19th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the dress: tan and red in 1875

Last week I showed you a flower-strewn frock by Jean-Phillipe Worth, one that might have been a little too frilly and feminine, but which most of you found fabulous.

While I don’t think Worth, original or JP, quite as infallible as some of you did, I wasn’t surprised that this frock received high accolades.  One of two of you flat-out hated the dress, and there were a few complaints about the symmetrical placement of motifs over the bust, the overall fussiness of the bust, and the colour of the creamy silk and blonde lace (I definitely don’t agree that the dress has faded over time – all the different layers of dark ivory matched too well, and were too true, for age to have changed them substantially), but the frock still managed an 8.7 out of 10.

Can this week match that?

This fortnight’s theme on the HSF is Literature, and I was rather at a loss as to how that could fit in with Rate the Dress.  In looking for inspiration, I found this afternoon dress  from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.  The tan  silk is the colour of aged paper, and the red trim reminds me of the covers of so many books.  Just looking at it makes me want to curl up with a fine bit of literature.

Afternoon dress, about 1875, American (Boston, Massachusetts), Made by Miss M. T. Splain, MFA Boston

Afternoon dress, about 1875, American (Boston, Massachusetts), Made by Miss M. T. Splain, MFA Boston

The years have rather sadly crushed the dress, but hopefully you can imagine it in its original pristine condition, and judge it on that.

What do you think of that tan silk paired  dark red piping which highlights the square neck, the 18th century inspired sleeves, the pointed basque bodice, the ruffled hem, some rather random ruched areas, and the liberal scattering of bows?  Does it remind you of your favourite old book, or just look old and faded?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10


  1. In principle I like the combination of dark red and caramel, but somehow there seems to be an excess of piping in odd placement which is more reminiscent of wounds than decoration.


  2. Brenda says

    It DOES look “bookish”…I love it! A perfect combination of straight lines and feminine touches. Perhaps it could do without those deep pockets in the back of the skirt? Otherwise, perfect! 9.5/10

  3. Daniel says

    I also thought it looked oddly like wounds. In theory, I love the concept of red piping, but I’m less convinced by the combination with old parchment. In theory, this ought to work. Even though it’s obviously in need of humidification treatment and whatever else a conservator would do, I’m not altogether sure it works as well as it should do. The piping doesn’t really succeed at defining the trimmings as well as it should do, and it’s actually kind of barely inspired design wise, so I am going to have to say 3.5/10 – I don’t think Miss Splain was particularly feeling this dress when she made it, and it’s a shame she can’t do some ‘splaining (sorry), but it’s also not bad, it’s just a bit lacklustre – the red should pop a bit more, or be more prominent, the tan should be a bit less overwhelming, the details need better emphasis. The mark’s very low, but I can’t really bring myself to rate it higher, even if it were bouncy and perky and pristine.

  4. Ugh, no. Gross. I don’t like that color much anyway, and it just looks even grosser with red. Ew, ew, ew. It looks like human flesh and blood.


    This is one of my least favorite dresses posted. It doesn’t make me think of a a book at all, unless it’s a book about flaying torture.

    I actually love the STYLE of the dress, but the colors are awful, in my opinion, and thus I rate it a 1/10. I’m not even giving extra points for the lovely style (And I really love the neckline and sleeves.) because I just hate the colors THAT MUCH.

  5. I like the silhouette, and the color scheme, though odd, is striking and effective. My only complaint is the weird patch-pocket-like things in the lower rear. 8 of 10.

  6. Zach says

    I love the colors, and they do remind me of a book! The shape is beautiful, especially the bodice, and I always like more bows. It looks to me like something a (very fashionable) bookish girl would wear.

    Nine out of ten.

  7. I’m not a fan of the color combo – I like the red but I’m not a fan of the tan. It doesn’t remind me of a book but the color reminds me of something that has been left out in the sun too long.

    However, the cut and shape are lovely and for that it gets a lot of brownie points – 8/10.

  8. Well, I do like the colours and I like the bodice design, but I don’t like the skirt. Those pockets(?) are ugly. In fact I think the skirt trim as a whole is ugly. 6/10

  9. I like the colors, but I do think they would be prettier if the tan was more cream and the red maybe a little brighter? Overall, I do like neutrals trimmed in red…mostly gray though, so this is a bit different.

    I have to disagree with those who dislike the pocket on the back. Parasol pockets are my absolute favorite feature of 1870s dresses. If I ever have the opportunity to make an 1870s dress, it will DEFINITELY have a parasol pocket.

    I also like the cris-crossed ribbon down the center back, and the little contained train, that almost seems to be heading towards the silhouette and trains of the late 1870s.

    Thanks for sharing! I give it an 8.5/10

  10. Oh, that the years had been kinder to this dress! Had it been less crunched up, and better conserved before mounting, I do believe readers here might be happier with it.

    I rather wonder if either the photographer or time have altered the color a bit. I have an 1870ish dress in a rich cuir color: a tobacco color that in some lights is very warm and toasty, and in others just tan-ish. The red may be closer to burgundy than the old-faded-blood that is grossing out some readers. Cuir and burgundy are great together, as restauranteurs can tell you, and such color combinations were quite the thing in the 1870s. They did not go for bright contrasts. The other thing to consider is gaslight: fashionable houses were dark at this period, their windows swathed in more than one layer of curtaining, and many times with narrower windows to begin with. With the gas on, colors change; I think reds are among them. With the gas off, the rather murky natural lighting would have dimmed the reds.

    Then too, if the dress were pressed, the bodice would shine smoothly, while the skirt, with its horizontal ruchings between the verticals, would catch and sift the light; the ruching and light-shifting carries round to the back, where it cascades, and thus ties back and front together.

    The bows and pleating and back draping are folded and crushed and have lost the sculptural effect they’d have had on the viewer; they’d have created more lights and shadows and outlines.

    No, I am not a fan of the side pockety thing in the skirt either, but that was a faddish addition. I think that had the designer used the plain high waist, rather than the very fashionable early cuirass bodice, the line would have worked better. There’d be no horizontal trim, and if there was contrasting belt, it’d have been at or above the natural waist, and the skirt’s vertical lines topped by bows would have elongated the figure and led to that small waist in somewhat the same way the Edwardians would do later with the trumpet skirt. Swaying, delicious. However, that jacketey bodice cut was the thing by the mid-seventies, and in conformist times, you cleaved to the fashion. (Sorry for the close-to-pun; it popped out.)

    This dress is rather restrained compared to other 1875 models, with their fascination for knife pleatings and “aprons” and “tunics”, so I give the designer kudos for keeping a handsome line.

    I’d have loved to wear this dress, even if it’s not a perfect 10; it’s got the warmth and richesse of a fall afternoon, while the cleaner design than then current is a brisk, fresh breeze.

    Yes, I love this dress. 9 of 10. Substitute the round waist of 1871, or stretched to 1872, and it’d be a 10…I’ve bookmarked it for further ruminations and dreaming.

    Very best,

    Natalie, now not-so-closet bustle lover

    • I’m now wondering whether I prefer the cuirass or the high waist… Normally, I think the high waist somehow manages to make most bustle dresses look stumpy; but I started wondering what this dress would be like on me, and realised the high waist would probably be better for my short legs… Strange, the things that change your perception of old fashions. 😀

  11. Icky. Looks like the hem has been dribbled with blood and gore.
    Saying that, all goth/vampire/Twilight lovers would ADORE this dress.

    I don’t think of red and parchment when I think of books, I think of navy blue and parchment. Then this dress wouldn’t look so zombie horror movie costume-ish. I give it a 5/10

    Change the piping to blue, display the dress well, and I’d give it a 9/10. I do love the parasol pocket and the random flounces.

      • missjoidevivre says

        I hope there aren’t any Twilight fans in your readers!

        • Daniel says

          I hope there are. (ahem). I have no opinion of the books or Stehoweverthehellshespellsitinnie Meyer’s writing that they would wish to read.

          • Elise says

            I do. Glorifying a stalker boyfriend, having the heroine give up her college dreams because said stalker boyfriend convinced her to, the message that sex should be painful and almost kill you…

            The only thing it is good for is teaching the Spanish 1st person plural ending of -ER verbs: -emos, whereupon I would draw a picture of someone in black holding a Twilight book. And….my students were awesome at conjugating verbs.

            BUT….back to clothes. It does look like it is bleeding.

          • Daniel says

            Worse. They’re badly written. Really, really badly written. To the extent where my eyes felt like this dress looks after reading a few pages of one of the books. Crumpled up, dirty brown, and weeping blood.

          • Elise says

            They are! They’re so poorly written! So many good fantasy books out there…Argh!

          • missjoidevivre says

            Atrociously written. And Bella is such an awful character. And the underlying messages about her and her relationships ranged from irritating to depressing. Which I found a shame as there were some interesting plot turns and concepts that in skilled hands could have made for an excellent series.

            I had to read the whole series once I started. I’m a bit weird like that. I spent a lot of Eclipse wishing they’d do us all a favour and just eat her already.

    • missjoidevivre says

      I have to say, I’m a goth/vampire lover (although not Twilight) and I loathe it! I possibly wouldn’t have noticed the gore effect if others hadn’t pointed it out but now that it’s been mentioned I can’t unsee it! Although I wouldn’t have like it anyway.

  12. I’m another who thinks the dress is bleeding, pity they didn’t do the colours the other way around. 5/10

    • Agreed: Cranberry with tan trim would be stunning.
      As is, 6 out of 10, mostly due to color palette (dark on medium) and also the weird bows-or-patches-or-something on the back (and bows on the skirt front)… if there were no mid-skirt embellishments, it would have gotten a 8 / 10.

      • The bow-patch thing is actually a parasol pocket – one of those weird fashion crazes of the 1870s that sounds fabulous and adorable, but was probably a pain in practice.

  13. I really love the color combination. It’s a little unexpected, but in a good way for me. I like the embellishments and ruffles too, they break up all the yards of skirt in a nice way. Maybe not the absolute epitome of perfection in dressmaking, but I’d wear it for sure if I had the chance. 9/10.

  14. Not a fan of the bows on the skirt. Otherwise I am in total dress love!


  15. Elizabeth says

    I like the colour combo, and the bodice generally, but some of the skirt embellishments are just odd, squashed or otherwise. (and not just the pocket)
    so 8/10

  16. Yes, it does have similar colours to my old copy of The Two Towers

    I love the tiny red accents, as opposed to the more opulent trims so often found on dresses from this time. It looks so much more graceful with the square neckline!
    The bow at the back of the neck is funny, and yes, the pockety thing is weird, but I agree with ZipZip – when not crushed, the effect those trims created must have been very pleasing. I’d also wear this!

  17. Unsurprisingly, I adore it. ANYTHING gold or goldish in colour trimmed with dark red is going to get me going, and it reminds me of a book with a red cover looked at in profile so the cover frames the edges of the pages. Yummy.
    Even apart from the colours, I think the detailing is exquisite – intelligent and clever and thoughtful. Things going in and out and around cleverly. It is a book of plot twists and turns!

  18. karenb says

    I like the top half, not the bottom half. Not too sure about the colours.
    dried blood with aged skin. If it had been that old greeny blue shade that some books are in then it would of been much nicer.

    6/10 because of the colour, strange pockets on skirt and odd train.

  19. missjoidevivre says

    Ick. I like the shape of the bodice, especially the neckline, but nothing else does it for me. I would have disliked it even if people hadn’t mentioned the wound thing but that association doesn’t help it. 2 for a lovely bodice shape.

  20. fidelio says

    It is very restrained in terms of line and trimming for this era, which gets it points from me. I’m not sold on the bows on the front of the skirt–unlike the ones on the train and the bodice, they don’t have a structural function and their design function, instead of giving the skirt front some unity with the rest of the bows here and there, just breaks up the line of the skirt in an unappealing way.

    I do like the bow at the back of the neck–the woman wearing the dress would have had her hair up, and the bow would have drawn attention to the back of her neck, with (in those days, anyway) enticing effect. The bows down the back of the skirt also, besides controlling the skirt fullness into the bustle effect and train, would draw attention to the way her hips moved as she walked–without being terribly obvious about it, the way a 1950s/early 1960s wiggle dress would. The square neckline, with just enough trim, also draws attention to the face and the bow there advertises the bosom without blowing horns.

    The bottom ruffle/row of pleats/whatever loses me, but that may be the poor presentation. I also don’t love the execution of the skirt pocket, although I’m always grateful to see a pocket anywhere on women’s clothing. Women need pockets, really we do. If they grasped this in 1875 why don’t they get it now?

    This is such a great example, in terms of basic design and execution of that vague category of afternoon/reception/dinner dress–fancy enough for receiving formal callers or hosting late afternoon parties*, or for evening social events that didn’t call for a low neckline and bare arms, like balls and the opera.

    I like the color combination, although I suspect the old gold/tan/cuir/whatever is a little trying for many complexions. I think I’d like it more if the colors were reversed, but I have a thing for crimson.

    It’s always nice to see a dress from this period that doesn’t make the wearer look like either a fugitive from a passementerie factory or a piece of upholstery given human form. 8/10.

    *Like the 1875 version of a cocktail party. Sherry and little ‘biscuits’ or whatever.

  21. Lynne says

    The random ruched areas throw me a bit. An 1875 fore-shadowing of cargo pants?? The neck and the sleeves are rather pretty, and I don’t mind the colours. It doesn’t set my heart on fire.

    6 out of 10.

  22. I really like this. Just enough decorative details to be interesting without going over the top (mostly), smart, and elegant.

    The colours don’t bother me; they just make me think of a book bound in tan leather with the edges of the pages coloured red.

    It may have been just the thing for the period, but that odd pocket does nothing for me.


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