19th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: 1842 does 18th century

Last week’s Rate the Dress was inspired by the first Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge:  a 1710s portrait of Frances Howard as the goddess Flora.  Many of you loved the colours of the outfit, but in general you weren’t convinced by the classical inspiration, and you really weren’t convinced by her crazy over-the-top shoe bows, bringing the rating down to a 6.9 out of 10.

The next challenge in the Historical Sew Fortnightly is UFO (un-finished-object) – the perfect excuse to finish one of those things sitting on your to-do pile.

Showing you an unfinished dress for Rate the Dress probably wouldn’t be very exciting for you, but I did find this ca. 1842  evening gown from the Met  which has been re-made from an 18th century gown.  The fabric dates to the 1740s.

It’s quite amazing and wonderful that fabric could be so well made that it could be sewn and worn as a garment, and then re-sewn and worn again as another garment 100 years later.  And now, almost 175 years later, it’s in a museum and looks to still be in excellent condition.  It’s a lovely reminder that a project may be finished, but it can be un-finished and remade again.

Ball gown, ca. 1842 (fabric 1740s), British, silk, cotton, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ball gown, ca. 1842 (fabric 1740s), British, silk, cotton, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ball gown, ca. 1842 (fabric 1740s), British, silk, cotton, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ball gown, ca. 1842 (fabric 1740s), British, silk, cotton, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In addition to the 18th century fabric, the design of the gown gives a slight nod to the 18th century, with a false front and false petticoat which give a nod to stomachers and petticoats, both with 18th century inspired trim.

What do you think?  Was the fabric worth re-using?  Does the dress do the fabric justice?  And are the 18th century influences an elegant addition, or a bad pastiche?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10



  1. Kaela says

    I give it a 10. It’s so beautiful! The fabric is stunning, and was definitely worth re-using. The 18th century style seems like an appropriat tribute, and lends uniqueness to the design while also acknowledging the gown’s history.

  2. That’s GORGEOUS. I especially love the the undersleeve detail. Genrally I find the styles of that era a bit heavy but this is charming. I think the nod to the past works. 9/10

    • Elise says

      Agreed 100%. 9/10

      Speaking of reusing, I read that many old 18th-century dresses were recycled at the very beginning of the romantic movement. They were pillaged for their hem details,etc. Is that true?

  3. I’m going with 10. There isn’t a thing about this dress that I don’t like. The color, the texture, the trim, it’s all perfection.

  4. Carolyn says

    I can’t help it, I have to give it a 10 because of how closely it relates to my research – which is about building a social history of 18th century garment alterations/modifications including later uses in the 19th century. And having examined so many 18th century dresses that were carelessly hacked-about for 19th century fancy dress I actually prefer seeing the fabric/garments being re-purposed for later styles. This appears to have been very carefully worked, this textile was obviously highly valued. The delicious colour doesn’t hurt either!

  5. Sue H says

    The fabric is utterly gorgeous, and while I like the dress, the width of the bertha like shoulder treatment seems too deep in proportion to the rest of the gown and doesn’t go with the otherwise lovely lattice trim of the front of the gown. But with that color & texture the is an outfit that will always make a loud statement. 9/10

  6. The fabric was very much worth reusing; it’s beautiful, and the color is so vibrant. (It’s not a color that would look good on me, but it’s a lovely color all the same.

    I’m less fond of the X motifs down the center of skirt and bodice, but I think they would grow on me, given time. An 8.

    • Seconded. I can’t help it, I like other aspects of the 1840s more than this… this is a tad too heavy, and the trim on the Xs is a tad too heavy, too. I especially don’t like that at the sleeves (side view). 8/10

  7. The fabric was very much worth reusing; it’s beautiful, and the color is so vibrant. (It’s not a color that would look good on me, but it’s a lovely color all the same.)

    I’m less fond of the X motifs down the center of skirt and bodice, but I think they would grow on me, given time. An 8.

  8. I LOVE this dress. The color is one of my favorites to wear, and I like the faux stomacher/petticoat look with the Xs just because it also looks similar to corsettry. It’s a single bold detail instead of several so it makes it pop rather than overwhelm the eye. The Xs over cream break up all of the pink going on, and give it some interest. I really like the shawl like quality of the neckline, the little detail of the sleeves that mimics the bodice, and tasteful revealing of the shoulders. The fabric is exquisite…almost looks like quilted silk because of how distinct the print is especially in the second photograph. 10 out of 10.

  9. It’s a great example of 1840s style inspired by the 18th century, and the fabric is amazing. I agree with Carolyn that I’d rather see something like this, where the materials have been re-used to make something new, than an original that’s been clumsily converted into a costume and damaged in the process. 10/10

    Does anyone know how they got such a vibrant colour before aniline dyes were available?

    • I believe it might be cochineal dye, from small, domesticated (!) insects originating in Mexico. The dye was part of a high-volume business, and extremely expensive at times. (English privateers stole yearly supplies from the Spanish, who had a production monopoly at the time, and flaunted it by wearing a lot of red.) I recently read the excellent book “A Perfect Red” by Amy Butler Greenfield on the history of red dyes, their use and socio-economic impact. It is well researched and I recommend it highly. The author made an interesting point that ever since synthetic dyes made colors cheap, the upper class moved to much more sombre, neutral tones, and bright reds were seen as ‘indecent.’ I wonder if the wearer of this dress got any nasty comments, or if that shift occured only later in the 19th century.

      • That’s a really interesting thought about why bright colors came to be seen as vulgar. I think the shift took place after the early 1860s at least, because the aniline dyes were brand new then and hadn’t had time to become commonplace. Since this is 1840s, I think the lady was safe. 🙂

      • I think the shift occurred a bit later. The aniline dyes didn’t appear until the next decade, and even haute couture was really into them for the 1860s.

        • Actually Mona has a point. While aniline dyes weren’t available until 1858-9, Turkey Red was a natural madder-based dye process that produced a range of rich reds on cotton. It had been very valuable in the 18th century as the Ottoman empire (Turkey) protected the secret of making it, but in the mid 18th century the British government offered a bounty to anyone who could steal or replicate the process, which an English adventurer managed to do. The price (and desirability) dropped shortly after, and went into a steep decline between 1804-26 when advances in the process made it much quicker and cheaper. This is really when red picked up the stigma as a ‘cheap’ colour, since cotton was worn by the poor, and bright cotton fabrics were used as trade fabrics in the Americas, Africa and the Pacific. Since Turkey Red was a cotton dye, red on silk (like this dress) was still expensive and desirable. It wasn’t until Turkey Red was synthetised as a synthetic dye that could be used on multiple fibre bases in (I think) 1869 or 70 that red silk lost its cache.

      • Elise says

        Wow. It’s amazing how color shows which group you belonged to. Even reading The Preppy Handbook (1980), it says what colors are preppy (and which ones together) versus which ones are not.

        As a linguist, I love markings of class and group and clique. Thank you so much for the topic!

  10. Lynne says

    10 out of 10!

    What has happened to me? I seem to be dishing out high scores time after time – you must be serving up superb dresses for rating!

    The ‘I’m a little Victorian dumpling’ look is not my favourite – those big ‘collar’ pieces – so heavy. But is such a simple look – the skirt just lets the fabric do its stunning thing. And isn’t it amazing? If you came across that, wouldn’t you just want to re-use it? (If we weren’t the historically respectful people that we are!) So rich and such a beautiful swirling self-pattern.

    The false front and stomacher wouldn’t have been my first choice, but they do nod courteously to the past, and the pale colour and the cross pattern stops the dense richness of the fabric from being a bit overwhelming.

    The whole is just charming!

  11. Abigail says

    I love it! The color is beautiful and rich, and I really do like the false front of the skirt (as a matter of fact, one of my first “historical” sewing projects was a 1860’s – ish dress that had a false front. I’m not sure of the accuracy of it though because it was not based on any research, just my imagination). I would totally wear this dress, the only thing I don’t like the the shawl-like front..it would take all shape and curves away from the wearer! It would be better with a fitted bodice with a wide neckline. 9/10

  12. Daniel says

    Ten out of ten!! I love it! I adore the colour and I love the slightly cartoonish quality of the “princess dress” criss crossing down the front and the fabric is gorgeous and so scrumptious and luscious, and that delicious creamy contrast down the middle just makes it look even yummier. I really do love it, and I think the eighteenth century influences are quite witty – if quite literal – but still. Ten out of ten!!

  13. Sarah says

    Absolutely beautiful! Definitely a 10! Actually, can I give it 11 for the extra gorgeous colour? It has stayed so vibrant after all this time.

  14. I don’t love the color. I think the faux corseting detail looks tacky, like a bad halloween costume everywhere except the sleeves. That 3/4 back view is swoon-worthy but the front is just so “costumey”. 5/10 is my vote, even if I’m not in with the general opinion.

  15. missjoiedevivre says

    This fabric is beautiful. The colour, the texture, love it. Love the criss crossing, love the pointy bit on the bodice. Not so sure about the height of the wingy bits going from boobs to arms, they look like they could hinder her ability to get her arms above her head, so I give it a 9.

    Also, you can tell from my thorough use of jargon that I am a historical costume expert. Ha!

  16. The fabric is gorgeous, but I’m not so much a fan of the trim used to create the lacing detail. It’s a little too thick and gets clunky in the narrower parts, but I don’t think I dislike the lacing all together. I really don’t like the false front though. It looks lovely in the back, but I think it just comes down too far in the front. I feel like I wouldn’t be able to lift my arms up very far in the dress. I’ll give it a 7/10.

  17. I know nothing of historical accuracy, but I love this! It seems to my untrained eye a bit unusual, and that’s what I like. I love the color, the bell shape of the skirt, the fact they reused fabric that was 100 years old at the time (!) amazing.
    I give the dress a 10/10. Thank you for bringing it to us.

  18. I’m going to give it an 8 out of 10 mainly due to not liking the criss-cross insert. I think it would have looked much nicer if they’d kept the insert plain. The rest of it I like, the colour is lovely and the pattern in that fabric is also gorgeous. Love the lines and the shoulder/sleeve as well.

  19. I’m going to give it a 9, mostly because I’ve seen the dress before when I was researching 1840 dresses. I don’t like the big collar/shoulder piece, but I like that the owner re-used the fabric and remade the dress to match the current fashions.

  20. Claire Payne says

    I love it. I love the colour, the fabric, the shape and detail. Who could ask for anything more of a ball gown. A 10 from me.

  21. I’m a fan. The revival of 18th century fashion in the 1840’s has charmed me for years! This dress is one of the most successful that I know of. Another “10” from the peanut gallery.

  22. This 1840s dress is really “tamed” compared to the poufness, the frilly, and the colorfulness of previous dresses seen here. However I like the simplicity of the whole dress, the design elements and decorations. The color is very lovely and is enough for the dress to showcase itself. Plus I like how the seamstress up-cycled the old fabric into a new dress.


  23. karenb says

    love it. colour, shape, pattern in the fabric. all of it.


  24. Angela Wicentowich says

    This is my favourite dress so far. I adore this dress. The colour is sublime!

    For me – this is an easy 10/10

  25. Lene H says

    Truly beautiful. Nothing to dislike here – apart from the fact that I could never wear it myself 🙂


  26. I agree the colour is eye popping and amazing after over 200 years, but the false corset I agree with some one above does make me think of a halloween costume and I am not a fan of the 1840’s rounded shoulder collar. I would have to say 6/10.

  27. Demented Seamstress says

    It’s soooooo pretty! 9/10

    The x things on the front are a little odd, but they match the details on the sleeves. It lost a point due to excessive pinkness.

  28. I love the colour and pattern of the fabric, and the criss cross front section. This dress has long been one of my favourites. 10 out of 10 from me 🙂

  29. TheTayloress says

    The fabric is the perfect weight and texture for this full yet sharp outline.
    I love everything about it: colour, trim, style…
    Someone had a ball in this dress!

  30. The fabric is lovely (if very loud!) and well worth repurposing. I’m amazed at how well it must have been treated during its life and how sturdy it must also be.

    However, I don’t really like the bertha-esque shoulders and I really don’t like the X detail down the front. I’m sure at the time it was a clever nod to the earlier fashions. Now it is inescapably linked to those horrible Halloween costume / cheap ebay “medieval” dresses made from nasty synthetic satin (and skimping on it at that).

    (I do, however, love the skirt (minus the false petticoat). It is so sumptious and full.)


  31. I think the x-decorations, I suppose it’s meant to echo lacing, on bodice and skirt is utterly tacky to a modern eye and even apart from that I feel like they are too chunky to be as elegant as the rest of the gown deserves. I do love the fabric, the colour and the overall shape however – 7/10.

  32. That fabric is very pretty! I kind of want some for a chair or a couch…or curtains (not that that’s an insult to the dress). The dress does look a little costumey, but I still like it–especially the shape. I do really like the nod to the 18th century, and it is in wonderful shape!

    Eight out of Ten.

  33. Dawn aka Wanda B Victorian says

    I’ve always liked this dress. 10/10

  34. I’m not normally a fan of 1840s styles, especially the wide berthas and droopy shoulders. However I do like this one.

    I think a lot of this is down to the fact that whoever (re-) made it realised that it was all about the fabric, and the dress didn’t need masses of trimmings and tricksy details to make it special.


  35. I don’t like it. I amaze myself by feeling this way, but I don’t. The lattice pattern and the flat colour remind me too much of a movie costume and not a very good one at that.
    I also don’t much care for this red. It is one of about three exact shades of red I don’t care for in a multitude of shades and hues that I adore. It reminds me of teh silk of Bilbo Baggins’ waistcoat in the beginning of The Fellowship of the ring and I didn’t care for that either. Too much like curtaining.
    So, I give it a 4.

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