest, and the trim screams “upholstery” to me, but altogether–and maybe this is self-isolation talking–it totally works. Ta-da, the magic of a rich, golden yellow!

    9/10

  5. Cirina says

    Caught in the zipper 🙂
    I think that the train is interesting. I even like the fringe at the bottom of the taille (I usually hate fringe) and the color is beautifull.
    But the neckline decoration looks like kindergarten art project and the sparkly skirt trim does not go with anything else. And the lace at the sleeves is just sad.
    That makes it
    7/10
    for me.

    • vivien dwyer says

      Agree entirely and I do love the colour and the waist fabric…7/10

  6. Elise says

    The abrupt disappearance of the front skirt trim and also the lack of back feathers. This one especially bother me because the feathers showing around the back of the wearer’s neck would have been so flattering, sort of a halo effect. (I see a modern equivalent in Amal Clooney’s yellow dress and hat–the hat doing the effect this time–at Meghan and Harry’s wedding)

    The dress itself looks like it would belong to a late 19th Mrs Elton!

    6/10

  7. The yellow color is very cheerful, and it clearly is made from expensive materials.

    But all of the decorative features fight each other. The heavy fringe at the waist level, the fluffier fringe around the neck paired with the odd, heavy trim, and the gold and sequins trim at the hem–they all look as though they came from very different fashions, and they don’t harmonize *except* in color. And what’s with the odd pleat growing out of the center of the back?

    Occasionally, RTD has a dress that people describe as having dueling features or trims, but I’ve never seen such a set of trims and features fighting each other.

    Because the basic silhouette is still wonderful, 6 out of 10.

  8. Well, I’d sure like to swan about in the dress. The unusual “excuse me, but my Watteau pleat is stuck in the zipper” back is rather fun, so long as you see it as fairy wings rather than as more darkly insect-like. The yellow tones are pretty and I rather like the ostrich trim. However, expensive as it was, the buyer probably didn’t get her money’s worth, though the state of the train tells me she — or someone — did wear it enough to produce tears and fabric loss. While the overall design seems decently carried out, the trim application seems chintzy to me, as if the dressmaker was rationing its use. That the hem trim is not carried out to the back so as to be hidden under the pleat is a prime example. I wonder if the ostrich trim at the back of the neck went missing — are those loose threads that used to hold it? I give it a 6/10

  9. Pal K says

    I thought it was pretty awful when I first scanned through the pictures
    Then, as I do, I went back and read your commentary “absolutely useless, and utterly ridiculous”
    With “useless” and “ridiculous” in mind, I reassessed
    Train definitely “useless” and “ridiculous”
    3 rows of chunky fringy stuff at the front neckline, “useless” and “ridiculous”
    Whatever that dangly stuff is off the bustline “useless” and “ridiculous”
    Check check chek
    6.5

  10. Connie Beaver says

    Not a fan of the train or the feathers or the color. With that being said, it is unique and interesting.
    6/10

  11. Kathy Hanyok says

    I do like:
    The color
    The leafy brocade
    The shape of the sleeves minus the lace

    I don’t like:
    Any of the trims (the fringe at the waist reminds me of marching band uniforms)
    The finish (?) on the back of the neck
    The wings, especially their attachment
    Over all, the lady had more money than taste and a seamstress who was either inexperienced or shoddy and cheap.
    From where did the descriptive quote come?
    6/10

    • The fringe is beading, if that helps any.

      The quote is given in full and linked in my post about tea gowns, which is linked in this post.

  12. I would really, really like to see a full length picture of the front of the dress; trying to imagine how the dangly stuff falling from what looks like a bow? Or knot? at the front really looks against the rest of the dress. The color would be fun on the right person; I’d look like death in it but the dress wasn’t made for me so that’s immaterial to it’s rating. Not a fan of the heavy trim on the bottom …and then, as others have pointed out, it doesn’t go all the way to the logical termination under a drape of the train. But I love the brocade corset trim and I kind of think the strange center back train looks quirky in a fun sort of way. 7.5; although if I could see the front it might go up or down from that.

  13. Emma says

    I like the colour but in general I find the dress sort of odd and fussy.

    2/10

  14. Veronica says

    Gut reaction – yellow! Such a lovely sunny yellow! Then the trims kept appearing, and multiplying – I think everyone will be commenting on the plethora of trims! I do like the train in a funny sort of way (it would cut a striking figure I’m sure) and the patterned faux-bodice is endearing.
    6.5

  15. Buttercup says

    It’s a bit wacky but I’m betting that whoever wore this dress was a hell of a lot of fun to have at any tea, dinner or luncheon. I love the colour and the trims are hideous but it all hangs together somehow. 8/10

  16. Disien says

    Love the fabric. Love the colour. Love the style, especially the back. But the trim at the neck and the trim at the bottom completely ruins it. The stuff at the neck looks like it’s fraying. And the sequinned trim at the bottom looks marooned.

    7/10

  17. Heather says

    I love tea gowns and I love yellow, so this is a surefire hit for me. It also just screams cheerines, which I can surely use these days. I’m a bit sad that there isn’t a front view availible for this dress, but from the one shot of the front neckline (all that fringe *shudders*) it might be a blessing. I’m giving it a relatively high score because of the beautiful back (I like the weird train!) and because it made me smile.

    9/10

  18. Elise says

    I really love this shade of yellow! But I have always been annoyed by trim that exists only on the front, and doesn’t continue along the back. I get especially annoyed when an expensive item of clothing fails to continue trim. Despite the sudden trim stoppage, there is just TOO MUCH, and TOO MANY KINDS on this dress.

    6/10

  19. dropping stitches says

    Remind me to wear a train next time I have dinner with friends! (when it’s safe to stop distancing, of course) Love the unusual train, the brocade satiny back, and the dark gold sequin trim. I don’t care for the fringe at the hips nor the feathery twisty business on the neckline. The yellow works well. It adds a touch of whimsy and flair. A chatty extrovert wore this one. Imperfect but good fun.

    7/10

  20. Mariana says

    I agree with many others that the trims don’t go together, break off in odd places (especially that hem trim, which as everyone has noted really should continue to under the edge of the train), and all together seem to fight each other. However, something in me can’t help liking this dress. The color, though not one I could wear, is beautiful and vibrant by itself and would look incredible on the right person. The train is just absurd enough to be completely fanciful and delightful to me. Why is it like that? Just because it’s crazy enough to work! I love that. I do wish I could see the front of the gown, as that knot thingy is throwing me off, but the back is whimsical enough to sway me for this.
    8

  21. Mary Hadley says

    This dress may have been altered to fit a woman whose waist had expanded. If it was a trousseau dress, I can see the woman gaining weight and abandoning tight lacing. In my mind, I imagine the original cut to have traditional Watteau train starting at the neckline. Notice that the back collar is now pieced. The train may have been shortened to create an additional panel of the bodice, and I imagine the now matronly woman wanting to maintain the train’s length by creatively inserting it in the back seam. If this was true, I have to salute her for her ingenious solution. The fabric, trim, and draping are wonderful. I give it a 9 for ingenuity.

  22. Crumpled Rag says

    I’m not a fan of yellow, but overall I like this dress. However, I really don’t like the neck/collar trim, it doesn’t seem to go with anything else, and I think the back section is missing.
    I like the waist banding and the skirt trim and the train, although it should have either begun at the waist or shoulders, not a floating point between them.
    7/10

  23. The color is delectable, and the leafy brocade is lovely and well disposed. I am rather charmed by the oddly graceful back drape, but like many others, find the trims discordant and clumsily disposed. To me the neckline and hem trims give the impression that the wearer just emerged from some sort of muddy underbrush, and the fringe, although well-matched in color, just seems to wander in from nowhere.
    7 of 10

  24. Blossom says

    Gosh it really is a joy to look at. Is there a full length front photo somewhere Im not seeing?

  25. Daniel Milford-Cottam says

    Hmmm, had to think about this one quite a bit. I liked it less the more I looked at it. I like the ideas behind it, but I’m not particularly delighted by it. I like the butterfly train idea, but I can’t quite pinpoint why I don’t really like it that much. Maybe it’s not enough of a colour statement, maybe there’s just too much detail in too many different but closely toning shades of yellow/chartreuse/greenish-yellow creating something visually irritating and non-committal. I don’t hate it. I just don’t particularly like it that much. I think this is one of those dresses that would probably look gorgeous and charming in a portrait painting to enhance the wearer, but when you see it in person, it doesn’t quite appear as charming as the painting did.

    I’m going to rate it 6.5 out of 10.

  26. Rateadress says

    I like tea gowns. Owning and wearing one in the late 19th century must have been the chicest thing ever, because they were so much ahead of their time and nothing said private luxury like a sophisticated tea gown. And I like all those shades of yellow. They remind me of some delicious sorbet of mango, lemon and champagne. At least these are the colors I‘d like to see and maybe just a touch more freshness and vitality would please me even more. It would have been interesting to see the front, but since the back is interesting enough, I‘d be fine with a simple front. That embellishment around the hem is in itself very nice but it should either go all around and/or be replaced by something a bit more subtle and in a less contrasting color. I can see, that the decoration around the neckline has a certain quality to it but I‘m not loving it. I think the back of the dress is almost there; like…almost. What it needs is a visual connection between the train and the collar. I think, the first thing needed would be some kind of couture piping in the same fabric as the train running along the center back. The second thing needed would be a luxurious bow with long ribbons in the same fabric at the back of the collar. If I may include a reference picture. I mean something like this:
    https://images.app.goo.gl/G8TkecDtiev2EJZEA .
    So I rather like this one. 7.5/10

  27. Maggie Mann says

    With just a few photos, I am thinking that this was originally a very pretty simple design yellow dress. I imagine the top front is in tact, the back wouldn’t have wings jutting out of it and the bottom wouldn’t have the heavy trim. Somewhere in its life an inexperienced seamstress added the stitching in the back wing slit and the very poor stitching at the neckline after removing the original feathers and trim like the front neckline. They found the extra wings fabric and inserted it with the stitches showing, added trim to the bottom front and lace to the sleeves and believed the old dress would have a new life. I give the original yellow dress half of the marks and take away the other half because of a bad alteration with inferior sewing. 5/10

  28. Julia says

    I’m having a hard time getting enthused about this one.
    It’s a nice colour and I love the back. The faux waistcoat is so trim and the train is interesting.
    But… what you can see of the front is uninspiring. I find the fabric weave looks too coarse for the delicacy of the dress and the ostrich feathers! For some reason I find them disturbing. They just look a little icky to me.
    5 for the back 3 for the possibility of the front being nice is you could see it properly. -8 FOR THOSE ABOMINABLE FEATHERS.

    So 5/10

    (yes I know my math doesn’t make sense but it’s hard to concentrate on math with icky ostrich feathers tickling your neck!)

  29. Annette says

    2
    Looks like a drag-chute failure of some sort. Pity, the leaf weave is gorgeous, but the stop-start of various trims is also distracting. What a waste of a sunny color.

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