Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: yellow chinoiserie of the 1780s

Last week’s Rate the Dress was a cherry-bedecked Worth gown, and while it got a lot of love, the general consensus was that the cherry pattern  wasn’t quite balanced properly across the dress, and the pigeon breast wasn’t entirely working, even if one was a fan of pigeon breasts.  Plus, the sleeves had so clearly seen better days that it was hard to envision exactly what those better days looked like.  So, all these pulled the dress down to a nice-but-not-fabulous 8.1 out of 10.

This week’s Rate the Dress is 110 years earlier than last week’s, an entirely different colour, and an entirely different style of dress, and yet to me there is  an aesthetic resonance between the two.  Something in the back pleats, the very round flowers, and the puffed cuffs its shown with in the fully dressed version make me think of the two dresses together, and so showing you this one this week just makes sense:

The Met describes this close-backed 1780s dress of floral silk as a Robe à la Polonaise, and while there is considerable discussion in the historical costuming world if that is the correct term for all dresses with picked up skirts, I’ve left the descriptor as the museum has applied it in this case.

The dress features vivid yellow silk, of the shade often described as Imperial Yellow, ornamented with even rows of pink flowers (probably peonies), around which flutter moths and butterflies.  The silk was almost certainly hand-painted in China, and imported into the West.  In Chinese iconography, the combination of peonies and moths symbolises the attraction between men and women, which would certainly give the dress a very flirtatious appeal!

The petticoat and front edges of the overskirt are ornamented with self fabric trim with rounded pinked upper edges, and vandyke pinked lower edges, all pressed into crips pleats.

The Met has paired it with an elaborately embroidered fichu, mushroom hat, puffed cuffs, dress cane, and green shoes.  What do you think of the overall style, and the museums styling?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10


  1. I wonder sometimes what the people of China thought of how their export goods were used! The people painting this silk could not have imagined it would make a dress like this!

    I adore Imperial yellow, so I’m predisposed toward this dress. And paniers are always fun to wear and can be either flirty or dignified, depending on how they’re styled. So there are elements I love… but something about the proportions seems off to me. Like the skirt is a bit too short for its width. (Maybe they put it on a too-tall manikin?) And the graceful elegance of the pick-ups in the back contrasts oddly with the picket-fence-like trim on the hem and the truncated shortness of the whole. It feels like it doesn’t know whether to be Rococo or Georgian.

    I love how the museum styled it in the first phot: the lunardi hat, walking stick… tres-chic. I imagine the lady wearing having a jaunty walk.

    7/10 for good materials and styling but losing point for lack of cohesion.

  2. I love the color of the silk, and the hand-painted pattern. Splendid, even though to the uneducated eye (mine) they do not look Chinese.

    I love the bodice, and the pleated self-trim, and the rear view with all of the billows. I like the accessories the museum paired with it.

    What I don’t like are the side billows of the overskirt as seen from the front. But I don’t dislike them enough to downgrade the dress much.

    8.5 out of 10.

  3. I find the whole beautifully sumptuous, and the museum’s styling graceful and appropriate. I particularly like the pinked/pleated hem treatment and the nice distribution of the painted elements.

    9 of 10

  4. It works as an ensemble., The greens and pinks pick up the colours in the print.

    I normally like polonaises, but this one feels surprisingly heavy and stiff rather than light and drapey and swoopy. It looks rather like paper sculpture. I also normally love Chinese painted silks, but again, while this is a glorious deep gold/saffron/mustard colour, I’m not sure it works as a ground for the painted design. Most 18th century painted gowns I’ve seen are on a cream ground (although Killerton House does have another hand-painted yellow gown) against which the colours of the paint just sing.

    Having said this, I do find this charming – it’s kind of like a walking cowbell, especially in that colour, and that’s oddly endearing, It’s almost comical, but in a way, although the colour feels heavy, the taffeta looks light and airy, so you kind of imagine her dancing along like a bibberty-bobberty hot air balloon.


  5. Well, I couldn’t say how, and I certainly couldn’t say “because I’d wear it” (blonde hair does not do yellow frocks) but this dress makes me like it. A lot. Perhaps because as a completely dressed assembly, it has a certain charm — I don’t know? The caught up yellow duvet at the back doesn’t match the bicycle panniers at the front, and it’s trimmed with the sort of pinked-edged ribbon that used to be fashionable for birthday cakes — I know, I know! I can look closely and see a lot of Nasty Faults — but I still Like This Dress!
    From my inexperienced but admiring eye, the young lady wearing this gets a 9/10.

    • Elise says

      True story–I am actually on the hunt for a yellow duvet, so your comment made me grin. And like you, I don’t understand the Polonaise with the wide panniers. I wonder if it wasn’t a Robe a la Francaise, that was redone, later. As it stands, it is unbalanced. But I do so love it. 8/10

  6. Emelie says

    This dress manages to at the same time be too much and too little. There is too much of a fabric coloured and patterned like this one is to not make me dizzy when looking at it, making me want it paired with a contrasting skirt or trimmed differently (and to be frank, I’m unsure of the shaping of the trim anyway). Yet the pattern is too sparse and too little for it to be really interesting.
    The bustling at the back is very attractively executed and somewhat up-weighs this and the a bit too exaggerated high and puffy shape of the paniers. Still doesn’t quite get it out of meh-land. 6/10

  7. Trish says

    Charming. Delightful. Not an easy color to wear. 8/10

  8. Tracy Ragland says

    I’m not much of a fan of yellow (I know, I know!) but I like this dress quite a lot. I love the back especially and the pinked self-trimmings. 9 out of 10

  9. Tracy says

    10! It is perfect, perfect, perfect (even though sadly it is a color i cannot wear without my complexion looking awful, like old pea soup. Sigh.) From the muted colors which don’t argue with the almost-saffron hue of the dress, to the exactly right pointed pinked trimming on the polonaise, to the equisite sheer lace, it’s perfection. (Pity the poor woman has no feet, but good on her that she can float.)

    And the hat! For once, a museum got it right and paired it with the perfect hat!

    I’m so happy.

  10. Tracy says

    Oh never mind, I see the dim shadows of feet in the first image. Can’t tell much about the shoes, though. Eh.

  11. Nina says

    I adore this ensemble/dress, the colour is thrilling and the symbolism of the motifs and the glimpses of ankles from the length make it such a flirtatious provocative outfit to me. I imagine her walking in a beautiful garden with her lover. The only thing that is off are the hideous puffed cuff which to a modern eye look like the kind of things vets put on before approaching the back end of large animals.

    • Ha-ha! Now I wonder what would happen if I told some of the beefy, rugby-playing, macho vets round here that their cattle examining gloves looked exactly like ladies’ wear from the 18th century…

  12. It’s a shame that the only picture of the front is with those awful and wrong-for-the-period paniers which ruin the shape. But I imagine the paniers away and it’s a 9. I love the silk painted dresses of the 1780s and I love the yellow. I find the pattern a bit too repetitive though. It’s very noticeable in the front… but perhaps because of the paniers?

    • Elise says

      Ah, so THAT’s why I feel it is unbalanced (or from an older dress restyled later)….the wrong paniers!

  13. Erin C says

    I’m quite fond of the fabric – I always delight in symbolism – and the colours, and the overall set of accessories is quite charming.

    …if only they hadn’t styled the front of the overskirt so lopsided! It’s all I can look at. It would be a 9 for me otherwise (I’m not a fan of the hat, but it feels rather mean to mark down the dress itself for that), but that wonky presentation brings it down to an 8.

  14. Deb says

    Forget the dress, just take it apart to reuse the absolutely beautiful fabric!!! I could make a half dozen 20s dresses!

  15. Oh my, all the pretties. In my childhood home was a set of Dresden style figurines, wearing romantic interpretations of 18th C dresses. To my young mind they epitomised pretty. This dress is so much like this, even its outrageous proportions delight me.
    The colour makes me weak at the knees. So gorgeous!

  16. Oh, I want to love it! And from the back, I do. It reminds me of a book of songs and nursery rhymes I had as a child in which the ladies wore dresses like these and high powdered wigs, so points for that. But the front image doesn’t quite win me over–the panniers feel a little too wide. And I adore the rich yellow, but feel like maybe it needs a bit more contrast to be entirely successful. Still, the fabric is stunning and the cut is so delightfully frivolous that I’ll give it an 8/10.

    • Iona and Peter Opie’s Book of Nursery Rhymes and Songs? With little pen and ink illustrations sprinkled all over the page?

      • Alice says

        No, I had an book of poetry by Iona and Peter Opie, but this was “Nursery Friends from France” from the My Travelship collection–we also had “Tales Told in Holland” which fueled a childhood desire for wooden shoes–never fulfilled.

  17. Hawke says

    I don’t like the pinked trim, since I think it makes it look like a fence around a garden which….is not a good look for a dress when the entire thing is one fabric. But my bigger problem with this dress is the color. Imperial Yellow is a fine color, and has its place – and looks absolutely lovely next to the creamy fichu. But it doesn’t work with the pattern. The flowers don’t stand out enough. It reminds me of my grandmother’s couch if someone turned up the saturation on the yellow but not the flowers. It might work better if it was embroidery, or if I saw it in person, or if I saw it when it was new. But without any way of telling what it looked like new or in person I have to rate it based off of the pictures here, which, I’m afraid, are not flattering to the imperial yellow.

    I give it a 6.

  18. From the moment I read the panniers were wrong, the dress began to make a lot more sense.
    7/10 for the dress as presumably supposed to be (I agree that the pattern doesn’t work with the fabric and the trim with the style well enough), 5/10 for panniers.

  19. Out of curiosity – I can’t actually see any hem unevenness which might indicate that the dress is worn over the wrong underpinnings. If the dress were over the “correct” underpinnings, would the hem not be more uneven and dipping?

  20. LoriWatk says

    *Sigh* I sincerely want to like it… however I can’t. The sides are off, by a lot. Regardless of what view (front or back) I look at its off. I’m one of those people who can’t wear yellow, it makes me look like I’ve got liver disease, which is not a good look for anyone. I can see this as so many things but not as this dress. I like the hat, hate the cuffs, and can’t stop thinking about Little Bo Peep.
    Fabric – 8 — dress – 5 — color – 6 — Chinese silk, painted – 9 — (wanting the fabric to make several things, yummy – 100) so on a whole I’m going to go 7 out of the 10
    It’s not normal to have one side hang that much lower, it’s disturbing to me.

  21. Lizzy says

    10/10. Love the colors, the shape and even the accessories! 🙂

  22. The painting is gorgeous, but I am not a fan of Imperial Yellow. If only the background colour was sunshine yellow, or pale green, or cream. That said, overall I like the dress. The cut and the use of self-fabric trim appeal to me. 8/10

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