Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: Margaret, Countess of Tyrol, retrospectively

There were some very mixed feelings about last week’s rose-garlanded frock, with some of you coming back multiple times to change your ratings.  Alas, you’re going to have to wait a day to find out what the final tally was, as I’m desperately trying to get some work done before a deadline.

UPDATE: and the fringed and embroidered and laced 1850s frock came in at….(drumroll here)….5.7 out of 10.  Ouch.

Today’s Rate the Dress heroine was quite the character.  Through wit, determination, and a bit of luck, Margaret of Gorizia managed to succeed her father as Countess of Tyrol in her own right, independently divorce the rat of a husband she was married to at 12 (an act which resulted in her excommunication from the Catholic church, 175+ years before Henry VIII did the same thing, for (in my opinion) much worse reasons), withstand the resulting Europe-wide scandal, and a number of challenges to her throne.

Margarete of Gorizia-Tyrol with Tyrolean, Bavarian and Carinthian coat of arms - oil on canvas, 16th century

Margarete of Gorizia-Tyrol with Tyrolean, Bavarian and Carinthian coat of arms – oil on canvas, 16th century

As a result of her divorce, the Catholic church bestowed a nickname on Margaret that means, in its nicest interpretation, ‘ugly woman’ (the less-nice interpretation, and the one they probably meant, is a five-letter word starting with a w).  Due to this, Margaret has gone down in history as ‘The Ugly Duchess’, possibly inspiring the title of Matsy’s painting, as well as some illustrations of ‘the Duchess’ in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

In real life though, Margaret was probably quite beautiful, and the portrait we are considering shows her as such (despite the paint wear that has turned her full-red lips into a strange grimace).  She may have been a 14th century Tyrolean ruler, but her striking gown owes its fabric to the 16th century silk trade between Venice & the Ottoman empire, and 16th century dyeing innovations.  European textile technology of the late Middle Ages & Renaissance was not capable of producing the rich cloth-of-gold on velvet pile ground – the Ottoman empire vigorously guarded the knowledge of how to create such fabric.  The silk thread also came from the Ottoman empire, either from their own silk industry, stolen from China, or from China itself.  The pattern also draws on Ottoman & Venetian influences, showing a love of fantastical botany, and a symmetry inspired by Ottoman art.  Finally, the rich black of the background was a new invention, combining black dye sourced from the sap of trees from the Americas with indigo brought up from the south.

So her dress is a fantasy, but do you like it?  The massive, bold print, the body-hugging bodice, the oversized pom-poms on the sleeves that, along with the white collar, provide the only additional ornamentation to the frock.  What about the intriguing grey and red cloak she wears over it?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10


  1. Are they pompoms? I thought they were buttons. Whichever they are, I love the outfit. 10/10.

      • Such buttons were not enormous in period. As I said, the artist was no expert in historic costume. I’ve seen a surviving example; such buttons were probably about a half-inch (1.2 cm) across.

  2. Kerri Ellen Bennett says

    No 10 its absolutely stunning …

  3. I give it 10. I adore this gown for all of the reasons you state and for the beautiful style of the cotehardy itself, which is one the most amazing gown styles in fashion history, as fitted as any 1930s bias dress, my favourite medieval style.

  4. Why does she have a line of pom poms under one arm and not under the other? Very odd that. I also find the ridge about lower hip level rather odd, I’m guessing it’s because the dress fabric is light and flowing over a corset. As far as I can see that kind of corset wasn’t around yet, but then as you’ve already said, the dress is a fantasy. Lastly I haven’t seen any dress that shape from that period, or made with soft fabric that flows like that.

    However, all that said, I love the dress, I love it’s shape, and the fabric too. I also love the use of colour and pattern in the outfit to reflect the coat of arms at the bottom. My rating then is 6. As high as 6 because I love it, as low as 6 because it irritates me with how wrong it is.

    • fidelio says

      I think the ridge is a seam–because the artist was used to seams in skirts there in his period, he expected there to be seams in any full skirt, even though in Maragret’s era (14th century) horizontal skirt seams weren’t being used yet.You’ll notice the pattern in the fabric breaks at the waistline, too. It looks as though he was trying to depict a circular skirt with a waist seam. Failure to understand antique costume might also explain the ruff.

      I think the flow comes from the fact that it’s supposed to be a heavy silk velvet.

      • flickr.comI disagree – it is possible that the ‘ridge’ is not a seam at all but an attempt to portray the quite common 14th/15th C style where the dress is shortened by being tucked over an invisible belt, e.g.:


        Having said that, I like the fabric of the gown but little else. It is a poor interpretation of the 14th Century style (the buttons being a prime example, which are beautiful and extravagant on the 14th C dresses, but comically absurd here). The neckline is also horrible, particularly in comparison to the originals.

        4/10 (marked up for the fabric)

  5. Szarka says

    Look at the pourpoint of Charles de Blois for similar buttons, at a similar time – though there’s a lot of variety in the 14th c. (Check out http://cottesimple.com/buttons/14th-century-buttons/) They’re probably stuffed fabric, and work well (I’ve tried them). The seam closing the sleeve, is located in a different place on the arm than we are used to as moderns. The viewer sees only one row of buttons in this illustration as a way of showing that she’s not holding her arms exactly symmetrically, just like she’s not weighting her legs exactly symmetrically. There might be a political reason for that – is she supposed to be “weighted towards Tyrol”, if that’s the red device? Also/alternatively, balls appear on many Renaissance paintings to symbolize the Medici – any connections there?

  6. Sue says

    I’m fascinated by costume through the ages but am no expert in any ything close to historical accuracy so my rating comes purely from the aesthetic point of view. I love the theatrics of it, so bold, so out there and so flambuoyant – it’s certainly a 10/10 from me and to top that I can say hand on heart, that I would wear an outfit like this to a dressy function even today 🙂

  7. The dress itself is fabulous. I love the shape of it and the bold metallic print. It really doesn’t need any other ornamentation, but the pom-poms are fun. I don’t know about the cloak thing with it though. The red is ok, but the grey seems rather washed out against the black and gold. 7/10 for me.

  8. That fabric is magnificent! I really like this picture but I’m not so sure about the button distribution.
    The print is also a bit too big for that dress, especially the large motif over her stomach. It makes her waist look disconnected and floaty, as if someone divided her into very uneven thirds with a leaf shaped cookie cutter.


    I agree with those who say that red & grey doesn’t really go with black & gold. Although both colour schemes are fantastic by themselves.

    • Large print motifs were common during the Renaissance. In particular, look at Italian Renaissance (esp. 16th century) portrait art. It was a different aesthetic than we have now about prints, that’s all.

  9. I was momentarily distracted by the way she holds the shields like a early 20th-century fan-dancer. I’ve never seen that before.

    Although the flat playing-card painting style of the era also is somewhat distracting, I do like the overall clarity of the dress style — 7/10.

  10. The 14th century featured gowns with tight sleeves closed with round buttons (often self-fabric buttons) from elbow to wrist. I assume that’s what the artist is trying to show, though as a 16th century painter he’s no expert on 14th century costume. (He’s put a kind of ruff around the neckline, which is a fashion that did not exist in the 14th century).

    As a piece of quasi-heraldic symbolism, this “portrait” of Margaret is great. I don’t think I’d care much for the red/gray cloak worn over the head with the gold and black cloth. I also don’t care much for the ruff. A dress made with such a gold and black fabric and a true 14th century design (which featured fairly low necklines) would be a showstopper. This amalgam of styles, not so much. I’ll give it 6.5 for being striking, if not exactly flattering.

    • I think the “ruff” is actually an ermine collar/binding.

      But I agree with your analysis, and your rating.

      • Hana: I’ve looked again at the collar and I think you’re right; it does seem to be meant to be an ermine collar or binding of some kind. But I still think it adds a level of ugliness to the dress, and I’m glad you agreed with me about the rating!

    • fidelio says

      The mantle lining’s not patterned the way you’d expect from vair or ermine–maybe he was trying for miniver?

    • Elise says

      Great Catherine, amalgam. Although I love the fabric and colors, the fact that it the painter’s sense of clothing influences the painting of someone who existed 200 years prior means that the whole sense of line is thrown off. It could have been so magnificent.

      As a point of interest, it does explain exactly what were the most salient elements of dress of the time: Waist seam, ruff, etc.

      Oh! 6/10

    • I actually think the “ruff” was meant to be an ermine collar/binding…

      Otherwise, I very much agree!


  11. karenb says

    At last a dress that looks warm, comfortable and covers her all up.
    ( I am way over all those low cut gowns, they must of been very chilly around the chest)

    And the fabric is gorgeous. Looks like something this century.
    odd use of pompoms on the sleeve though. I like the red of the cloak as it calms down all that gold and black. Not sure about the grey.

    9/10 because I could wear it now.

  12. The portrait makes me think of NASCAR, perhaps because of the black and white diamond coat of arms. In Bavaria, it’s a blue and white diamond flag and maybe the paint color just faded to black and was originally blue. Either way, the print of the dress is really sexy! Yes, she’s covered from head to toe, but I think it looks great on her.

    I think she’s rockin’ this dress, and although I dislike her head covering fabric, the rest looks great. 8/10

    P.S. I highly recommend visiting her hometown (former kingdom) of Sud Tirol. It’s a beautiful area with incredible views of the mountains. Was just there last month, and yeah, I love that area.

  13. carla H. says

    As a fantasy dress, I think it is wonderful. I give it a 9/10.

  14. fidelio says

    So do I rate the dress in the painting, or the idea of the dress in the painting?

    As Catherine notes, this guy was stumbling in the dark on historical (for his age) clothing, and so some of the details are just wrongity wrong wrong when it comes to 14th century clothing. But the idea, that awesome black and gold fabric, fitting closely and then flaring out, set off with the red mantle, draped over the duchess’s head like a crimson version of the Virgin Mary’s cloak, is stunning, once you close your eyes to the annoying inconsistencies. And the gray mantle lining, which is just wrong. (I wonder if it was supposed to be miniver, and we’re just seeing another failure on the artist’s part.)

    7/10. Because I hate having to squint past the wrong bits.

  15. I really love the dress and the fabric but am unsure about the cloak. It seems like it is about to fall off if she moves. 7/10

  16. Brenda says

    Gorgeous. The pom-poms/buttons I’m not to crazy about and neither am I crazy about the red cloak…it competes with the dress…or maybe it just doesn’t go well with the gold/black combination.

    But still, 9.5/10

  17. Gauss says

    I like it. It’s a kick-ass dress for a kick-ass lady, and I’m glad I found out about her.


  18. Daniel says

    It’s all about the (gorgeous) fabric. The cloak is horrid, I’m sorry – don’t like it at all, and in theory, it ought to work, but it doesn’t go with the dress. So points off for that. The dress is amazing, but the brocade pattern is probably just a bit too huge for the body, or at least not quite properly arranged on it to work well. It does look very modern, and striking, which I admire very much, and very much wow – but at the end of the day, I have to say 6/10 as the cloak drags it down, and the dress could be better cut to make the fabric do amazing things on her.

  19. The cape isn’t doing much for me, but I love the dress – especially the stunning fabric and the pom-pom buttons.


  20. Cheyene says

    Although she had indeed been excommunicated by Pope Clement VI, eventually she was absolved from her excommunication by Pope Innocent VI. She married her second husband before she divorced her first one. That was the reason why she was excommunicated until 16 years after she married the second man. It wasn’t that she was not allowed to leave the awful first husband, it was that she married another man while already in a marriage, somethingthat would still be shocking hundreds of years later.
    Eventually, six years after marrying the second husband, she was divorced from her first husband, and then ten years after that the excommunication was lifted from her. If something had happened in the speedy, well connected times of today, it probably would have been resolved much sooner, but since it was back then…
    Anyway, for the actual rate the dress part, well. I don’t think I’m a big fan of it. I don’t like the colors together, and the pompoms are a little strange. The pose is cute and funny, though.
    There is something about the dress that I like that I can’t put my finger on, however, I’m still only going to give it a 6/10.

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