Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: Lightning bolts, fringe, bobbles, straw, and miles of mauveine

What an interesting conversation we had about Heather Firbank’s  extremely purple walking costume from last week!  And what interesting ratings!  Basically, everyone who didn’t like things disliked the bits that I particularly liked.  The symmetrical/asymmetrical contrast (so weird to modern eyes, but so typical of the era) came in for particular criticism, as did the ‘mean little buckles’ (which I thought were such a neat, severe, ultra-modern touch!).

One thing that I thoroughly expected everyone to criticise the ensemble for (and which certainly annoyed me every time I looked at it) was the non-matching of the ribbon trim at the corners of the jacket.  Oddly, it received only one mention!

And that’s the fabulous thing about Rate the Dress: all these different opinions, each of us looking at the same thing, and drawing on different experiences and associations for our likes and dislikes, all rounding out to a random-but-not score, which in last week’s case, was 8.6 out of 10.

I did not intend to pick another extremely purple ensemble this week.  And then I ran across this:

And yes, it’s definitely extremely purple (well, mauve, to be very technically historical).  But it’s so fabulously fascinating I thought you’d forgive me the repetition in colour, for providing something that was so novel and interesting in so many other ways!

Things that are fascinating about this dress in three parts (skirt, day bodice with attached overskirt effect, and evening bodice):

#1:  The straw embroidery:

#2 The little straw bobble trim:

#3: The straw buttons:

#4: The fact that it’s clearly not made for a little tiny woman:

#5 The matching evening bodice (which, weirdly, does seem to be made for a much smaller woman than the day bodice, even taking in to account the style for loose sacque day bodices in the late 1860s – its almost as if the evening bodice is belted in much tighter than it should be):

#6  And the  AMAZING lightning bolt zig-zag edging on the evening bodice.

I’m assuming, based on the way the sleeves meet the beaded ribbon chemise effect underlay, that the bodice is sewn to the underlay, but it certainly looks like the lightning-bolt straw embroidery of the bodice is worked completely separately to the underlay, as it is on the sleeves.  Amazing!

#7: The interior view, which may not add anything to the dress aesthetically, but which is a wonderful thing to have from a historical costumers perspective.

Hopefully all those fascinating bits will make this stand out quite a bit from last weeks purple!  In any case, the extreme mauve-ness of this dress varies considerably depending on the lighting of the photograph, so you’ll just have to make your best judgement of what colour it really is/was, and how much you like it!

So, what do you think?  Is it a marvel of mauve or a mauve monstrosity?  Has this dress managed to turn straw into ratings gold?  Can lightning strike 10?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10


  1. I am utterly amazed by the straw ornamentation (never heard of using straw this way), and I find the combination of the golden-russet straw and the mauve quite lovely.

    Small niggles: don’t care for the paleness of the bow at the rear of the bodice (looks like it was borrowed from another outfit altogether to me); don’t care for the fringe (like the addition of a darker color to delineate the jacket, but even though I realize fringe is quite era-appropriate, it just strikes me as messy)

    8.5 of 10

  2. From your title I thought this gown was going to be a horror of mismatched decoration, but it’s really quite pleasant. I like the contrast between the goldish embroidery and the mauve (whether bluish or pinkish mauve), and the embroidery itself is skillfully done. I love the skirt. The front day view is rather mundane but from the back (and with the evening bodice) it’s smashing. Not my kind of gown, but it’s done well enough to rate a 9.

  3. I just wanted to note that I especially like the stair-step effect of the hem of the day jacket, viewed from the side. Elegant and clever.

    • Elise says

      Me too. Especially on a (oh geeze, what word to use…) larger (???) woman, stair-steps–and on the front–are especially attractive. I say that as a thing pear-shaped woman, who can’t wear diagonal lines around my waist and hips, because it throws off the whole proportion.

      I guess I wanted to say: All bodies are beautiful. And all bodies can be dressed at their most beautiful. This woman knew what worked best for her body, and did it perfectly.


  4. Julia Ergane says

    I really like the evening gown (light yellow bow aside). However, the day jacket does absolutely NOTHING for the lovely lady’s bosom! In it she would look fat and flat-chested! OH- NOs!!! I absolutely love the embroidery, the buttons, and most everything else. The rating is because of the unattractive fit of the jacket. She should have had a better modiste. 7.5/10

  5. M.K. Carroll says

    Appreciating how the design is proportioned nicely for the wearer, and that the embroidery is lively but not overwhelming. It’s the bobble trim that I find just a bit too much, imagining this in motion and seeing the reflections of the fabric and embroidery, the movement of the fringe, and *then* the bobble trim. Minus the fringe and bobbles this could be a 10 for me. 8/10

  6. Stephanie says

    I love the straw embroidery and the buttons. This work reminds me of the porcupine quill embroidery/decoration that is done by indigenous people in Canada. I like the symmetry and the geometric shapes. The fringe is OK, and the bobbles are take it or leave it. BUT the overwhelming mauveness is just too much. 4/10

  7. Not crazy on the sacque silhouette, but everything else: PERFECT!!! 10/10

    The whole dress, with the color and the motifs on the top of the shoulder, reminds me of Rapunzel and I personally wouldn’t call it mauve. More of a true mauve (in a more gray-ish form) would have looked horrendous with gold.

    • This is actually a true mauve – the colour that Perkins invented, and called mauve! The modern perception of it being much more grey and muted is the one that has switched. 🙂

      • Do you know when did that switch happen?
        For some reason, I tend to think of it as an Edwardian/1910 thing, but I have no idea why.

  8. Lynne says

    It is almost Victorian meets Country and Western. If Dolly had had a bigger waist, it would go.

    I do like it that a little round lady (and I speak as a little round lady) can be Out There and Strutting her Mauve Stuff, but it is a bit hard to take seriously.

    6 out of 10 for sheer audacity.

  9. Emelie says

    While the era connecting the rounder crinoline and the back-focused bustle usually looks wonky and unappealing to me, I must say that this dress makes a good effort to soften my feelings. The embroideries are breath-taking, the buttons adorable, though the bobble trim is not doing anything for me – it disappears in the midst of all the rest. The fringe gives it a nice break in colour, although I’m not convinced mauve is the colour that most fits this dress, be it as fashionable as it may. And then the evening bodice comes and does its best to break it. The embroidered parts of it lack the elegance of the day bodice and skirt, the neckline filler gives to sharp a break with the sleeves all while giving it a cheap look as if the underwear was peaking forth under an ill-fitting garment. And that bow simply is the wrong colour! It distracts from the skill with which the rest of the dress was composed and brings down the score a bit. 7/10

  10. Holy shoot I LOVE THIS. What an impact she must have made in that dress, with the colours and the sparkling straw. I can even forgive it for being the colours of my high school sports uniform (purple and yellow, and the regular uniform was brown WHAT were they thinking?). I do love seeing historical outfits for tout people, too. 10/10.

  11. I won’t claim the day bodice is for maternity (I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about Ca 1870 dress), but I get exactly that silhouette during mid-to-late pregnancy. Even as a somewhat fluffy woman I usually get clear waist definition in a corset, but when pregnant, this is all I can hope for 🙂

    • That is a fascinating idea. I know of no other very fancy maternity garments of this era, so I have nothing to compare it to. It would certainly have been a LOT of money to expend on a garment you’d only get to wear for a few weeks, and pretty amazing fit planning on the part of the maker!

      • Which makes my mind whirr with possibilities – maybe there was a very special (daytime, outdoors) event approaching she absolutely wanted to attend but already knew she would be in advanced stages of pregnancy for it? 🙂

    • MientjiB says

      That was also my immediate response, since I am currently at that stage of what in the 19th century was known as ‘a delicate condition’, and that silhouette is what I see in the mirror every morning 🙂

  12. Tracy says

    I’m with Kate. My jaw dropped. For the colors, the audacity, the lightening, the bobbles, the STRAW all shiny still! The matching mauve ribbon at the neck!


  13. I’m with Lynne, this gets serious extra points for sheer audacity. While I’m not a particular fan of the colour scheme, there is a lot going on in this dress and the lady for whom it was made had to have a serious amount of confidence – nothing screams “look at me!” than shiny mauve silk with gold embroidery.

    Unlike a few others, I love the baubles and fringing and I can really appreciate the workmanship in the embroidery. And, who doesn’t love a butt bow? Ok, so the bow is a bit too much and completely the wrong shade of yellow, but for me it adds to the confidence of this dress.

    7.5/10 for it being so out there as to be a little bit awesome and that it was made for a woman of substance.

  14. It’s definitely a fascinating dress, and I love how you can see all the little details in the embroidery and trim. Intellectually, it’d get a very high mark, but aesthetically… I just can’t really love the color combination (when we were little and we’d had to name a ‘crazy’ color it’d always be ‘bright purple with a golden edge’). Maybe a little more trim on the skirt would’ve helped? As is all the attention goes out to the embroidery, and while a very interesting technique, I just can’t like it as applied here. There geometrical zigzags and the organic flowers just don’t really seem to match. Taken together with the gold/purple, it just feels a bit off. Trying to do it all at once without thinking of how gold/purple/flowers/zigzags look together. 3/10

  15. apricots says

    This is like a superhero costume combined with a gown. I love the straw decorations! The buttons! The step-down cut over the back! I’m even fine with the fringing. You would Make A Statement in a dress like this. I also love that it’s in a larger size.
    My one quibble would be that I wish the decoration on the front didn’t curve upwards. Is that common or a specific design choice for this dress?

  16. Maidenfabric says

    Going along with the Maternity theory, it looks as though the Jacket could have been fashioned for that reason but the Evening Bodice seems to be of a slimmer fit, so maybe for extra wear after the event.
    I would have preferred a sloping front on the jacket rather than the steps but I do like the fringing. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to wear this Mauve though….
    8/10 for sheer effort. My compliment to the dressmaker.

  17. Wendy says

    A mauve monstrosity I’m afraid, and that’s coming from someone who really likes purple! The cut of the dress is fine but the gold embroidery is so totally OTT. (Although the technique is interesting). Get rid of all the embroidery, and re-interpret the dress in cherry-red with black fringe and I’d be in like Flynn. 4/10 sorry.

  18. Buttercup says

    I like the evening dress but i totally dislike the overcoat thingy. It just makes the whole ensemble look dowdy and frumpy. The trims are interesting but not particularly attractive. It’s very matronly and I can imagine it being worn by a bossy lady of the house. 5/10

    • Maybe that’s because it is made for a woman who is not the idealised shape of the time… not everyone is an ideal shape.

  19. Love the embroidery, and love the graphic qualities of the day bodice overskirt and I really like the straw-coloured bow on the evening bodice. It has a fabulously regal sweep with the paletot (which was the fashion of the day, I don’t think it’s frumpy at all, it’s basically like a modern tent dress, and I think we need to remember that a loose-fitting or form-camouflaging dress, if the shape is strong and geometric enough, can really imply that what lies beneath is just as perfectly formed as the outside (even if it isn’t) – something Balenciaga totally grasped. Especially as we’re talking light, swinging silk taffeta and straw embroidery, which in motion, would billow and sway and waft, suggesting that the figure beneath is probably as svelte as the clapper in a bell. So it’s really quite flattering.

    On the other hand, I don’t think I dig the fringe, it’s just there, I kind of get it’s there to emphasise the stepping of the overskirt, but it’s kind of a nothing-much addition, and I wonder if straw-coloured fringe or even little strings of straw pom-poms and some tassel-tying interspersed with the fringing would have enlivened it up even more.

    Rating? 7.5/10.

    • I second your rating for similar reasons, although I must say in this particular case, I have a hard time picturing the swelte figure underneath, even if I get the concept. Maybe if I saw it in person and saw the nature of the fabric better… It’s probably also the fact of a huge cage crinoline completely hidden underneath creating very odd proportions that makes me predisposed against the late 1860s execution of the concept as compared to the the way it tended to be done in the preceding and following century. If I don’t get my 18th century confused, that is; if I don’t, I think it tended to be done on a slightly more modest scale, which I like better.

      As for the colour (not you, others are bringing that up) – it’s an Italian dress, and I think there certainly are people in south Europe with colouring that could pull that off with aplomb. I couldn’t, and most Czechs couldn’t, but some people certainly can.

      So, as I said seconded – 7,5/10

  20. Kit says

    I do hope the wearer suited mauve!
    As much as I like the shape of elliptical crinolines, when they start to head towards bustle territory as well I think they do start to look as if they are engulfing the wearer. The broad sleeves and cut of the day bodice does rather add to the swamped effect as well. But, such was the fashion, and although I can criticise that I cannot in any way criticise this dress.
    I think the acres of vibrant mauve are fantastic and the design, arrangement and execution of the embroidery is superb. The stepped hem of the day bodice and the neckline of the evening bodice are particularly effective. The details of buttons and bobbles are beautifully worked and I’m even going to go with the purple fringe (though Daniel may well be right that a straw colour might have looked better — I just can’t decide so will go with the purple which does at least give a strong break and ‘punctuation’ to all that mauve).
    I’m having great fun zooming in on all the details and the bravura embroidery of this dress. It’s a monstrously mauve 10.

  21. Rachel says

    This is awesome. I never thought I could love straw so much. The whole dress is opulent, and cozy looking, and electric, and just – wow. Though I do dislike that pale yellow bow. This is a dress that kind of wants to be heavy and rich, like a slice of really good cheesecake. I don’t think it wants that bit of meringue.

    The bolty embroidery on the evening bodice – I love it so much! But I don’t like the little demure inset with the teensy bow. True, I imagine, back then, those jagged lines might not have automatically signified “lightning bolts”, but the inset still seems too tame and conventional.

    This is just a really cool dress.


  22. angela says

    Intriguing! Imagine the woman that can pull off this look! 8/10

  23. LoriWatk says

    OKAY! That was odd… I’m doing this rating twice, my first rating disappeared. Well I guess my computer didn’t want anyone to read what I wrote the first time, so I’ll type it again… 🙂 So… I didn’t post last week because I was so on the fence with last week’s suit set. I hated it, I loved it, I hated it, I loved it… and in the end I just hated it. This week I’m on the fence just a bit. There are truly fascinating aspects of this dress, I like the idea that it might have been a maternity dress. I hate to think that this woman was a Barbie doll in a trash bag. I like the idea of it being for a robust (? larger, thicker, etc…) woman. Whether she was pregnant or just robust its great to see this in something other then a teeny tiny woman. So… onto my rating 🙂
    Hate the jacket – love the bodices, especially the view of the inside
    Hate the fringe – love the straw embroidery (wondering how hard that would have been to do? Hmmm…
    Hate the design of some of the straw embroidery – hate the baubles – hate the bow on the back (maybe the color has faded, would have loved it a fresh gold color) – LOVE the buttons, oh how I love those buttons.
    Hate the skirt but like it… some. I don’t like the hem on the side, it looks odd.
    Like, hate, love, hate, hate… okay like the color, in the second picture. I like the muted color much more then I like the bright mauve. I’m trying (too hard I think) to imagine this dress on a woman and in that era and my mind is pulling a blank. Except with that second picture. I think the waist is also prettier in the second picture, there is just something oddly beautiful about that second picture that pulls me in.
    So with all that blundering and beating around the bush, I’m going to give it a 9, just on that second picture and the inside of the bodice (oh what a joy to see that picture).

  24. I’ve never seen straw embroidery before, and I’m impressed. It reflects light beautifully, and it goes so well with mauve. I particularly like the back view, with the geometric shape of the bodice in combination with the embroidery. 10/10

  25. Elizabeth says

    I really like the colour mauve, I really like straw embroidery, gold embellishment, and I occasionally like fringe. This dress somehow brings all those things together in a way I find hideously unattractive! The jagged lines of the embroidery grate on my eyes, especially paired with flowers AND spots, and the step-downs just jar with the curves of the rest. And bobbles, I feel, should not be paired with fringe save on small children. I do like the buttons. 2/10

  26. I rather like it. The day bodice reminds me of maternity wear with the way it skims over the front, and then the evening bodice was made either for before or after baby. Love the straw embroidery and the colour, drool!

  27. Now I’m really wondering how you do straw embroidery without the straw breaking.

    I’m also wondering if the night bodice was belted smaller than the bodice is? With the wide belt, it was hard to tell.

    I’m having a hard time deciding on this dress for a rating, so I’ll give it a 7/10 for sheer audacity even if I’m not sure I like it.

    • I don’t know much about straw embroidery, including what kind of straw they use, but if you look at a lot of straw hats, they are braided very finely without breaking, so do bend nicely. Ff you sliced the straw in half, it would be even more flexible, so I assume this is what’s going on.

      • Moisture. Water bath. Something along those lines. And, indeed, slicing it in half.
        I’ve never done it, but years ago I’ve read a tutorial – not for embroidering, mind you; straw is also used to decorate Easter eggs around here (Czechia and, presumably, also somewhere in the surrounding countries). Well, it’s used if you’re traditional and ambitious. Google results below.
        You need to moisture it even to be able to cut those precise shapes, so I think we can assume it works for shaping into embroidery and hat braids as well.

  28. Sally says

    This is unrelated but I have been meaning to ask after reading your amazing posts of corsets. When a corset says that the bust measurement should be the same as your natural measurement (same goes for hips) do they mean laced or unlaced? If laced, should I add a few inches to account for the future lacing?

    • Unfortunately I can’t answer that question, because it’s going to depend on who is making/writing/saying what the corset measurement should be – you’d have to ask them what they meant!

  29. I didn’t expect to like this, but I do. It’s bold and unusual, and the woman who wore it was a real sized person! 9/10

    • Well, I never post doll’s clothes in Rate the Dress, so all the RTD items are for real sized people 😉 As long as we haven’t had huge amounts of plastic surgery to change our shape to something that nature wouldn’t create on its own, we’re all real sized people. 🙂 I really think we need to avoid using the term ‘real’ to mean ‘not slim’ as it’s pretty discriminatory against women who are naturally slim. Society is so hard on women – the least we can do is not exclude groups in a misguided effort to celebrate and support other groups.

      I wrote a whole post about this actually…https://thedreamstress.com/2011/11/in-praise-of-reality/

      • Several commenters on here have dismissed the jacket because it is not cut for an idealised womanly shape, where the bust is bigger than the waist. It is frumpy or matronly etc. It doesn’t fit with the fantasy of the fashion plates and so many of the extant garments. I’ve seen this before not just in RTD type posts, but all over the place – garments that could be worn by any size of woman shown in larger sizes generally get a much more negative response. So, when Gillian talks of “real’ then I get what she is saying. it is not a euphemism of fat, it is an acknowledgement of a garment cut for a real and underrepresented figure shape – small bust and wider waist.

        • I know exactly what she’s saying, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t hurtful and dismissive if you happen to have a body shape that fits the ‘ideal’ – you often can’t help that any more than you can help having one that doesn’t. Real is not a good term to describe a specific non idealised body shape, because it implies that other body shapes are NOT real.

  30. Kristine says

    First time I saw this, I hated it. Second time, I like it. I think the buttons down the front of the day jacket, plus the trim on the stepped bits, just push it over into “too much” territory for me. OTOH, I really like the evening bodice.

    I know sloped shoulders were in fashion in some periods, what did women with square shoulders do? I naturally have broad and square shoulders, would I just have been hopelessly demode during those time periods?

    My rating for this dress: 7/10

  31. Hayley says

    YES YES YES. I love everything about this dress – although personally a darker shade of purple would have been more my colour, and set off the straw embroidery better. All the daring features on the dress that some dislike make me like it even more, as if the designer took the risky option every time – conventional trim, or bobble? BOBBLE. Subtle mauve or offensively mauve? OFFENSIVE. Restrained symmetric straw embroidery or loud crazy zigzags? CRAZY.

    This is no dress for a shrinking violet, (pun totally intended) the woman wearing this must have had an exuberant personality and sharp wit. A dress for a bold, formidable woman with a sense of humour, who attracted attention for the unusual daring features on her dress – and enjoyed it.


  32. Hawke says

    I don’t the color combination of bright purple and bright yellow. Id’ve paired the purple with green or made the purple less vivid. I don’t like the fringe, it looks out of place. Everything else I’m enjoying (well, for the era!). The sillhouette is nice, the stair on the day jacket wonderful, the patterns well thought out. I really wish I could see the evening top on a woman shaped the way the dress was made, because it’s lovely from what I can see but that’s not much :/ And the bow on the evening gown – makes a better color with the purple than the bright straw, but it doesn’t match, so I’m torn…

  33. Nicole B. says

    I know this is long after the post, but I just happened upon it, and–
    I very strongly believe that the day bodice remains as designed, but the evening bodice was re-cut for a smaller-figured woman with the idea of saving as much of the detail work as possible. The false chemise around the neckline would not have originally been present, and was perhaps added for modesty. The big bow would have been added then, as well. Expensive gowns were often passed down and remade, and a granddaughter or niece may have taken the wealthy older lady’s gown from a previous season and made good reuse of it at this year’s dances. The waistband of the skirt is probably heavily taken in as well.
    My humble opinion? Madam Mauve was smashing it, but Miss Mauve needed a more sensitive seamstress.

Comments are closed.