19th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: Maria Christina in lace, lace, more lace (and some diamonds)

Oops!  Sorry!  I’m sure many of you woke up this morning and went to check on the Rate the Dress, and there was nothing there.  The sad truth is that I was so tired last night that I got confused and thought Rate the Dress wasn’t until tomorrow.

Last week I posted a simple 1860s gown, and the initial consensus was that it was so boring that it was neither wonderful nor dreadful.  But then Tenshi pointed out “It’s not a ballgown, so it shouldn’t be judged like one” and a rather interesting conversation about ordinary clothing developed.  The eventual rating acknowledged, that yes, it was the simple, practical dress of its time, but a reasonably good one at that, and it rated a 7.4 out of 10

This week I’m playing with the idea of not every dress being made for a pretty young thing on her way to a ball, but taking the concept almost as far as it can go in the opposite direction.  I’d like to present an outfit that very clearly demonstrates that it is NOT a simple work dress, nor simply a pretty dress for a wealthy woman.

María Christina of the Two Sicilies, Queen of Spain by Vicente López y Portaña (1772—1850), 1830, Collection of the Prado Museum

María Christina of the Two Sicilies, Queen of Spain by Vicente López y Portaña (1772—1850), 1830, Collection of the Prado Museum

Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies outfit clearly demonstrates her wealth, status, and position in every detail.  It starts with the evening gown of rich silk brocades with silver thread, over which is layered a diamond encrusted or silver embroidered belt, and a silk ribbon sash.  Over this goes a diamond necklace that would make the infamous ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’ necklace (which Marie Antoinette thought tacky) pale in comparison, and earrings dripping with enormous pearls.  On her beautifully styled hair is a lace mantua of such fine lace that you can almost touch its lush delicacy in the painting, topped with a collection of rare feathers (ostrich feathers being so last century), and surmounted by a diamond headpiece of such enormousity that I get a headache just looking at it.  And she has a diamond encrusted fan, and kid gloves, and lace on her sleeves, just for good measure.

Maria Christina was never a particularly beautiful woman, but her portraits and clothes had to convey something more than just physical attractiveness.  She was the forth wife of her uncle (I know, blech), who he married out of a desperate need for an heir.  When this portrait was painted she was pregnant with their first child (one of two daughters, to the disappointment of the King).

Maria Christina is playing sweet and demure in this portrait, but when her husband died in 1833 she revealed that she had a bit more backbone and character than anyone had given her credit for, holding the regency for her daughter against a rebellion led by another uncle, and secretly marrying the man she actually loved, a palace guard, less than four months after her husband died.

I sometimes wonder if Maria is pulling our leg in this portrait – taking Marie Antoinette’s practice of hiding a less than satisfactory life under frocks and jewels so far that it becomes a parody.  I hope the rest of her life was actually more satisfactory, and I’m fascinated to  hear what all of you have to say about her ensemble.

Clearly, it’s too much, but is there such a thing when you are an unloved fourth wife of a rich and powerful king?  Does it convey her status, and the hope of her pregnancy?  Do you like it?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10.


  1. It is too much – but it is too much in a really interesting way. It makes me want to keep staring at it because I keep finding something else to look at. If it weren’t so busy I think it could be quite pretty – the colors are lovely and the fabric looks like it would be stunning in real life. Obviously needs a bit of editing, but the makings of a lovely dress are in there.


  2. This gown strikes me as a weird combination of the frumpy and the ornate. Let me sum up my assessment this way:

    PLUSES: The color (a lovely teal blue).
    The swirled pattern of the jewels/lace (?) overlay of the dress (which I expected to loathe, but which strikes me as one of the most elegant aspects of the outfit).
    The belt (gaudy, but it works here).

    MINUSES: The turban with the jeweled plume (the shape and even the jewels are fine, but the whole thing is about twice as large as it should be to look good, IMHO).
    The puffs along the neckline and the length of the sleeves–they tend to drag down the silhouette of the bodice and make it look shapeless and frumpy.
    The lace veil. The lace is lovely, but the veil is so voluminous and long that it looks as though she is wearing a curtain. In addition to everything else, it makes the details of the dress even harder to see. (I bet she thought it made her seem to be emerging like a fairy, from the mists. But she was, sadly, wrong.)
    The necklace. There’s so much going on in the bodice that it’s hard to distinguish it from the bodice. To top it all off, it’s too long–it lies half on her chest and half down the edge of her bodice and looks odd.
    The gloves. I know that gloves were de rigueur in period. But these gloves look too heavy and as though they were too big for her arms; they almost look as though they are surgeon’s gloves instead of gloves for a ball gown.

    My assessment: A 5, because I think the jeweled gown has the potential to be wonderful with a few relatively minor changes (i.e., less fabric on the neckline and in the sleeves). The accessories, unfortunately, are dreadful and should be scrapped, or at least relegated to wear with less ornate gowns.

  3. Elise says

    When I looked at this portrait, I envisioned a motto of not “More is More”, but rather, “MOAR is more!” While the totality is not beautiful, the pieces really are so exquisite. I give it a 6 due to her fascination of the baroque.

  4. I do find it weirdly pleasing, probably because all of the overlays and jewelry pieces are in the same crystal colorway, so the overall effect is like a drift of snowflakes against a midnight sky filled with stars.

    7 of 10

  5. I actually like it – the cloud/ snowflake effect works for me. I am curious what the customs were in Spain at the time but I have a vague memory that the veil was standard for married women. Do we know who commissioned the painting/ who was it’s intended audience? This one makes me curious because it seems so formulaicly “dripping with jewels” but she seems approachable ( or at least human) and friendly in all of it.

  6. I will up the ante a little bit and give the dress–but just the dress–a 7. I like the blue and I like the high-waisted style, and the wide belt is a nice touch. It’s everything else that is piled on top of it that makes it hard to love. I don’t know what to say about the headpiece. It’s scaring me a little.

  7. Jessica says

    I give everything EXCEPT what is on top of her hair a 9. The restraint in color palette keeps it from being ridiculous. That feather thing is a -2. And I can’t help thinking that I know someone who looks like this- the artist really captured a lively expression.

  8. Yes, I can’t say I like the yellow poof on her head, but I’m not sure that she could have gone without the veil and I like the overall gossamer effect of the gown and layers. 6.5

  9. Tenshi says

    NO to the yellow poof on her head, because it doesn’t go with the colour palette.
    Also no to the gigantic diamond necklace, because it obscures the neckline and it is just. too. much.
    I’m also opposed to the ribbon sash because why is it even there?

    Apart from that, I have to agree with Cyranetta – it works because of the (lack of) colours. Blue and crystal/silver/white is really quite lovely.
    As it is, I still want to give it an 8, because espite all of the above, it works better than it should.

  10. I adore that dress! That shade of blue with the silver woven in is just enchanting. And the lace veil is so impossibly fine; it’s exquisite. I don’t even mind the necklace. I just can’t imagine her doing anything other than sit there. I can’t imagine her walking around with all that jewelry and that headpiece on. (I do agree with everyone else on that, the feathers are just wrong.)


  11. Daniel says

    Blimey, the overall effect works pretty well – and it ought not to. The necklace is monumentally vulgar, and the hair ornament is so huge it just looks ridiculous, plus the Bird of Paradise really doesn’t go with anything else….

    But the dress is lovely, the blue and silver combination is gorgeous, and the lace veil is beautiful. The diamond belt works quite well with it as it blends in, and so too, bizarrely, does the huge necklace.

    If a thing’s worth doing it’s worth overdoing? She does look quite kind, but with a steeliness about her – you could imagine she was very sweet but didn’t take nonsense.

    Gonna have to say 7/10, simply because it works against all the odds, and apart from the dead bird, the colour combinations are limited enough that it harmonizes.

  12. Jenny Wren says

    I’m a big believer in going hard or going home, and Maria Christina is going HARD. 9/10.

  13. Ok, I probably don’t have a VALID opinion on this dress because my own mother says I have the sequin-and-rhinestone-obsessed fashion sense of a 6-year-old girl. But I really really want to give it a 10/10 rating because of the bling factor…I’ve been watching My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (I know, another indicator of my lack of class) and the girls on that show would die of envy over this ensemble.

    My initial reaction to the head-dress was to wonder how she stole the tailfeathers off of Sesame Street’s Big Bird; actually though, the yellow does set the blue off nicely, I know people already aren’t fond of it, but personally from an artist’s perspective, the color scheme would be really drab and insipid without that complementing “pop”. It would have been even more effective if she had chosen a sash of that color, I think, and not the cranial canary explosion happening right now.

    Ok, I’ll be reasonable. 7/10 for the dress…15/10 for the bling.

  14. Shirley says

    I have to rate it high also – 9/10. Aside from the color of the feathers, it does go with the jeweled headpiece, which has the look of a large feather. I’m wondering if the bird represented by the feathers has significance in some way? That headpiece must have been heavy! Love the blue and silver look to the whole outfit. All she’s missing is a jeweled bracelet on each wrist. I think the gloves fit fine – snug through the hands, but loose from the wrist up. I assume that was the fashion at the time? I’m thinking, though, that they would have been constantly sliding down, which would drive me crazy!

  15. For an 1830’s dress, the silhouette isn’t too bad. This style works SO much better with short sleeves than it does with long ones.
    However, the dress is swamped with shiny stuff. It looks like a swarm of silver bugs settled on her. The belt is great, but the necklace and the ribbon sash are way too much. I like the swooping shape of her headdress, but not the size or the colour. Her hairstyle is just plain silly.

    I do like the lace veil, and I think that if the rest of the decorations were thinned down, the silver bug swarm fabric would look very nice. I like her fan and gloves too.
    Overall, it’s not too horrible, it’s just overgrown and needs a bit of weeding.

  16. Brenda says

    Yes, it IS too much…but the subject of the painting manages to pull of this ensemble. The expression on her face seems to say even with the trappings of power, she is determined to stay a down-to-earth, positive person.
    The blue color with the silver looks absolutely elegant. The headdress, however, is a bordering on gaudy.


  17. Well, she is the QUEEN, ya’ll know. This is a State Portrait, so she probably does not quite wear all that bling at once, since it weighs a ton. Getting those little nit-picks off my chest, I actually do like the dress itself. Late 1820’s-1830’s designs are really not my favourites (including most of the Victorian Age); and, usually the Spanish really go into things really heavy handed; but, I will rate the dress itself an 8.5 out of 10. I am ignoring most of the regal bling here.

  18. Actually, this is the first 1830’s dress I don’ find completely hideous – which is a bit of a concern in and of itself.

    Yes, it is over the top and then some. However, as Julia pointed out, it is a State Portrait which is meant to convey an individual’s wealth, power and importance. Form that aspect, I give it a 10/10.

    Her expression is a combination of kindness and determination, but overall she is “average” (not that that’s a negative) so perhaps that is why there is such a disparity between the woman and the bling-fest. What would Marie Antoinette have done? Loaded up as much as she could, of course. Not much difference here.

    Despite he overall ADHD-ness of the ensemble, I do like the subdued color palate and I think that ginormous golden feather gives it just enough pop to keep the whole thing from being too boring (as if that were possible). However, the huge diamond crown that graces the necklace is just plain in-your-face tacky.

    Overall, I give it a 8.5/10 and am perpetually grateful it doesn’t hang on my walls.

  19. L. A. Khatt says

    There may be a reason that Maria Christina’s outfit is OTT beyond it being a state portrait: she may have felt insecure in her position as Queen given that, in marrying her uncle, there may have been a negative public view that the marriage was incestuous. It’s too bad she couldn’t be happy until later… she looks like she was a nice, approachable lady.
    That said, there parts of her outfit I like and others I’d change:
    The dress: I love the fabric-silver and teal is one of my favorite
    color combinations. I can’t decide whether I like the
    fancy belt or if a simpler one or the ribbon sash should
    have been used.
    The veil: I love it but wish it was a little more forward on the head.
    The hat/headdress: Not really liking it but can’t think of what to
    replace it with.
    The jewelry: the necklace is way too much. A pearl necklace ( to
    match those lovely earrings) or a diamond riviere would
    have been more suitable. I agree with the poster above
    who said the headpiece would be nice if it were half the
    The accessories: Love the diamond studded fan but the gloves need
    a better fit.
    7/10 points lost for being OTT in the wrong places.

    • Given the Spanish monarchies long standing practice of inter-familial marriage I doubt that Maria Christina’s marriage to her uncle raised even the slightest eyebrow. His second marriage was also to a niece.

  20. With the purpose in mind I give it 9/10. For anyone not the unloved 4th wife of the king, I give it 5/10 for being lovely, but way too much. So 7/10 in the end?


  21. Normally not a fan of so much bejewelment, for this I fell hard. Seated in shadow in a marble hall with frescoed walls somewhere in Sicily, her diamonds would have winked and flared majestically, and her movements would have been outlined in silver and white.

    Her headpiece would have twinkled and waved in whatever wafts of breeze might have made it indoors — I imagine that the headpiece contained trembling elements just for this purpose. Her veil might have wafted gently, accentuating the feminine amongst all the hard metallic, night-tinged edges.

    The effect would have been both magnificent and magical. The phrase “cynosure of all eyes” might have been meant just for her.

    Besides, I like her features. She seems very human and very real.

    Very best,



  22. I am imagining that we glimpse Maria Christina before the finishing touches of her toilette have been completed. So there is just the fair skinned woman with a cloud of dark hair, and she has donned her exquisite evening gown, and had her sash fastened. She is yet to slip on the long gloves, and her ladies in waiting have not clasped the monstrous necklace around her neck or anchored the delicate veil with a headdress of jewels and plumes. Actually I just found that by scrolling down the page a little the headdress can be taken out of the equation completely. Maria Christina seems to expel a gentle sigh of relief. Now her gown appears almost understated in its good taste, and compels me to rate it 10/10.

  23. She looks intelligent and interesting – far more important qualities than beauty.

    It is important to rate an outfit in the context of what it was intended to be, and this one is clearly intended as the zenith of conspicuous consumption. I think it does that really well and still manages to come out looking less frivolous than a lot of 1830s dresses I’ve seen, so I’m giving it the full 10/10.

    I seem to be in the minority here, but I really like the feathers in her hair. They contrast well with the blue dress.

  24. Lynne says

    I think the overall effect is really beautiful. I love the blue of her dress, and the plumes go with it perfectly. I would consider giving one of my eye teeth for that wonderful blonde lace mantua!

    A closer look shows the size of those jewelled pieces, so huge in proportion to the wearer – how does she hold her head upright? That headpiece must be so heavy. But it all works. Very regal, very impressive. She looks to be an intelligent and charming woman, and I am glad she managed to cut loose and marry the man of her choice after uncle/husband (blech indeed!) died.

    So, 10 out of 10 – I’m letting my heart play here, as well as my head.

  25. The dress is really quite lovely. The lace mantua must have been a wondrous thing to see and touch in real-life. The overall effect is good. It’s sparkly, but this seems to be the proper occasion for a lot of sparkle. The only thing I really find I wish I could change is the necklace. Besides it having to have been ridiculously heavy, it just doesn’t look right. A large ruby pendant or brooch would be what I’d replace it with personally. Of course, they couldn’t just swap out royal jewels like that, so she probably didn’t have much of a choice jewelry-wise. 8/10 for the outfit and kudos to her for marrying the man she loved when the opportunity presented itself.

  26. Beatrix says

    Kudos to whomever chose to stick to such a restrained palette in this display of conspicuous consumption.
    I piffle about in oils, I can’t even begin to fathom how many hours it took to paint that veil & all those sparkles.
    I like it – 10/10

  27. The painting looks like a hopeful face coming out of a waterfall of bejeweled lace. The bustline of the dress isn’t doing her body any favors, but in this case, that’s not the point. It’s a display case for the diamond jewels. So, in a weird way, it’s an entirely practical and functional outfit… one that’s main mission is to display wealth so enormous there’s no doubt of its lasting-power.

    I come back to the interested and hopeful face, and I also hope things worked out for her.


  28. I love everything about her…except her dress.

    The jewels are amazing and the feathers a dream, but that dress is so….meh.

    It may be the dark background throwing off the colors, though. Yellow (feathers) and blue (dress) go beautifully together, so in real life, this outfit might be stunning. However, the dark background combined with the pale blue makes her skintone look lackluster and her jewels blend in too much with all the fussy decoration on her dress.

    I am all about excess, but a simple yellow silk dress would have made all those diamonds and intricate lace pop!

    5 out of 10 for the dress…10/10 for the accessories…averages out to a 7.5 for the whole lot.

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