19th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: 1880s ensemble

The week before last I showed you quite a challenging garment: a Schiaparelli dress.  Last week’s offering of a 15th century Florentine ensemble in pink was perhaps not challenging enough: everyone loved it, but not enough to start any really interesting discussions around it.  I think it was just pretty, with not much to say, or as Daniel noted “pleasant, with no punch.”  Still, it came out in a rash of 9s & 10s, with only two 8s, for a total of 9.5 out of 10, which is pretty much a perfect score these days.

I’ve shown a few weeks of fairly restrained, muted garments, so I wanted to show you something with lots of colour this week.  Hence this dress in rich, vibrant peacock blue, paired with a russet, orange and gold brocade on more peacock blue:

Afternoon ensemble, 1885—88, American, silk, metal, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.2033a-e

Afternoon ensemble, 1885—88, American, silk, metal, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.2033a-e

This dress is classic mid-late 1880s: saturated colour, bold patterning, asymmetry, a mix of draping and pleating, and a nod to the aesthetic movement with the ruching/smocking across the bodice and on the skirt panel.  Oh, and a MASSIVE bustle, which I did not expect from the front view.

Afternoon ensemble, 1885—88, American, silk, metal, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.2033a-e

Afternoon ensemble, 1885—88, American, silk, metal, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.2033a-e

And it comes with it’s own matching paletot out of the brocade fabric:

Afternoon ensemble, 1885—88, American, silk, metal, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.2033a-e

Afternoon ensemble, 1885—88, American, silk, metal, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.2033a-e

Asymmetry is often unpopular on Rate the Dress, as are extremely striking, off the wall colour combinations.  This dress is definitely punchy.  How will it fare?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10.  


  1. This is the kind of dress that I save my 10/10 for. I love it. I love the colours, and the asymmetry just adds to the perfection. I can’t find a thing that I don’t like about it. 10/10.

    • I love this dress – perhaps the bustle is a touch overdone, it looks as if she was dragging a small hill around – but the rest: wonderful!

  2. The color combination is stunning, and it has a rather theatrical bravura.

    My only quibble is the placement of the brocade design elements. It’s probably a personal preference, but whereas I find the asymmetry of the dress components dashing, the asymmetry of the brocade design elements strikes me more as sloppy, so I need to deduct a point for that.

    9 of 10

  3. Personally, I don’t think a dress necessarily needs to have much to say on its own. A dress is meant to complement the wearer and show her to advantage; it should not upstage her or draw so much attention to her that it is difficult to appreciate the woman’s qualities apart from the dress.

    Anyway, on to this week’s dress. I love the color–rich, royal, blue. I love the floral brocade the designer has chosen to accent it–it’s the perfect complement for the blue, without being insipid. And I like the way the brocade, buttons, and ruching are used together in the bodice, as well as the matching paletot.

    On the other hand, the skirt does not look as though much design love was poured into it. It looks as though the designer wanted to offset the symmetrical bodice with an asymmetrical skirt, but didn’t spend much time or thought on the best way to do so. So the skirt looks kind of random and awkward instead of striking and fresh. (I don’t like really large bustles either, but I don’t want to penalize the dress simply for using a then-current fashion silhouette.)

    I wanted to give the dress a 9 or 10 because the color and brocade are so beautiful, both together and separately, but I can’t find it in myself to do so–the skirt comes too close to ruining the look entirely. So 7.5 of 10 (with the color and brocade harmony justifying a lot of the rating).

  4. Brenda says

    I love the peacock blue color. It is gorgeous, gorgeous, GORGEOUS. The brocade beautifully offsets the power of the blue and it works because the rest of the dress is a solid color. At first glance, I didn’t like the asymmetrical skirt with the brocade bands but the more I look at it the more I like it and think it makes a bold statement befitting a dress of such a bold color.
    But the huge bustle…geez! I know this was the style back then but this bustle looks like a locomotive! I don’t like the high collar, especially with the open neckline variation. Also, the combination of pleating and rouching at the chest area doesn’t seem to go well together. Just something very severe about the bodice area, but then again, I know that was the style back then.

    So… 8/10

  5. I’m looking at the skirt some more and I think I agree with Cyanetta, It’s the placement (and perhaps also the width) of the brocade panels on the skirt that offend my eyes so. Perhaps one *vertical* brocade panel, on the same part of the skirt as the three blocky horizontal ones, would be better.

  6. Tenshi says

    Love it! The rich bold blue is a wonderful colour, and the vibrant floral brocade is gorgeous. Actually, I love just about everything about this dress. The bodice (and that belt, oh!), the asymmetrical skirt, the collar, all those elements coming together to something that is way mroe than the sum of its parts.

    10/10, and I would rate it higher if I could.

  7. 10 out of 10. This has long been on my list of favorite gowns. The vibrant color, the restrained use of the brocade and the tailoring are all wonderful. I’d love to make a repro similar to this some day.

  8. I’m giving it the full 10, mainly for the colour scheme. If it was in different colours or didn’t have the orange tones in the brocade I’d give it a somewhat lower mark.

    I actually like the blocks of brocade on the skirt. I think they break up the strong vertical lines of the skirt and make it more interesting. I like the asymmetry too; it’s one of the things I like best about this period.

  9. Sue H says

    Beautiful, elegant, playful, modest, what’s not to love! 10/10
    Sue H

  10. Helene Illervik says

    I would like to see more of the dress. I found it interesting with the rouching at the side of the skirt. It should have been fu to see if there were mor unexpected elements turning up.
    Blue isn’t my colour, I love it, but can’t wear it, this blue is fantastic. The brocade is gorgeous. I like the asymmetrical skirt a lot. At first I wasn’t fond of the brocade on the skirt, but the more I look at it, the better I like it.
    I’d love to wear it, though blue makes me look ill 🙁
    It’s a 10 because it’s a lovely dress that’s full of surprises.

  11. I have been in love with this dress for years. It’s definitely on my ‘in my dreams’ sewing list.

    10/10 no question.

  12. Marilyn J. Hollman says

    I love the skirt and the blocks of embroidery down the side. I am trying to think of where this would be worn. Is it an afternoon dress? or a go to a concert dress? I think Mary Lincoln would have loved this dress, and the color probably would flatter her dark hair. I would hope she would leave the flowers out of her hair for once and just twist pearls.
    As you probably guess, she’s very real to me; I’ve done a lot of research about her. She did lean to the sumptuous. isn’t that a great word?

      • I think you’re right, Leimomi; Wikipedia says she died in 1882.

        Aside from that issue, I don’t think the styles of the late to mid 1880s would have suited her well (though the color scheme of this dress might have). Mrs. Lincoln was short and stout, with rounded fleshy lower arms and wrists–the ideal figure, in many ways, for the dresses of the 1850s and 1860s. By the 1880s, fashion was anointing a taller, less rounded woman as the ideal.

  13. Karen Dezoma says

    I lovelovelove this dress. I love the color, I love the details, I love the asymmetry. I want this dress- NOW! 10/10

  14. I pulled this up while hanging out with friends, and even the guy with no real fashion sense thought this was pretty. The dress wins. 🙂
    On to my score: I love the rich blue and the rust brocade accents. I even love the assymetry (I think it’s interesting). I like the smocking details–I think it adds a subtlety and depth to the dress. The bustle is enormous, but I’m willing to just chalk it up to following the fashions of the day. 10 out of 10 for me!

  15. Love the color and fabrics. Not in love with the asymmetric skirt. Something about the stripes just isn’t working for me. Otherwise it is almost perfect.


  16. Love it, love it, love it! Blue is my favourite colour, and this is a particularly luscious blue. I prefer it with the wide brocade belt(?) in the first picture; it ties in better with the brocade panels on the skirt.

    Either way, it’s still gorgeous.

    10/10 (only because I can’t give 11+)

  17. I love most of it – the colours, the assymetry, too, because it’s fairly subtle, the draping, the paletot…
    … and somehow really dislike the bodice. It just seems wrong somehow. Frumpy in comparison. I’m not sure what it is, but I think part of it is because the size/number/possibly shape of the buttons on the bodice seems awkward to me. It’s not very explicable.
    But I still love most of it. 8/10

  18. Very lovely. I wish there were a little bit more going on trim wise on the back but that’s about it.

  19. This is one of my favourite dresses. The brightness of the a blu that doesn’t punch your eyes out of their sockets, and that gorgeous arts and crafts esque pattern on the collar and waistband, ahhhh.

    10/10 would wear.

  20. Angela Wicentowich says

    I think this gown is beautiful. The colour combination is stunning. This is a garment that I would like to think that if I was part of the right social class, I would choose this to wear. I love the quirkiness of the design. I don’t give these often, but here it is: 10/10.

  21. There are a few things I agree with some of the folks above about, but it’s so beautiful. The color is probably my favorite shade of blue, a Prussian blue. With the smocking and brocade, it has an aesthetic feel about it that forgives all lack of symmetry. 10/10

  22. The fabric is lovely. I’ll ignore the wide belt it’s displayed with in the first picture.
    I like the three horizontal stripes, but the asymmetrical drape looks a bit flat from the front. It looks great from the other angles though. The mantle is fabulous. The fuzzy fringe actually works very well.


  23. Yes, please! I’ll take three: one in this blue, one in a deep purple, and another in orange. Thank you!

    (9 of 10 – It needs just a bit more of that brilliant brocade to be perfect.)

  24. Gorgeous, good balance of colors (one of my favorite combinations), textures, and design… and the brocade is beautiful in and of itself. I would wear this dress in a heartbeat. My only wish would be for a slightly smaller bustle (if I were to recreate this), but I think it works just fine on the dress itself.


  25. The color combination with the brocade really works for me. I like the smocking elements and the draping of the skirt. Even the asymmetry is done well. The bustle, however, is too much. I don’t think I’m usually bustle-averse, but the one on this dress seems so oversized as to almost reach comic proportions. Overall, I’ll say 7/10.

  26. I love the color, I love the bustle, but the asymmetrical skirts and the brocade elements are just throwing me off. I’ll give it a 7.5/10… almost there!

  27. I actually thought this was going to be an earlier dress to start with, it looks about 1880-1882 in the front photo (my particular period of study). I must say I’ve never been keen on that overdone ruching that was used so much in the 1880s, but that said, this is a good example of it’s use.

    A lot of people have commented on the drape of the skirt and bustle, and, although I like it, I confess I was surprised by the simplicity of the arrangement. I would expect something considerably more complex.

    As for my personal feel for this dress, I utterly love it. If I were to reproduce it I would give the revers more shape and simplify the ruched front, but otherwise, absolute perfection. The colours, the fabrics, the arrangement, yes including the asymmetry, and that gorgeous combination of the orange brocade with the startling blue… My first response on loading the page was WOW! So really there is only one answer, it has to be 10/10

  28. It’s looking at dresses like this that make me wonder why I bother with sewing – there are so many things out there that are better than I could ever hope to achieve! Love the colours. Unlike some commenters, I think the brocade is used perfectly, and is actually quote restrained. I’m not so fond of the ruching/smocking on the skirt and can’t quite get past the sense that, looking at it from the front, it’s like the skirt has just accidentally twisted around, as if it’s loose at the waist, or the wearer has been caught outside in a sudden sideways gust of wind. Other than that, though, it’s perfection. 9/10

  29. I love the colour combination and the asymmetry of it, the only thing I’m not sure about it the bustle being so huge. Considering though that the bustle is related to the era it was made I’ll live with that.
    I like that it has 2 neckline options without having to change the whole bodice and the ruching adds dimension to what could otherwise have been a boring bodice too.

  30. Jane Felicity Craven says

    Oh yes, I love the colour, elegance and simple lines. The bodice of tbe dress is remarkably like the Folkwear armitice blouse pattern. I think I will make this dress and wear it.

  31. Natalie says

    BEAUTIFUL! That blue is amazing!!!!!!!! The orange is perfect because it compliments without competing. It is subtle.

    Personally, if you show me a dress with a bustle like that I fall instantly in love! The first historical costume I ever made had a bustle that big and gorgeous.


  32. When I see something like this my imagination goes wild. I wonder whether the brocade was a present brought back from far off places, and there was only a yard or two of it, so the dress was planned around it?
    I love the colours together -peacock and rust, scrumbo. I love the aesthetic elements a lot, and the massive bustle is a disappointment as it goes against that trend. But I love the drape of said bustle, and in general the play of textures, from the sweep of the drapes to the ruched/smocked work, delicious.
    The whole thing has a feel of I WANT EVERYTHING, which amuses me! I often feel that way. I do feel that it is borderline disintegrating into a mess, but that does mean it is at its peak of fabulosity! 🙂
    9/10 because of extreme bustleness 🙂

  33. Daniel says

    I adore it. The drapery of sumptuous silk satin, in the most beautiful hue of blue, and the restrained pow of the brocade, used so sparingly to great effect. Smocked satin is so gorgeous – it’s all about textures and fabric drape. I prefer it with the dickey covering the neckline and throat I think, but so practical to have the options! (oh, and the waistband is optional!) And the matching brocade visite is yummy. Look how it relates to the brocade cuffs! Gorgeous.

    9/10, because the wide waistband is slightly jarring, and I’d have liked to see what the brocade waistband does in relation to the bustle. But I love it.

  34. Jenny Wren says

    You’re right- it’s definitely a SURPRISE!bustle. I love it, though- it’s classy and beautiful in a way that projects maturity and intelligence. 10/10.

  35. Gosh! I love this dress so much, but I hate bustles so much… If I could de-bustle it – 10/10.

  36. I love the fabrics of this dress, the vibrant blue colour is gorgeous. I’m never really sure what I think about the a-symmetry in bustle dresses, on one hand it’s original and wonderfully creative, but the neurotic person inside me just wants everything to be the same on both sides. That said, it’s still a lovely dress and I really like the flash of brocade on the side of the skirt. 8/10.

  37. From the front – 10/10 – Oh. My. God. Color is georgous!
    but from the side… it is a dress for a centaur. hate that bustle.

    but still – 10/10

  38. Deborah Thomas-Wilton says

    If it werent for that monstrous bustle this would be a 10 have to take a point off for that. So it’s a 9. The color is my absolute favorite and I love the contasting brocade used in small chunks rather than full panels. Wish I could know something about the lady this was made for, I’d bet she was interesting.

  39. fidelio says

    I love the colors, singly and in combination. I love that the designer had enough respect for the textiles to use them to the best advantage possible, given the limitations of the design era. Resisting the urge to ruin the effect of the satin with a million tucks, or a trainload of fringe or embroidery is not always a strength in this dress’s era, and I honor the choice to go little (except for the bustle) when everyone else was going as big as humanly possible. Even the bustle, given the dimensions dictated by contemporary styles, is restrained in construction (the better to show off the satin!) and decoration.

    Using the brocade to make a wrap was genius–and so was making the dress out of the solid blue, and reserving the brocade for accents–imagine this dress in the brocade, with the satin as accents. Thank you. Would you like something for that headache, or small I just hand you these dark glasses?

    10/10. It’s not everyone’s color, and certainly not everyone’s style. But for the period, it’s an amazing demonstration of how restraint* makes elegance, and even now it’s a breathtaking piece.

    *It feels weird to use that word in connection with such intensity of colors, such strong contrasts, such bold decoration and such an expanse of bustlehood. But this is, taken as a whole, a wonderfully restrained piece of clothing. And that’s not a concept I associate with bustle-era dresses.

  40. I am blown away by the color. The intensity of the blue is just incredible. Many have said that the draping is simple, but the size of the bustle makes up for that. Remember, it’s a day dress, leave the fabulous draping for an evening dress.
    I think this would be a great outfit to work on recreating/imitating.
    I am not a fan of any oranges or yellows in outfits as I personally cannot wear them but here the contrast is perfect.

  41. Gorgeous shade of blue and I think the brocaded fabric looks wonderful with it. I like the ruching very much and I just adore the waistband. Personally I’d have much preferred it without all that bustle – if the back had been the same shape as the front I would have thought it truly elegant, but I can’t have everything, I guess. 9/10

  42. Woah, surprise bustle!
    I think I’ve worked out why it’s unexpected – the sharp-edged bands of orange brocade against the electric blue without any fringe or ruffling or other frou-frou makes the dress look quite sleek and modern from the front, so the sudden appearance of bustle in the side view now feels old-fashioned and jarring. It probably wasn’t at the time. -1, ‘cos I’m not feeling the bustle. 9/10 for the colour combination and the absence of fringe.

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