20th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: Winnaretta Singer in checks

I anticipated that some of you wouldn’t love the paisley patterned 1860s swiss bodice outfit I posted last week, but was completely unprepared for the levels of dislike, and for what you objected to.  I thought you might like the clean, graphic paisley shapes, in contrast to the usually fussy details associated with paisley, but instead you called them “black holes burnt in the skirt” and “amoebas” and “blobs”.  And if the paisley didn’t kill it for you, the swiss bodice did.  As a less-well endowed woman, I would achieve only the most modest swell above that style of swiss bodice in a corset, but many of you imagined the effect of a more boxom bust and were…distracted.  Though some of you did like it, it still only managed a 5.7 out of 10.

Since you objected to the overt girlishness of last weeks outfit, I thought I should post something a bit more reserved and masculine.

Winnaretta Singer, Princess de Polignac, 1918

Winnaretta Singer, Princess de Polignac, 1918

This is Winnaretta Singer, Princess de Polignac, daughter of Isaac Singer (of Singer Sewing Machines fame), one of the heirs to the Singer  fortune, arts and music partron, and (in the words of Wikipedia en español) ‘notorious lesbian.’  As a patron of the arts, Singer hosted one of the most famous salons in late 19th century Europe, and works by Debussey & Ravel were debuted at them.  She was also a philanthropist: assisting with public housing schemes, and supporting ambulances during WWI.  To top this off, she was a bit of a fashionista, and finally, she was not to be messed with.  One of her lover’s husbands once camped out outside her villa, shouting “If you are half the man I think you are you’ll come out and fight me.”

When I found this portrait of Singer, I was looking for an image of a woman with a muff, and the contrast between this and other photographs of women with muffs immediately stuck me.  The convention is for a woman to hold up her muff, and peer coquettishly over it.  Singer, on the other hand, holds it as casually as she holds her suitcase in the other hand, her sensibly clad feet in motion as she steps towards the photographer.  Her suit, with its striking check, balances the fashionable conventions of 1918 with a masculine twist in the shirtfront and bow collar.  Her light, feminine hat adds to the ambiguity and tension in the outfit.

What do you think?  Chic androgyny?  Typical late-teens frumpiness made worse with gender-blending?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10.


  1. Brenda says

    A very modern-looking outfit for 1918. I like the tailored look of her outfit, balanced out with the hat, which adds a feminine touch. Her bow’s a little lopsided, but I’ll overlook that. I don’t like the hobble-style skirt because it makes the outfit look frumpy, but I guess that was the style back then. Also, while I like the crispness of the checkered pattern, it doesn’t go well with the long length of her jacket and skirt and adds to the frumpiness.
    I (we?) may find the skirt rather frumpy looking, but if you think about it though, it’s fascinating because the style of her skirt marks the transition between the long skirts worn by women up to that point and the shorter skirts that influenced women’s fashion for the rest of the 20th century and the fashions of today.

    Anyway, the outfit: 7.5/10 for the sharp, tailored look with the lovely hat, minus points for the frumpy skirt

  2. On the whole I do like it. The only detail I find dubious is what appears to be a fur collar or capelet. It doesn’t seem to match the muff, and has a vaguely striped effect that for me doesn’t coordinate well with the crisp checks and graphic round buttons, whereas the hat and bow are nicely balanced and congruent with the rest.


  3. If you were hoping for more love for this week’s offering, sorry; you won’t get that from me.

    There’s certainly no distraction here from the woman’s bustline. The combination of a low waist and a long jacked, fully buttoned from waist to mid-thigh, guarantees that. It makes the woman’s figure look like a cylinder. The effect isn’t flattering, and the graphic appeal of the checks and buttons isn’t enough to save it. And the bowtie makes it worse–it looks silly and prissy instead of adding feminine appeal to a rather masculine outfit. (In my opinion, bowties on men are also a loser.)

    I rather like the hat, but the hat cannot save the dourness of the suit. 4 of 10 (the bow tie took it down from the 5 of 10 I was planning to give it).

  4. An afterthought. Ms. Singer may well have been a fashion-forward woman in her day. But being fashion-forward implies taking risks–wearing outfits that might not succeed in achieving the intended effect. I think this outfit was a risk that did not succeed.

  5. Shapeless frumpery. Though I do like the hat. So I’ll give it a 5/10 just because of the hat. Otherwise….

  6. I love the pattern of the fabric, though I wouldn’t have used it to make the jacket. It just seems like having all of it there is just a bit much. The shape is off a bit too; she looks like she has a nice figure underneath, but the top portion is bulging in a way that looks like she just came from stealing fruit from the farmer’s market. The fur collar is also ill placed. I’m all about fur, but it just doesn’t look right draped the way it’s draped. I also don’t care for the shirt and bow at the neck, but even with all of the stuff I don’t like, I’m certainly not repulsed by it. I especially like all the accessories. They’re all quite pretty!

    I’m going to say seven out of ten for this one.

  7. I always struggle with this kind of suit. On the one hand, it’s very commanding and in control, something for the “new woman” to wear. I love women’s wear inspired by men’s wear! From the (natural) waist up, it’s fabulous– especially with that fur! However, I struggle with the tubular shape of the time period. I know it was fashionable, but the jacket is too long to be flattering. If it were shorter, I would love it, especially with those buttons. As it is, it looks very much like 9 year-old me wearing my mother’s 1980s skirt suit.


  8. Thanks for the interesting reading! I don’t know if I can separate the woman and the outfit; she sounds amazing, and I know I’ll want to rate her highly, and by association, her outfit, too. But I’ll try:

    First impression: ooh, I hate that skirt length, but the checks are cool. That’s a long line of buttons that would be a bear to undo/redo; hopefully she could just step into/pull the jacket on over her head. I’m guessing the outfit isn’t black and white (and it’s just the picture) but it’s kind of austere. If I imagine it in a pretty navy or chocolate, it’s better, and that hat saves it from being too…dowdy? 7/10.

  9. I love it. I love the assymetrical button closure, the way it manages to be soft and structured at the same time. I like the long jacket over straight skirt shape, always have. I love the shirt underneath revealed to the waist with an incidental lapel look – a hark back to the earlier edwardian styles, but so freshly and newly interpreted.
    I just all over like it. I can imagine her smoking a cigar in it.
    9 out of ten as I think the hat is too white.

    • Ha! It is totally possible to imagine her enjoying a cigar while wearing that ensemble!

  10. Belinda says

    I’ve got to say I like it. The loudness of the suit combined with the little bow and the hat is rather rakish and jaunty. It reminded me a little of Stella Tennant, the model, who is usually type cast in extremely androgynous clothing. I imagine that for the time period this would be as close as you could get to stepping out in a three piece suit with a cropped haircut; making a statement but not being so over-the-top that people would get so fixated on what you’re wearing that they stop taking you seriously as a person.

  11. Daniel says

    I love it too. It’s crisp, practical, and quite sassy. Like the “wrap” effect of the skirt and how it continues the overlap of the jacket. The row of buttons down the extended jacket peplum, lovely. The slight off-centredness – yes.

    I also LOVE the hat. It looks so modern and elegant. You could wear that hat today and it’d look as fresh and classy today. Hasn’t dated at all.

    The briefcase adds an extra level of rakishness and chic to it.

    Maybe not THAT exact blouse/bowtie (although I love the bow tie and blouse, just think they don’t work QUITE rightly with the jacket, but probably look great with the skirt by itself.) and I’m not sold on the roadkill.

    Overall – I love her outfit. I think it’s very fresh and classic and you could almost wear it as it is today, perhaps a bit shorter in the skirt and definitely with more contemporary shoes and a different blouse – and not look out of touch. And she has the right poise and attitude for it. So it is definitely 8.5/10, as I’ll take a point off for the roadkill and a half-point for the blouse/necktie not QUITE syncing, but generally – a smartly dressed, intelligent woman dressed smartly and intelligently. Thumbs up from me.

  12. Um. I think that’s all I can say. Um. That’s a lot of check. And not my favorite silhouette. Especially with the three-sizes-too-big jacket. But I like the hat and the blouse and the necktie. And maybe I’d like the check if it was an appropriately scaled jacket or skirt. But not both.
    3.5 out of 10. A point a piece for what I like and half a point for potential.

  13. Beatrix says

    Love the suit, love the cut, the length &all those buttons – the sleeves look as though they’re sporting buttons up to the elbow.
    Small checks like that make me think more of spring/summer.
    But the fur muff & collar thingy says it must be fall/winter when & where this photo was taken.
    I wonder what the color of the checked material were?
    Anyone else see what looks to be a dark arm band on the arm that’s holding the muff?
    Or is that just an artifact/illusion of the photography?
    Anyhow, read a bit of her biography & she was quite the gal!
    Had a ‘lavender marriage’ to a gay prince composer at 29 yrs old.
    Well, she looks totally tailored & ready for serious business or travel here.
    I give it a 6/10 because small checks & fur clash (IMHO).

  14. fidelio says

    azlyrics.comI love a good tailleur. The fur collar (I think it’s a collar on the jacket and not a shrug or a scarf or a capelet) doesn’t add much but I guess she hadn’t completely purged herself of Edwardianism yet.

    What Daniel and Mrs. C. said, essentially. And also (thanks, Cake for saying it for me):

    I want a girl with a mind like a diamond
    I want a girl who knows what’s best
    I want a girl with shoes that cut
    And eyes that burn like cigarettes

    I want a girl with the right allocations
    Who’s fast and thorough
    And sharp as a tack
    She’s playing with her jewelry
    She’s putting up her hair
    She’s touring the facility
    And picking up slack

    I want a girl with a short skirt and a lonnnng jacket……

  15. Not sure about the stripeyness of the fur collar, but that apart I like this one. Especially the way the checks carry on perfectly across the sleeves and the body of the jacket (once a pattern-matching nerd, always a pattern-matching nerd), the buttons on the jacket, and the hat.


  16. Mild distaste for the entire ensemble and presentation. Not enough attitude for the size and contrast level of the plaid. 4.5

  17. I really like it on the whole! Very sharp and crips–I’d take her seriously! The hat, fur, and prissy bow throw it off, but I think any young girl during her time period would have had a heck of a role model in her!


  18. I love this! The clean lines with the off-center buttons, the pintucked shirtwaist- I’d wear this as street wear today if it weren’t checked. 8/10.

  19. It certainly isn’t feminine, but doesn’t really call out “menswear inspired” to me either. Overall, it’s just kind of “meh”, even with the bold checks. 3/10.

  20. Ok, I love the skirt, but then I do like long straight skirts. I feel the proportion of the jacket is slightly off though and it opens slightly too low down which is why it looks too big on top. About 3 more buttons needed I think, and a lighter collar as the fur is pulling it back too much. I love the blouse though and the hat is lovely too, but I think it would have looked better in black.


  21. Claire Payne says

    I love the checked fabric and the button detail on the jacket. The gender bending aspect of the design has made it frumpy however and I can’t help but imagine how much better it would look with a bit of shape – a nipped in waist, more flare to the skirt, that sort of thing. Still for the era it is rather nice so I give it 6.5 out of 10.

    Interesting subject matter too – Singer heiress with a muff.

  22. Nope. Not my style at all. It takes all the features I’ve always found weird about the era, and does not leave much of those I like…
    I’m particularly thinking of the very low waist and unfortunate coat / skirt length to go with it.
    3/10, because it does have nice features like the way she wears that muff (thanks for pointing out). I wish I could like it more, but I can’t.

  23. Can I have it in black, without the fur collar? And maybe two more buttons on the jacket? I just adore those pin-tucked blouses! 7/10

  24. Hmmm. It’s frumpishly interesting.
    I don’t like the tubular cut, but otherwise it’s not too bad. The stripey fur hood thing shouldn’t be there. I like striped fur but it doesn’t go well with the rest of the outfit. I like how the buttons go almost all the way up to the elbows. An excess of buttons is always good.
    All of the accessories are quite nice, as is the blouse. I love pintucks.

    When I first saw it I was going to rate it considerably lower, but now I’m giving it a 7/10.

    She kind of reminds me of Nancy Kulp.

  25. 8 out of 10. Great to see it on a real person. I’m not 100% sure about the fur collar, but I love the muff. So nonchalently carried.

  26. My first instinct was to give this outfit a flawless 10/10, but I can restrain myself and my love for this woman and her outfit for the sake of objectivity.

    I adore the bold print and the boxy style. (At the risk of being rude I must say that those who are insisting the silhouette needs some “shape” are getting too hung up on the idea that Women Must Be Feminine. Accept the blurring of socially constructed lines between genders! It’s not actually 1918 anymore! And calling it “unflattering” is missing the point by a mile and a half.) I love the way the elegant androgyny of the boots, gloves, shirtwaist and tie set off the in-your-face masculinity of the suit and suitcase. I love the restrained femininity of the hat and muff perfectly balancing this outfit between “too manly” and “just manly enough” making it just the tiniest bit uncomfortable from a male perspective. And I am, of course, an ardent devotee of any fashion that makes other men uncomfortable 🙂

    The things I don’t love are few, but significant: the strange not-quite-double-breasted closure on the jacket, the odd little fur capelet thing that I’m not quite sure what it is? And I do admit the skirt could have been more elegantly handled, it looks a little wavy towards the fold…

    Overall, 9/10 for the Esther Quek of 1918 🙂

    • Lugh: I agree women don’t need to look girly, or womanly, all the time. But I do think people should look like human beings in whatever they wear. In this costume, Ms. Singer could well have been an android for all I know–her torso appears to be perfectly cylindrical. To me, that’s not terribly appealing.

  27. I like it, and I think it goes well with her personality. Not many people could wear that outfit. 10/10.

  28. Sylvia Kahan says

    Hate to burst your bubble, but this photo is not of Winnaretta Singer-Polignac, despite the fact that the error is all over the Web. This is a photo of Winnaretta’s niece by marriage, the Marquise Melchior de Polignac, nee Nina Crosby. So much for judging the outfit by the (alleged) personality of the person wearing it.

    Sylvia Kahan, author
    Music’s Modern Muse: A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac (U. of Rochester Press, 2009)

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