Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: Emily Warren Roebling is presented at court, three ways

I’m running a bit late, so I haven’t tallied the totals for last week yet, but I’ll get to those shortly.

For this week’s Rate the Dress I present someone who is undeniable awesome: Emily Warren Roebling.  Emily is famous as the Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Her father in law started the bridge, but when he died her husband took it over.  He became extremely ill with decompression sickness, Emily looked at the bridge and though ‘yep, I can do this.’  For the next fourteen years, Emily oversaw every aspect of the bridge’s construction, from calculating the curves needed, to testing the materials used, to liaising with everyone from the workers to the politicians.

When the bridge was finally finished, Emily didn’t rest on her laurels: instead she helped with relief efforts during the Spanish American War, helped organise a World’s Fair, travelled extensively, and got a law degree from New York University (while she was in her 50s or 60s).  As you do.

Undeniably awesome!

From a Rate the Dress awesome perspective, Emily gives us a unique opportunity to Rate a Dress in all possible views.

Here is  Emily at the time of her presentation to Queen Victoria in 1896 by  Carolus-Duran:

Portrait of Emily Warren Roebling by Charles Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran, 1890s, Brooklyn Museum

She wears a  yellow silk satin with white lace sleeves, and brocaded or embroidered skirt  presentation gown with a mauve velvet court train.    On her head are the prerequisite ostrich feathers and veil, and on one arm the required full length glove.  Her other glove must be held out of view in the other hand, which holds up her train.

And here is Emily in the same outfit, in real life:

Emily Warren Roebling, 1896

Emily Warren Roebling, 1896

Carolus-Duran’s portrait may have been painted in large part from this photograph, or from another from the series.

But wait, there is more!

Here is the extent ensemble:

The gown is possibly  by Worth, and as you can see, it has many details that do not make it into Carolus-Duran’s painting: the embroidery of the underskirt and bodice is simplified into subtle texture, the train and skirt ornamentation omitted entirely, keeping the focus on the sitter, rather than the dress.

We’re looking at the dress (well, the whole ensemble) today though.  As an example of the ultimate in 1890s formalwear for a woman of a certain age (Emily was in her 50s), does the court gown hold up?  Is it suitable regal and elegant?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10


  1. The dress itself I find lovely, particularly the coordination of the fabrics and the definition of the bodice lines.

    I can’t be enthusiastic about the cape, however. I’m sure for its time it was le dernier cri, but I find the ornamentation exceedingly strange, as if the cape had been dragged through a local swamp.

    7.5 of 10

  2. Kathryn says

    In one of the pictures of the dress on a manmequin, there appears to be a bunch of tulle interwoven with the flowers on the cape. In the other pictures, the tulle isn’t there. It’s mich better without the tulle. Overall, this is a very feminine, flowery, princessy dress, much more so than I personally like. However, it’s a court dress, and one worn by a woman who apparently broke several glass ceilings in her life. While I often find an excess of flowery, ribbony, lacy details infantalizing on a grown woman, in this particular case, there is something defiantly badass about it that I love, because of who the wearer is and what she did with her life. I would have loved to get to know her! Also, the velvet cape is fantastic. 8.5/10

  3. 9.5/10 I love it except for the tulle and the mismatchiness of the mauve, if there was some of the same color in the embroidery it would have been more tied together. It’s really cool seeing all the different views of the dress.

  4. Regal and beautiful. ‘Crocus’ colours. A violet velvet that I could look at all day. And a great story. What could possibly be wrong with that? 10/10

  5. Rachel says

    It’s very stately. In fact, I think the painting does it a disservice. While it looks nice in the portrait, it’s kind of meh – just a yellow and white dress with floufy sleeves. But in reality, the underdress/bodice is so dynamic and arresting. The sleeves no longer look generic and overdone – they add to the impressiveness. The pale gold and purple are beautiful together.

    That said, it’s still over the top. I know, it’s at court, it makes sense to be opulent and all that. Still, I’d like the sleeves better without the flowers. Or maybe not quite so many of them. The flowers on the train are interesting though. I mean, still over the top, but I think it adds to the gown, rather than overburdens it.

    Also, the overall shape of the dress is great, and I just love the embroidery – dark, graceful, and punchy, completely different but still in line with the rest of the gown.


  6. From the biographical details you have given us, Emily indeed appears to have been an impressive person. It would have been awesome to meet her.

    On the other hand, her ensemble makes me wince, despite the gorgeous fabrics and immaculate tailoring. The ostrich headpiece makes me think of Big Bird, the trim on the bodice is drooping rather than dignified, and the odd choice of anchor point for the train reminds me that by the 1890s presentation gowns had stopped looking dignified and became rather odd. A 5, only.

  7. I can’t rate clothes in portraits, but thank you for introducing Emily Warren Roebling, what a fascinating person! I wonder how you get the chuzpah as a non-engineer to look at drawings of a bridge and then go “Well, I can build this, no problem.” Wow!

  8. He Paintshopped her! That neck and waist are definitely not like hers. Cheeky monkey.
    It looks like the tulle guards and embellishment on the train gave up the ghost at some point, too.
    I like everything about this dress whe taken in its entirety. I find that when I focus on certain bits, like the odd folded lace overlays on the overskirt, I am not so keen. But if I imagine the dress without them I feel the whole thing would be a bit top heavy. So it is a good visual balance for the amazeballs sleeves. (technical term).
    Beyond glorious colours, and for a court gown at that time it shows remarkable restraint really. More kudos to Emily. It looks like the silver embroidery has done that darkening with age thing, as it is so much lighter in the painting and photograph, but I really like how it makes the pattern show up properly. It is a beautiful piece of work.
    A yellow/gold silver embroidered late Vic court dress with a violet velvet cape, worn by a progressive woman of fabulosity. How could I give it less than a 10?!

    • What a splendid way of putting what M. Carolus-Duran did, MrsC! Yes, he “Paintshopped” her. If I had only seen the portrait, I would have given the ensemble a 7. Unfortunately, the photograph not only shows Emily’s true age and physique, it manages to highlight the bizarre silhouette and emphasizes the volume of trim on her gown and train. (That is my opinion, however; your plainly varies).

  9. Jeanette Murray says

    The colors are so lovely and the court train is perfection! Her story is an example to us all! 10/10

  10. Stacey says

    I would have loved to see this dress before the colour changes. From the photos it looks as though all the lace on the shoulders and skirt and well as the tulle has darkened significantly over time. Perhaps that dark embroidery as well. Surely it would have stood out more in the photo if it had been anywhere near as contrasting at the time. I’m guessing it would have been more of a contrast of texture or sheen when new rather than such a stark contrast of colour, but perhaps I am mistaken. I like it in either case.

    For something so ornate, it is quite restrained, as befitting her age, and I think the lines are gorgeous and clean in the grand scheme of things. The cape is an amusing bit of fluff, but I bet it looked and sounded AMAZING in motion. 9/10.

  11. I love being able to see the dress in three different ways. When I saw the painting I loved it. The colors are so soft and creamy and there is such an elegant simplicity that I find appealing. I give the painting a 9/10. But then I looked at the photograph. You can’t see the lovely colors in the photograph and so all the details just look fussy to me. I give the photograph a 7/10. I was excited to be able to compare both to the extant garment. But I actually don’t like the original garment at all. I find the embroidery on the underskirt and bodice to be heavy handed and I don’t like the decorations on the skirt at all. Don’t get me started on that fluff on the train. The colors are more harsh than the portrait as well. I actually only give the extant dress a 5/10. I surprise myself by being glad the artist simplified the dress in the portrait because I like it much better how he chose to paint it. If you average those numbers together I suppose you end up with a 7/10.

  12. Maire Smith says

    The dress is very impressive. 8/10. But I can’t believe what the artist did to her forehead shape!

  13. I dislike big sleeves in general (these are not the worst I’ve seen but they’re still pretty bad), I don’t like the train (the colour’s pretty but I don’t think it goes with the rest of the dress and it’s kind of overdone), I also don’t like the embroidery on the skirt of the overdress or the headdress in the paintings. Other than that, I like it a lot. The shape is lovely as are the colours and the embroidery on the bodice and underskirt. I also like the black trim on the gold part of the bodice. If it had short sleeves and no train it would be practically perfect. As it is I give it 6/10

  14. Lyndsey says

    I really love how you tell the history not only of the outfit but also of the person who wore it! Wow what a lady Emily was. An inspiration to all of us to never say “I can’t do that.” Would have loved to have met her as well. I really love the dress. Yes its very fancy and busy by modern standards but that was what was expected of a court dress from the period though I admit I’m no expert. I really love the colour combination especially the colour of the train and it’s a pity we don’t have a close up of that fantastic embroidery. I also love the flowers…a lot 😀 it looks like she’s been walking along the red carpet and people have thrown bouquets of flowers out and they’ve landed on the train and been carried along with it. 10

  15. holly says

    Ah, so wonderful to see the dress on the wearer, and what a story. On Emily it’s a 10, for the above reasons.

    In the context of the dress itself, it’s a 3, with all the minus points for that hideous overworked train.

    Final score 6.5/10

  16. Barbara Stevens says

    What we are looking at here are two completely separate things – a dress and the stupid train that was compulsory wear for any woman being presented at court. I bet the only times other than at her presentation that the astounding Emily ever wore the train was to have the photo taken and the portrait painted. And she certainly wouldn’t have worn the extras from the local florist on the train – all that florabundance is for show only ( static show, not moving.)
    To judge this outfit by modern standards is to miss the point – the ostrich feathers, long long long gloves and the train were compulsory for presentation at court. So discount all those bits of folderol. Look at the gown – superb for a woman of fifty. Colour flattering, not too ‘modish’ in outline, not too much decoration. I think this gown does Emily proud. And I bet she loved the painting – who wouldn’t? At least 10 years off her face, colours gentle and not overpowering, figure dropped a couple of sizes, great job M.Carolus-Duran. So I give Worth a 9 for the gown, and Emily a 10 for being her! And I give the English Court a 0 for the folderols, and a 10 for finally abolishing the whole silly ritual.

  17. I can’t help but love the flowers on the mauve train. Love it. I think the colours go so well together, and it’s very stately.

  18. Magnificent. I think the disappearing tulle was a museum mounting replacement – that kind of tulle virtually never lasts/survives, it just crumbles and shreds. And I think that it really makes the dress as it interlaces with the flowers and creates a cohesive sweep of ornamentation. (You can also see that there was tulle ruffling on the underside of the train.) I think it is a very regal, very beautiful gown – and she was in her 50s? While absolutely age-appropriate for the period, it also feels like it would have been very flattering and made her appear a little younger. The colour combination is unexpected but very effective, again more so for the mature woman than for a young girl. The only thing I’m a bit unsure about is how the train attaches to the dress as I can’t quite see how it does due to the sleeve getting in the way, and it could be quite awkward.

    To be honest I think the dress is far more beautiful in person than in the painting – the simplification for the portrait doesn’t quite work for me,

    But I think it’s wonderful and I give it a very easy 10/10 as it ticks all the boxes – age-appropriate but flattering, properly proportioned, effective colouring, just the right amount of ornamentation, regal and elegant, and above all, very appropriate.

  19. It’s a lovely example of a late 19th century court gown. Considering what it is and when it was made, I think it does a good job of balancing opulence and tastefulness. It also has the dignity appropriate for a lady of Emily’s age and achievements, which must have been a challenge with such a heavily ornamented design. Plus, I love the colours. 10/10.

  20. It is … interesting that several of us thought the dress looked best as it was depicted in the Carolus-Duran portrait. Perhaps Emily too preferred the depiction to the physical reality of the presentation gown. She certainly seems impatient with something in her photograph.

  21. Julia Ergane says

    Daniel, I could not have said it better myself. Yes, yellow and mauve/lavender do go together quite well. My rating 10/10

  22. The museum seems to have puffed out the skirts more than Emily did, in the first two photos! That’s another intriguing aspect to it: I bet it lends some credence to other commenters’ above me thories that she’d have gone with a far simpler outfit if given half the choice. That, and the simpler painting. And I seem to find myself mostly agreeing with that choice… the folds in the skirt are prettier than it sticking out, and… it brings to mind your post about frou-frou: it must have done it very pleasingly! So points for frou-frouing folds against bells-shaped stiffness. The striking yet complementary colours are probably the best part about it, for me. Although as others have noted, the age-darkened silver embroidery does its bit, too! I love the hints of 18th century indienne shapes I seem to see in it.
    I find the lacy bits at the bottom of the skirt rather badly designed in comparison. They put me in mind of my teenaged unsuccessful experiments in origami – I mean, experiments in trying to come up with new shapes – they were never satisfactory. And neither are these, they look like someone painstakingly recreated the failed and discarded experiments in lace and glued them on, so I can’t help but think “Oh come on, you’ve made the rest of the dress, you can do better than my teenaged self on this!” So, it’s another piece to support my theory that creating eye-pleasing drapery is the hardest part of dressmaking…


  23. I love the multiple presentations on this one! I love how you can see different aspects in the different representations. But I’m not liking the lace doilyish decoration on the hem or the court train that much. 6/10

  24. Linda Olson says

    what fun contrasting the different visions. I love how the painter gave her a very cinched waist, but in real life she hides a slightly thicker middle with a large bouquet. The color shifts are also interesting – I see a bright golden yellow and sheer maroon in the painting, then a heavy butter and dark almost violet color in another image, and the front changes from pale plain cream to white lace to a heavy over-embroider almost Battenberg style lace. I give all versions 10 of 10. And I LOVE the backstory. Any woman who can build a bridge like that deserves to be presented to the Queen.

  25. Looking at the different images of it I definitely prefer the Carolus-Duran portrait for the dress itself. The colours are Beautiful, and the simplifed patterns on the skirt look a lot better than the actual gown. I think the gown is too heavy with the embroidery, and it clashes against the soft colours of the rest of the gown and train.

    As for the train. It was compulsory at court, and if you have to wear a long and cumbersome train, why not make the best of it. A huge swathe of purple silk with flowers on it, I actually like it, and think this is the kind of train any Disney princess would be jealous of.

    In total I will give the dress an 8.

  26. I actually really like the train with all the tulle. I know it looks a bit silly but I really enjoy the color and textures of the train itself. It just looks very fun.

    As for the rest of the dress, I’d wear that in a heartbeat. 10/10

Comments are closed.