19th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: Chocolate and plaid in the 1860s

Last week I posted a 1910s frock by Mrs Dunstan, and while a few of you found points to quibble about, in general the consensus was a gasp of admiration and a chorus of ‘Stunnings!’, with a staggering 24 out of 45 10/10 ratings.  Still, courtesy of the non-lovers, the overall rating was only 8.9 out of 10.

I know it’s winter, and coming up towards Christmas, but it doesn’t feel like it here in NZ.  Asparagus is just winding up, cherries and berries are just starting, and the weather has been warm and muggy.  Still, I feel I should post something a bit winter-y, holiday-y, and chocolate and plaid seem to fit the bill perfectly.

You’re going to have to use just a wee bit of imagination in rating this dress, as I only have two images of it: a rather uninspiring view of the dress on display in the ‘Our New Old Clothes’ exhibition from the Shippensburg University Fashion Archives, and a gorgeous detailed image of the bodice of the dress.

Let’s start with the detailed image:

Dress, late 1860s, Shippensburg University Fashion Collection

Dress, late 1860s, Shippensburg University Fashion Archives

And now, the dress in its entirety on display:

And a little closer:

Dress, late 1860s, Shippensburg University Fashion Collection, as featured in 'Our New Old Clothes'

Dress, late 1860s, Shippensburg University Fashion Archives, as featured in ‘Our New Old Clothes’

Between the two you can see the rich chocolate brown silk, enlivened by bias cut tartan trim, ‘prairie points’ around the bodice hem and sleeves, and shiny black buttons.  The buttons go all the way down the skirt as well, and are fully functional.  Shippensburg have indicated that the dress may have been re-made from an earlier garment, perhaps a wrapper.

The whole thing rather reminds me of a chocolate box tied up with a plaid ribbon, though that could be either a very good thing, or a very bad thing.  What do you think?  Lovely late-1860s winter warmth?  Or too twee?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10.


  1. I love the brown silk–even now, it’s a gorgeous color.

    I like the colors in the tartan trim, though I’m less enchanted by the actual trim itself on the dress. I don’t think it’s too twee; if anything, it’s too plain, and a bit strange. So 7.5 from me.

  2. I like the prairie points, and I love the plaid against the chocolate, but the whole thing just seems too plain to me. It needs a little something extra, some oomph. Maybe a lace shawl would liven it up a bit. The more I look at it the more I like it as a nice, basic day dress, though… I’m giving it an 8 since it’s grown on me in the last 3 minutes 🙂

  3. L. A. Khatt says

    I like the plaid trim against the chocolate brown – a nice pop of color. I’m not sold on the prairie points but can’t think of how to better trim the dress. Overall a nice, basic day dress.

  4. I think the prairie points as a design element harmonize quite nicely with the diagonal set of the plaid trim, and I like the contrast of the festive plaid against the sobriety of the chocolate silk.

    My only quibble would be that I would have preferred the plaid on the bodice to have been set in a mirror image.

    9 of 10

  5. It’s the sort of thing that totally turns me off for some reason (actually, reasons, I think). I’d give it 1/10, but I have a feeling there might be a wee bit of irrational bias in that and the dress does have its merits, so I’ll make it 3/10.
    It’s just that the irrational bias is too strong for me to consider the merits for too long.

  6. I love the combination of chocolate brown and colourful plaid, but overall I’m not a fan of this dress. I think it’s frumpy, despite the beautiful colours. 4/10 for the colourscheme.

  7. I like it from the side/back view, but not so much on the front detailed view. The little triangles at the cuffs and bodice hem bug me. I do like the plaid trim around the skirt and the base of the bodice, but I am not such a fan of the vertical stripes in the front. The colors are nice, but on the whole the dress isn’t terribly exciting to me.


  8. Sandi Hanley says

    I love it! I give it a 10/10. I love the brown color, the plaid really makes it interesting, I love the band on the skirt and the points on the bodice are great too!

  9. Kelly S. says

    I think it’s stunning! Simple elegance and different. Not something easy to achieve. My only input would be for some kind of addition around the neck. Perhaps a solid color matching the plaid. 9/10.

  10. Oh, this is lovely! Simple, but elegant and definitely not boring. The colours in the plaid trim are gorgeous – bright, clear, but not overwhelming or garish. The brown silk itself is pretty, too, and I just love that triangle trim on the bodice and sleeves. I’m not over the moon, jumping-up-and-down-in-excitement, about it, so I don’t think I can quite give it a 10, but I think it’s just lovely! 9.5/10.

  11. this dress I love, but then I have a thing for bias plaid trim. Sooo lovely! I wish it was navy blue instead of brown, but otherwise 8/10

  12. I want a closer look at the ruffled rose and lace on on the far left.
    This one is fine but strikes me as being very secretarial, meh 6

  13. holly says

    mmmm, my mouth watered when you mentioned cherries. we had a touring holiday in NZ a few years ago over the christmas holidays. we bought the most enormous, juicy cherries that I’ve ever eaten, from a roadside stall…

    OK, back to the task at hand. it’s a 10/10 from me. the one detailed photograph is enough; I imagine this would have looked really wonderful in the flesh. I’m not usually a chocolate lover when it comes to clothes, but this is made lively by the bias trim.

  14. A good, serviceable silk dress – what I like so much about this is that you can very much sense the woman who would have worn it. A “real” person. Can’t you hear her dress rustling as she makes her way up the path for a visit?

    The only element putting me off a little is the black buttons, so 8.5/10.

  15. Belinda says

    I really like it! Without the trim it would be quite matronly and utilitarian-looking, but with the trim it’s suddenly quite fun and cute, and you can imagine someone’s funny nanna in it drinking too much at Christmas dinner and telling dirty jokes or something. As a dress in any other context it’s not so crash hot, but as a silly nanna’s Christmas dress I give it a 6. Thank God it was before flashing LED reindeer earrings…

  16. Tenshi says

    I rather like it for what it is. It’s not a ballgown, so it shouldn’t be judged like one. It’s a sensible, pragmatic day dress, but the bias tartan trim keeps it from being boring. I do wish the buttons would pick up one of the colours from the tartan, or at least that they were brown. Black doesn’t really match. Also, a continuatin of the trim around the collar (or a little standing collar) would be nice. As is, the neckline does skew plain and boring.

    • Good point! Not every garment can be worn by a willowy young beauty on her way to a ball – there has to be gowns for every shape and age and occasion, and they should be considered as such.

  17. Sue H says

    Nice colors, textures, and proportions – a bit of lace at neck and wrist and I think it would come alive. 9/10

  18. Daniel says

    Ugh. It looks costumey and fake. That odd pointy trimming looks like a cheap costumey thing and maybe it’s the photo, but the fabric looks like a newer “wild silk”, so I think it’s suffering a lot from bad photos and not being able to be appreciated properly. I like the idea here, and I do love the colours in the plaid, but I don’t like the impression I am getting from this dress. Maybe if I could see it better I’d like it more, but it just looks a bit suspect to me all round.

    My instinctive response was 2/10 – which I think is way too harsh really. But I tried to nudge it upwards and I just couldn’t make myself feel it any higher than that, much as I wanted to…

    • Daniel says

      “Prairie points”. Ah. So that is WHAT those things are called.

      • That’s what I’ve heard them called in a modern (usually quilting) context – I’m not sure if it’s the proper period term for them. I shall have to investigate!

        • Daniel says

          Whatever they’re called, I really dislike them on anything. Much like you and fringe! 😉

    • Beatrix says

      I agree with Daniel- it looks costumey & fake in the photos.
      Like something you’d see at a Dicken’s Xmas fair or some other modern reenactment event.
      The black buttons are tacky.
      3/10 if it really is from the 1860’s.

      • Elise says

        Yes! Like a reenactment! Although I hate the period, the dress is a shining symbol of nostalgia to me. A perfect holiday chocolate box.


    • Daniel says

      Now, if this were a pure black dress with the tartan popping against the black, and the jet twinkling against the black, and no stupid twee pointy abominations, it would be a 9/10.

  19. It’s quite interesting and different, with the points along the bodice. The colors are sumptuous. I give it 10/10.


  20. Brenda says

    Even with the tartan to brighten up the dark brown, on the whole, the dress is a bit…staid. Still, it’s tasteful. Thank goodness for the tartan trim and the prairie points!


  21. Laura says

    Hate it. Hate the chocolate in combination with the plaid colors, hate the plaid itself, don’t like the way the trim is placed. And the collar shape is one of my least favorite things about the 1860s.

    I do like the little points at the jacket bottom and the buttons, bringing it up to a 3/10.

  22. I like it, I’m not so keen on the prairie points, but then I don’t tend to like that sort of thing myself. I love the colors in the plaid, and a whole dress in that may well have been blinding. In the bustle era it would have worked well to combine the two fabrics with a more equal share across the dress. It is quite a simple and understated piece, maybe worn by a lady who was not as garish as some appear to have been? And I must just add that I love the use of the colour chocolate too, it’s a staple of my wardrobe diet.

  23. I really like it. It’s in such good condition. I am a sucker for plaid cut on the bias. It gives me an idea for some bright color tartan I have. 10/10

  24. Lori Kim Gibson aka: Obelia Mercedes Gibson {OMG} says

    Delicious!! I am a big fan of any kind of tartan trim – anywhere!! The ‘matched’ diagonal of the tartan down the front of the bodice gives me gooseflesh!! I love it!! 10/10!!

  25. I think this is a very nice, basic day dress. I don’t like the prairie points, I think they would tickle my hands. 7/10

  26. Actually really love it. It seems like a “thinking” woman’s day dress, smart, and bit off beat. I could imagine her heading off on the train in the this dress, perhaps to investigate locations for her book.

    I’d like the trim on the front to line up a bit better, but I do love the fact they have given it a go at lining up diagonally across where the buttons are. I know how darn hard that can be so I’m only deducting half a point

    As for the black buttons – I have a question, would these have been jet buttons, quite highly prized, and only available in black?

    I’m giving it a 9.5/10. I’d have worn it and loved it

    • Yes, they would have been jet buttons. The dress was actually missing two, so the museum posted a call to see if any extras could be found, and an antique dealer had a perfect match in stock. Lovely story!

      • Thanks for clarifying that! That is a nice story, love it when a piece is resurrected through everyone’s efforts.

  27. A good, classic, comely everyday dress.

    I think we get so used to seeing ballgowns and high-society dresses all the time that it dulls our senses when something simpler comes along. I love the fall of the skirt and the burst of character in the plaid and triangular dags. It only wants for lace collar, a white fur muff, and plaid parasol! Too bad brown doesn’t agree with my skin tone. I would love this dress in indigo.

    A solid 7/10 as she stands

  28. Bleh. I do not like the plaid trim. Removing it would be a great improvement. The rest of the dress is okay, but not great.

    The spiky edges are awesome! It gets an extra point and a half for those.


  29. fidelio says

    Um. Well, it’s a dress all right. Nice, not offensive, not too exciting, nothing too much…

    5/10. Is that a surprise?

    It’s well assembled and thought out, and on my monitor it looks as if there’s enough brown to keep the plaid from being too out of line with the dress fabric. Given the times, it seems like a nice, safe choice. Maybe the plaid was left over from an earlier dress she cherished and was sad to see go…

  30. I love this. The pointed trim seems very practical for this kind of dress, unlike lace which would have been a) expensive and b) potentially caught on things and ripped, shortening the life of the dress or increasing it’s time spent in the mending pile. The plaid is just the right amount not to overwhelm the rest of the dress, but makes it interesting and different. I wonder whether there was a plaid dress out there and the trim is made up of leftovers or if the fabric was bought specifically to serve as trim. It isn’t fancy and fluffy (at least not by 1860’s standards) but it seems like a wonderfully liveable dress, so 9/10 from me.

  31. Gorgeous, I’m thinking Little Women’s Marmee or Jo would have shone in it. I see so many possibilities for this lovely outfit. 9.5/10

  32. 10 out of 10! It’s extraordinary what a bit of trim can do to transform a plain garment into something fabulous. I also love the simplistic and graceful lines, but I absolutely love the colorful plaid trim.

  33. Kathryn says

    Hee! This is EXACTLY how I would have dressed in the 1860’s. The plaid trim is similar to how I dress now. I do not lead a glamourous life full of fancy parties. There are some parties, of course, but I spend most of my time working and volunteering, and somehow I don’t think I would have been much different 150 years ago-would have gotten way more use out of this than a ballgown. But that plaid trim and prairie points are the perfect way to have fun with practical dressing, if you like to stand out without being totally flashy. And, on a personal, sentimental note, there’s something very Canadian about it. I echo the above comment-this would work better in indigo on me, but brown is great for a lot of other people. 10/10.

  34. I agree with Kathryn – I would have worn it in a heartbeat. Far from boring, I love the way the bias plaid makes all the difference for this simple design. The colors are perfectly balances, with just enough “pop” from the plaid to offset the solid brown without being obnoxious about it. On my hips those prairie points would probably look like battlefield armament, but they are a nifty touch and I’m a complete sucker when it comes to a well-executed, sartorial surprise.

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