Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: mid-1870s puffs and ruffles

Last week I showed you a red velvet and gold lace and peacock feathers dress, ca 1900.  Ca 1900, red velvet, gold lace, and peacock feather embroidery are all generally considered to be good things when it comes to Rate the Dress, so, not surprisingly, many of you approved of the dress, even if it did come with a side order of wonky bow, awkward bust embellishment, embroidery wrinkles, potential itch factor, and overly puffy sleeves.  In fact, despite all these things, the power of red and gold propelled the dress to an 8 out of 10.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art calls this summery bustled evening dress a ‘Polonaise’ gown, reflecting the 1870s interest in the 18th century, and the revival of 18th century dress terms.

The name may be 18th century inspired, and there may be the barest nod at the idea of a Georgian fichu in the guimpe/dickey which gives the dress the option of moving between different types of evening events, but the overall look is classic 1870s.

There are the tiers of ruffles, both on the underskirt, and mirroring the curve of the apron overskirt, and trimming the ‘polonaised’ bustle back.  The same themes are repeated on the bodice, with puffed sleeves, flat ruffling on the higher guimpe, which made the dress less formal and more modest, for dinner events, and a row of contrast satin pleating and ruffles  framing  the lower neckline, for balls and more formal events.

The detailing and embellishment on 1870s and 1880s gowns came make them appear quite stiff and contrived, but this summer evening dress is made of light, airy cotton, with wool brocaded patterning.

Woman's Polonaise Dress, England, circa 1875, Cotton plain weave with wool of discontinuous supplemental weft, silk satin ribbon, and machine lace, LACMA, M.2007.211.777a-f

Does the lightweight fabric balance the heavy embellishment?  Is the dress a success?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10


  1. Mini Robson says

    I cannot begin to describe how much I love this dress.
    I love the colours, the pattern, the ruffles, the bow , the lightness, everything! The only thing that bothers me slightly is the the lace in the bow, and the sudden dark, black thread at the neckline, but that’s not enought to bring it down for me.

  2. I love this. Have always found something very pleasing about airy white dresses scattered with a sprig or spot pattern in a contrasting colour, and I love the fact that all the ruffles and frills and details are in the same fabric which makes it homogenous. It has a sense of movement and airiness and bounce throughout, and comes across as fresh and young and lively. The only thing that slightly jars is the black ribbon drawstring but at the same time that serves a function and purpose of both defining the neckline and working as a drawstring. And with the pink satin ruffle at the neck, it kind of works as a detail – I wonder if the satin may have been closer in tone to the red motifs originally, but it works where it is. So I’ll say 9/10.

    • Elise says

      Yes! You picked up my favorite parts, too: light fabric, a dress for movement, one fabric used throughout.

      I give it an 8/10, because I feel something is off with the fishu neckline.

      Also, when I saw the dress, my first thought was “Anne Shirley would wear this, had she come of age in the 1870s!”

  3. Barbara Stevens says

    Very summery. Must have been hell to iron though! I like it a lot, especially the ability to alter the neckline so that it becomes multi purpose – those Victorians were a clever lot. The only thing I would change is that silly little bit of lace on the bow. Get rid of it, it just looks ‘extra’. Lovely lace like that deserves a better use. So, discounting the lace, I give it 10/10.

  4. This time, the trimmings and fabric are pleasant and sweet but the bodice and rear “polonaise” pouf make for a surprisingly frumpy silhouette. A 6. I’m a little surprised that I dislike it as much as I do.

  5. Beckajo says

    I love this – for me, the detail of the back drawstring adds just a touch of sophistication. And it actually feels summery to me – I can imagine wearing it in the spring and summer without wanting to die. (I imagine it was very hot in reality though!) 10/10

    • Elise says

      Bwahahahaha! Now, I cannot “unsee” the measles.

  6. holly says

    I give points for the beautiful fabric, and that detail of lace, minus points for the big puffy insubstantial bustle and the over-embellishment. 5/10

  7. I was ready to not like this from the thumbnail on the reader list, but once I clicked through it looked much different…what a sweet dress. I’m giving it grace for the pleated ribbon having faded, but other than that the only detraction is the black drawstring. Surely they could’ve found a red or white one to be less obvious?

    I think this is a lovely thing for a girl in her late teens…

  8. Tegan says

    OMG it looks so light and summery. I love it! 10/10

    The light hand with the matching trim, the simplicity of colors, how breezy and light-hearted it looks… everything. I want it desperately now!

  9. This is an absolute confection, and the only quibble I have is with the pleated ribbon, which seems to me clunky on so airy a base. 9 of 10

  10. Laura D says

    10/10 for me. I have a major soft spot for dresses from this era, and this one is beautiful!

  11. All that poofy sheer white fabric with the red pattern reminds me of a jellyfish, but in a good way. That’s actually my favourite thing about this dress. I really like the fabric, and the skirt from the front. From the side, I’m not so keen on it, and the bodice isn’t doing anything for me. It has that strange, hunched, slope-shouldered effect that was so popular in the 19th century. 6/10

  12. I love this dress so much; it epitomises all things Victorian and summer! The colours are so light and airy and I love the poofy bustle. It looks like it would be lovely and cool to wear, even with all the undergarments.

  13. Belinda says

    Picturing it on a young lady holidaying in the south of France. 9/10

  14. Becky Millinger says

    8/10. I didn’t care much for the dress until I saw the back. I love the bustle. But the pattern of the red on white seems too much. It would have been more striking (for me) if it had more white and used the red pattern as an accent. It’s very lovely but a bit too “froo froo”.

  15. I loved it at first sight, then saw the fabric’s detail and turned to adore it, I don’t even mind the lace on the bow, really neat 🙂 10/10

  16. Julia Ergane says

    Ah, yes, I hate the sloping shoulders from the 1830’s. It is the one thing that really drags the silhouette down and makes an otherwise perky dress dowdy. Did I say how much I hate sloping shoulders? My rating: 5/10 (for the shoulders)

  17. The Early Bustle Era is one of my favorites. Love this dress…looks like a summer confection. Fabric is wonderful – so airy and light. The only detraction for me is the “bubble butt” homage to the polonaise. I would like it better if the apron-front overskirt had simply curved up to the back waist and fallen in a cascade of ruffles from there. One point off for the bubble, so 9/10.

  18. So pretty! Summery, light airy fabric, delicate lace and the delicious bustled back. And the juxtaposition of black and pink works fine for me. The original wearer must have felt so feminine in this. I’d wear it any day. 10/10

  19. Rachel says

    I didn’t notice the tiers initially, and they’re a pleasant surprise – they give the skirt some dimension and complexity (otherwise, it could just look like a wedge of strawberry cheesecake) without being overwhelming. The bustle is fun and puffy without being too silly, and the V-neckline grounds the dress and gives it some presence. And I really love the print on closeup – those little jagged shapes feel so modern, not at all the floral or scrolly pattern I might’ve expected. And the combination of bright red and fluffy white is really appealing.

    But it has those melting shoulders and I can’t like the contrasting pleating.


    • Lyn Swan says

      Perfectly stated, though I’ll give a 9/10 because I do love the bustle…perfect proportions.

  20. Okay, if a dress is light and airy, has a bustle, and happens to be decorated with my favorite color, it automatically wins a 10 out of 10. Love it!

  21. marie says

    Me loooooove!
    It’s so light. Simple but complex at the same time.

  22. Christine says

    I adore this dress. The fabric, the print, everything. 10/10

  23. Frances says

    10/10! I LOVE this dress, everything about it. If I were younger I would try to reproduce it for myself, but I think it is a young woman’s dress. I love the fact that the ruffles are not too full, I love the neckline and the ribbon trim, the fresh colour scheme (measles are ugly, this is beautiful!) and the whole concept works fantastically.

  24. 7/10 something about the polka dots bugs me…oh bugs! It looks like bugs crawling on it. I like the airy white and the shape of it. I’d like it better with sleeves (for day wear) and no bugs.

  25. I’m going to get reamed for this, but to me the bodice is a train wreak. So sorry. It looks like it was crumpled together and stored in a ball.

    As others have said, the black ribbon trim is very much out of place. It’s the first thing that caught my eye and ruined the effect of the dress for me. That, and the pleated satin trim makes it look like something thrown together for a prom.

    The fichu doesn’t work either. It appears to have the same self fabric ruching as the top layer of the skirt that drapes to the back and forms the bustle. The ruching adds to the crumpled look.

    The bodice is ill fitting, but that may be caused by the mannequin. Something needs to be added to the waistband to tie the bodice and skirt together, they look like a skirt and blouse ensemble.

    As for the skit, it’s pretty except for the pouf in the bustle. And like some, I don’t like the lace on the bow.

    Weaving a wool motif into delicate cotton voile doesn’t make sense, but that may not have been unusual at the time.

    -5 for the bodice and -1 because of the pouf in the bustle of the skirt and the lace on the bow. 4/10.

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