Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: 1770s pretty in prints

Last week I showed you an 1880s gown in persimmon orange brocade with a slightly historical flavour.  While orange can be tricky, the fabric was generally popular.  The sleeves, however, were generally un-popular, and most opinions found it very nice, but not spectacular.  A few of you loved it, but a few of you hated it, balancing the rating at a 7.1 out of 10 – which seems a pretty fair assessment of the general feeling toward it.

Since the warm persimmon orange of last week’s frock was so popular last week, I thought I’d stay in the warm, autumn-y colour range for this week’s Rate the Dress.  This ca. 1775 robe a la francaise  from the MFA Boston features a busy cotton print with a dark red ground.  The MFA have chosen to pair the dress with a cream border printed (or painted) cotton petticoat.

Cotton was still a luxury fabric in the last quarter of the 18th century, and  the heavy glazed cotton  of this dress was likely to have been a particularly expensive cotton: dark red grounds were generally more expensive than light coloured grounds.  The very desirable fabric may explain the unusual juxtaposition of the fabric and the more formal dress style: cotton robe a la francaise are quite rare compared to silk.  Cotton fabric was more likely to be used for slightly less formal dress styles, like robe a la anglaise.

While the petticoat that the MFA have paired the gown with was probably not worn with it originally, it’s in keeping with the luxurious gown: the border printed fabric of the petticoat would have been equally expensive, and equally exotic and novel.

The mannequin may be slightly distracting, but hopefully you can look past it to envision what the ensemble might have looked like in 1775.  With that in mind, what do you think of  it?  Beautiful use of a busy but very ‘of its time’ pattern, or cluttered and fussy?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10


  1. I find the two prints beautifully coordinated and balanced, and I particularly like the sweep of motifs around the hem of the underskirt which really ties the underskirt to the overdress.
    10 of 10

  2. letthemeatcake says

    Well yes this head obviously has to be ignored. So if I do that, what remains in my eyes is a rather dolled up girls’ dress ( i know people were smaller back then but on top of the size: there seem to be no curves whatsoever. Cotton + robe francaise doesn’t seem to work for me – at least not here. And I don’t know if I’m just in a puritan mood today or if I cannot get over the little girl, but I’d prefer it being closer to a robe anglaise, without the hoops and with a fichu covering the neckline. And yes, since by now I do see a little girl in it: just plain brown and beige without even any flower prints ! ….( better even would be a more beautiful colour combination. I’m leaving all the options for that open here….) .So what comes out now is pretty dull and even altered like this i wouldn’t give it more than a seven . A nice straw hat with wildflowers might help and only if a really fresh and lovely girl would be working this. Like that ( and not on this mannequin!): 6/10

    • letthemeatcake says

      ….well it’s a bit harsh. I do like the creme underskirt and it’s print ( or embroidery?).So I go up with the rating to 6.5

        • letthemeatcake says

          I just remembered the brown fabric being printed last time…ok they are both printed ( but just how lovely would that creme skirt be if it WAS embroidery)….in fact the beige underskirt is very pretty, also with that coordinated, longer skirt layer underneath….so it should be fully displayed….so no open robe or just a short one, the over skirt ending somewhere above the knee. The other print I find too much. I ‘d prefer a more relaxed print for the overdress or none at all and a softer coulour for it. And coming back to my earlier suggestion: I’m getting a little more specific about the hat. I’m picturing the style of straw hat that Michelle Pfeiffer wore for church in “dangerous liaison”….kinda talking about the design I made up. Not super fond of the current one. it looks quite matronly to me. A well-off matron….but admittedly a suitable upper middle class, mother-of-the-bride-dress.

  3. Jenny Wren says

    It’s lovely, although I’d not put the leading lady in it- maybe the supporting actress. So 8/10.

  4. I love the color scheme of the robe, and the choice of petticoat (which picks of bits of a very similar dark red at intervals) was an inspired choice, in my opinion. The print is somewhat busy for my taste, which is why I’m going with only 8 out of 10.

  5. I love it. The print mixing is what wins me over. It is a little bit different and that’s what I like. It is busy, but perfectly so. I like that there are no extra trims on the front. I would wear it in a heartbeat. 10.

  6. Julia Ergane says

    This is no little girl’s dress; and even though the the colour does come over most monitors as brown I will trust the museum with the description of it being a dark red. I love it. The glazed cotton was probably almost as expensive as silk satin, which it mimics.
    My rating: 10/10

  7. Rachel says

    I kind of like the mannequin’s dotty demeanor.

    The high waist and wide skirt, plus the lace and the super involved print, do give the dress a bunched up feeling that bothers me a little. But the prints are gorgeous, and I think they combine nicely. That petticoat is wonderful. I would love to see the gown it was originally meant for – or to see how it works with other gowns.

    I’m a little iffy on the shape, but the colors really sell it for me. Especially those little bits of blue in the deep deep red.


  8. This dress has always driven me nuts for one reason – that bodice front. I want to flip one side of it around so that the wigglies (technical term!) are mirrored. As they are, they aren’t even exactly matched – one is slightly higher than the other and it drives me completely mad. It ends up being all I can see of it. The color is lovely. The style is lovely. But would someone *please* fix that front?

    6 out of 10 with the front bodice dragging it down.

  9. Lyn Swan says

    I seem to be scoring an 8/10 on most entries, I am becoming a bit more critical I guess, or a bit more sure of my taste. 8/10 It is a lovely dress, with no real problems, save for Isabella’s wigglies,(thanks, I never noticed until I read your comment) The colors and print are beautiful, but a bit busy for my modern eye. For some reason I especially love the sleeves. The petticoat is beautiful print and the slipper peeping out is a nice touch!
    The mannequin has the look of a cheap imitation porcelain doll… a bit disturbing at best.

  10. I love it! I think it’s absolutely gorgeous. It is busy, but I don’t have a problem with that. I like the print with its red background and wiggly lines of little flowers, and if I had the time I’d love to get some fabric paint and recreate the petticoat. I’d love to recreate the whole thing actually. 10/10

  11. Candy says

    I love it! I didn’t notice the “wigglies” either, until pointed out. But I love the way the pattern flows from the shoulder through the jacket to the skirt. The petticoat seems perfect to me. 10.

  12. I want to like it, but the print is way too busy for my taste, and the cut and fit seems off to me for a Robe a la Francaise…maybe it’s the lack of flowing lines? Lack of crazy amounts of self trim or trim? A bit short waisted and perhaps not the best foundation garment support? The front bodice just bugs my eyes. And the lace/linen at the neckline and sleeve inserts is way too clunky, it should be fine linen or lace. Throws it off. It just doesn’t hit a note I like even though I really want to like it. I love the mismatched petticoat though. It’s gorgeous. Maybe if it was covered in self trim of the busy fabric all over, I might like it. I just feel it could be more and lacks so much. 5.5 out of 10.

  13. I like it. I love the print, and the cut. My only peeve is wishing the vertical scallops on the stomacher were mirrored instead of parallel.

    So 9.5/10

  14. Thank you for the explanation, Leimomi, I was not aware that (glazed) cotton was so expensive and exclusive…
    So it must have been a pretty special outfit, but I don’t get that “vibe” from it – to me, it looks dowdy and the print is too dark and too busy, and the pattern/cut looks rather ordinary, too.

    So for me, 5/10.

  15. I like the print, the petticoat, the cut of the Francaise and the fact that it all its decorations (save the sleeve ruffles) come from the pattern of the fabric in what amounts to a near trompe-l’oeil effect. But they ruined the effect with the stomacher front though which looks forced and unnatural. I also dislike the combination of petticoat and dress (but that’s not the dress’ fault) and the red color looks kind of dowdy. 8/10.

  16. I love it, but like one of the other comments I find the bodice print not being mirrored to be distracting.

  17. I love it! The petticoat is perfectly matched and looks like it might have been the original – the red colour is basically identical, major props to the museum for it! I don’t mind the lack of mirroring, the slight asymmetry adds charm imo. More trim would have been over the top, the print makes fussy decoration unnecessary. I think I’d have liked this more as an anglaise, but on the whole it works – despite the mannequin. 9/10

  18. My favorite time period, and I do love a cotton print, and the coordination of the cream and crimson is a) well-played and b) makes me think of my alma mater, haha. But the overall effect makes my head hurt, and would have made my head hurt if my friend showed up to dinner at my place wearing this a couple centuries ago, and there’s just no getting past that swimming, busy, over-cluttered, head-hurty feeling for me. So no matter what lovely things are done with the print on the comperes front, and what I imagine is *gorgeous* print usage on the gown’s back pleating, I can’t muster more than a 6.5 for this. (I originally could only get to a 6, then I tried really hard and managed an extra .5.)

    But this piece did help me answer a gown front construction question I’ve been working with, so thank you for posting it!

  19. DramaticLyric says

    8/10 The colour is beautiful and the pairing with the petticoat is inspired. I find the print to be a bit too busy, though, and the shape of the bodice seems a bit off….

  20. Kaela says

    I actually don’t mind the way the “wigglies” are placed. I think it looks quite nice. Symmetry is overrated. I love both garments, but I dislike the robe and petticoat together. Way too busy. Alone, they would both get perfect ratings; thus, I’ll give the ensemble 8/10.

  21. Susan says

    This would be delightful for afternoon tea in the garden, with a good friend or two, on a golden Indian summer (mid-autumn) afternoon in Colonial Williamsburg when it really was “colonial. The colors are sumptuous yet subtle, and while the patterns certainly are busy, the beautiful color scheme redeems the ensemble and the dress and petticoat are perfectly coordinated. A shade or two brighter, and the colors would be harsh, gaudy and glaring -as it is, they are very natural, and reminiscent of the fall woodlands.

    The manikin certainly does have a supercilious expression, however – what’s with those arched, heavily plucked eyebrows??-but that’s not the dress’s fault.

    Perhaps the dressmaker suffered from astigmatism, considering the placement of the squiggled. Otherwise, a very lovely garment. 9/10.

  22. HoiLei says

    She looks like a bundle of fat quarters all picked and packaged for “fall quilting”… which is to say: I like the colors, but the patterns are visually busy. In a modern context, I’d think this was the project of a quilting grandmother whose fabrics all came from stash. I’d like it for it’s playfulness, but wear it only in casual settings. In a historic context, I see how the cotton print would be innovative and exotic, and thus a status symbol. However, it still doesn’t seem like a serious dress. I think it shows wealth without taking itself too seriously, and I like it for that. I imagine the wearer being the wife of someone who wanted to show his means, while she wanted to show her delight in whimsy, and this was the charming result.

    It’s possible that the doll-like manikin is influencing my impressions, too. 8 out of 10, because I do like it, but I don’t think it’s splendid or impressive.

  23. Barbara Stevens says

    An excellent example of why the V&A and others use featureless mannequins.
    Otherwise I love it. I imagine this was a sizzler in its time. I think the matching of petticoat and dress is great. It’s a 10 out of 10 from me.

  24. lindamae says

    I like this dress., and I like the combinations. The mannequin seems to fit well enough, and I like the styling, the sleeves, and the front. I’d wear this!

  25. Love the fabric pattern and colours and think they suit the dress very well. Could quite believe that the petticoat was original to the dress as the colours tie in so well — as does the toe of the shoe that’s peeping out. Thought I was seeing things at first with the wonky pattern matching on the bodice front but other people are seeing that too so it’s not just me. And it’s a shame we aren’t playing ‘rate the mannequin’ as I love that as well — makes a change to see something old-fashioned and quirky rather than a featureless alien with a paper and buckram wig. I’m giving this a 9.

    • HoiLei says

      “. . . makes a change to see something old-fashioned and quirky rather than a featureless alien with a paper and buckram wig.”

      When I first saw it, I thought it was a fashion doll of that era, rather than a real, life-sized gown! It’s interesting how the presentation effects my ratings. When it’s a featureless (or headless!) form, I imagine myself in the dress and rate it more according to whether I’d like to wear it. With this doll-like form, I imagined meeting this woman, complete with her arch expression, and think about how I like the dress on someone else.

  26. LOVE the colours in the dress – lovely deep dark red and the print is really sumptuous feeling. I actually quite like the juxtaposition with the petticoat too – the petticoat is lighter and brighter but with similar colours in the design so they coordinate well.

    It feels really warm and homely and friendly especially as it’s in cotton, rather than an imperiously sumptuous silk. I really like it, and I rate it 8/10 as even though I like it, it isn’t exactly a beautiful or stunning gown – just a really nice, friendly, cosy dress. The stomacher area is cleverly done with the stripes but at the same time, looks a little endearingly skew-whiff. I find it utterly charming and a little overambitious but all the more endearing for being not quite successful. So yes, definitely 8/10.

  27. I love the petticoat; without it, the dress is not too impressive, the pattern a bit… all over the place? Quite literally, too; I like the more open space pattern of the petticoat better. So for the dress itself, its stunning colours and neat use of this kind of cotton for an anglaise, 8/10.

  28. Robin says

    I really like this dress. The colors are gorgeous. 50 years ago when I was a teenager and enamoured of the Colonial period (as it was called in the U.S.) I would have loved this. Today I’ll give it a 9

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