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Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University

Rate the Dress: this dress ain’t made for walking

It’s interesting how much certain silhouettes and colour schemes evoke certain associations. Last week’s dress was one a style that always makes me think of Winterhalter paintings, and also the antebellum South. Many of you had the same reaction. The latter association always makes looking at this style of dress fraught: we can’t help but be reminded of the amount of human suffering that supported a lifestyle that allowed such garments.

For me as a fashion historian it’s important to remember that, while it’s not always as obvious, almost all extravagant fashions (including those today) are built on exploitation. Most of the garments I’ve featured in Rate the Dress depended on seamstresses, and the occasional tailor, working long hours for poor or no pay. Behind every couturier who became rich and famous there were an army of ‘little hands’, making at best a decent wage that provided a modest living, but certainly not one that could afford the garments they laboured over.

Rate the Dress is a chance to imagine a dress when worn, but also to acknowledge and honour the people who made these garments, the often unknown artists who we can’t compensate, but whose skill we can admire.

Last Fortnight: 1860s white with blue

It was a childhood dream dress, albeit one with problematic associations. You thought it the perfect frock for the extremely youthful – although Winterhalter’s portraits show women well into their 30s in similar dresses in the 1850s and 60s!

The Total: 8.3 out of 10

Technically the rating should be a bit higher, as many of you knocked of points for the Extremely Enormous Butt Bow as shown on the museum website – which I’m not entirely convinced is original, and this didn’t include any photographs of!

This week: an 1880s velvet and satin frock

As a balance to last weeks very young, very summery, dress, here’s a rich, dark, winter-y dress that, if not explicitly for an older woman, is much more mature in its cut and colours. It’s also an excellent example of a dress for honouring the maker. While the designers and seamstresses are unknown, and while the overall effect may not be to your taste, it’s hard to refute the skill that went in to the making of the dress. The draping of the overskirt in particular is masterful.

Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University
Carriage dress, 1885, The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University

The museum describes this as a ‘carriage dress’, which, in the 1880s, was an elegant dress worn for visiting (they were more commonly known as ‘visiting dresses’) that was too lavish in materials or cut for street wear, and thus was only worn if one was conducting one’s visits in a carriage, instead of walking.

Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University
Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University

One can certainly imagine a society woman descending from a carriage and proceeding into a reception room in this dress, its overall sense of impracticality declaring her wealth and status. How did her life compare to the women who made her dress, and who dressed her in it?

Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University
Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University

This dress actually has a rather restrained train for a carriage dress. It’s possible it’s been shortened. There’s certainly nothing restrained about the materials used, from the elaborate metal, bead and braid embellishment on the bodice, to the lush satin of the bustled overskirt, to the velvet main gown.

Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University
Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University

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.

Dress, cotton with blue silk sash and bow, French, ca. 1860, KSUM 1983.1.2071 a-h.

Rate the Dress: White dresses with blue satin sashes

I’m late again with Rate the Dress, but this time for happier reasons: I’ve been working on a couple of projects that I’m finding very fulfilling and engaging, and taking time to do things just for me. So I played Scrabble with Mr D instead of writing a blog post last week! (I won. He says using words like ‘bast’, ‘bodkin’, and ‘mercer’ is unfair and shouldn’t be allowed)

Last Fortnight: late Victorian marquisette madness

Some of you loved last week’s dress for its bold statement, unusual fabric, and elegant silhouette. Others liked it, but found it a bit headache inducing. And some just hated everything about it: very bold fabric and an 1890s cut aren’t generally popular here on Rate the Dress.

Thank you to Daniel for all the extra information on last week’s dress: where it ended up, and the dodgy alterations.

The Total: 7.5 out of 10

This is the rating that came up most often with this dress, and for once the mode was the mean.

(although some of you rated on things that were presentation or condition, which isn’t really supposed to be counted! If I discount those it goes up to 7.9 out of 10…).

This week: a ca. 1860 ballgown in white cotton with blue silk trimmings

I’ve repeated the ‘all one fabric with touches of blue’ theme of the previous dress, albeit in a much more restful fabric, since some of you found the marquisette to be a little too much.  

Dress ca. 1860, Kent State University Museum
Dress, cotton with blue silk sash and bow, French, ca. 1860,
Kent State University Museum 1983.1.2071 a-h.

This ca 1860 ball gown features the classic combination of a white dress with blue sash and bows: the vivid hue of the silk, and its sheen, adding contrast to the matte white of the sheer dress.

Although the fabrics and patterns are much more subdued than in the last Rate the Dress, there’s a lot going on in this dress: three tiers of ruffles round the skirt hem, another at just the right length for the wearer to fiddle with it, further ruffles on the sleeves, a lush lace-trimmed berthe, a heavily gathered faux chemise with ribbon drawstring, and all those bows!

Dress, cotton with blue silk sash and bow, French, ca. 1860, KSUM 1983.1.2071 a-h.
Dress, cotton with blue silk sash and bow, French, ca. 1860,
Kent State University Museum 1983.1.2071 a-h.

Triple bows on the berthe, double bows with long hanging tails on the sleeves, and a truly enormous bow on the back (click through the captions to the catalogue record to see it).

Like the alternate version of last week’s dress, I’m not entirely convinced this dress hasn’t been altered – and I’m very dubious about the authenticity the hat that goes with it.

But we aren’t rating the hat, and we are rating the dress as it is!

So 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.

Day dress, 1897, Sold by Kerry Taylor Auctions

Rate the Dress: Late Victorian Pattern Madness

You really liked last week’s dress, with its slightly unusual (or at least unexpected), and quite busy, 1780s fabric. This week I’ve picked a dress with an equally unusual-for-its-era fabric. Will you like it? Let’s find out!

Last Week and-then-some: a 1780s dress in Indian chintz

You really liked last week’s dress, and enjoyed all the additional information and commentary on the fabric. I won’t be able to be as detailed and informed with every Rate the Dress post because of how much time it takes to write them, but I’ll try to balance quicker ones with more in-depth ones.

The main problem with last week’s dress was keeping track of all the 10 ratings, because there were so many in a row. It lost a few points here and there for the fabric reminding some of you of curtains – it was the OG for the look!

The Total: 9.4 out of 10

Practically perfect.

This week: late Victorian marquisette madness

This 1890s dress is made from a striking fabric with a bold abstracted floral or zig-zag pattern in ivory and black.

Day dress, 1897, Sold by Kerry Taylor Auctions
Day dress, 1897, Sold by Kerry Taylor Auctions

The fabric appears to be a fancy marquisette, with a black leno weave ground, and a finer leno weave, or perhaps a supplementary weave, for the white patterning.

Day dress, 1897, Sold by Kerry Taylor Auctions
Day dress, 1897, Sold by Kerry Taylor Auctions

The black net ground shows glimpses of the white lining, which would create a shifting, shimmering effect as the dress moved, dazzle indeed!

Day dress, 1897, Sold by Kerry Taylor Auctions
Day dress, 1897, Sold by Kerry Taylor Auctions

The black and white colour scheme is relieved by touches of lace (which would have matched the colour of the dress more closely when new) and blue silk bows. The high neckline and long sleeves make this a day dress, but in this fabric, and with these trimmings, it certainly wasn’t an everyday dress: more likely one for a fancy daytime reception.

Day dress, 1897, Sold by Kerry Taylor Auctions
Day dress, 1897, Sold by Kerry Taylor Auctions

In addition to the discolouration of the lace mentioned above, there are foxing spots on the lining, and signs of abrasion and wear, so it’s not the pristine specimen it would have been in its heyday. I also suspect the dress is missing a belt or sash. As always, try to imagine the dress as it was when new for your rating.

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.