Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: All-Black Aestheticism

Responses to last week’s russet & cream pleats and drapes ca. 1880 Rate the Dress took me more than a  little by surprise, as I thought the dress was striking, beautifully and skilfully made, and profoundly, irredeemably, ugly.    My opinion was clearly not shared by the vast majority of you   (and that’s totally OK!) – as most of you adored it, bringing it in at a rosy 8.5 out of 10!  The joy and beauty of Rate the Dress – seeing the beauty of a garment you think is terrible through someone else’s eyes and perspective, and vice versa!

This week, to avoid any clashing colours, I’ve chosen a dress in  black on black, enlivened with embroidery, smocking, ruching, and delicate buttons.  This aesthetic style dress may have been for someone unconventional enough to adopt aesthetic dress, while conventional enough to adhere to mourning customs, or simply for someone who liked the colour, as black became increasingly fashionable in its own right at the end of the 19th century.

Black Aesthetic style smocked dress, Liberty & Co, 1890-1905, china silk, Augusta Auctions Lot- 239 May 9, 2017

Black Aesthetic style smocked dress, Liberty & Co, 1890-1905, china silk, Augusta Auctions Lot- 239 May 9, 2017

Black Aesthetic style smocked dress, Liberty & Co, 1890-1905, china silk, Augusta Auctions Lot- 239 May 9, 2017

Black Aesthetic style smocked dress, Liberty & Co, 1890-1905, china silk, Augusta Auctions Lot- 239 May 9, 2017

Black Aesthetic style smocked dress, Liberty & Co, 1890-1905, china silk, Augusta Auctions Lot- 239 May 9, 2017

Black Aesthetic style smocked dress, Liberty & Co, 1890-1905, china silk, Augusta Auctions Lot- 239 May 9, 2017

Black Aesthetic style smocked dress, Liberty & Co, 1890-1905, china silk, Augusta Auctions Lot- 239 May 9, 2017

Black Aesthetic style smocked dress, Liberty & Co, 1890-1905, china silk, Augusta Auctions Lot- 239 May 9, 2017

Black Aesthetic style smocked dress, Liberty & Co, 1890-1905, china silk, Augusta Auctions Lot- 239 May 9, 2017

This dress is  a rather unusual choice for Rate the Dress, as it’s in an upcoming auction, so if this really is a 10/10 for you, it could be yours!

So, what do you say?  Is sable on sable working for you?  Do the details complement each other, and the austere colour?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10


  1. Bernice says

    I think this dress is elegant and well balanced but the smocking isn’t really working for me. The little stitches of the smocking just disrupt the overall elegance of the dress, I think. Also, not sure if I’m being pedantic here but the smocking at the back is a bit uneven on one side which irritates me profoundly. Also I think with all that smocking at the waist and at the neckline, it’s all a bit much, especially since the skirt is so plain. I would have replaced or covered up the dress with a Swiss belt/ waist, personally. However, overall I like the austerity of the dress (I for one would have worn that even out of mourning) and the awesome sleeves (because you can’t go wrong with 3/4 length sleeves) and the subtle embroidery at the neck which I’ve just noticed has just sold the outfit for me.

  2. Florence says

    I like the lean lines/shape in this dress. No huge sleeves and no pigeonbreast, so to my modern eye, the silhouette is very pleasing.
    The texture added through the schmocking is perfect to make it interesting.

    I think this would also look fabulous in white.

    Could someone more knowledgeable than me date this in a smaller range than the 1890-1905 in the listing? Or was this style worn through all this range of years and I just don’t know because the fashion plates only show what’s new and fashion-forward?

    To me, it’s a 10/10!

  3. Baa says

    I love the smocking & the embroidery but not the ruching on the sleeves I’d like a plain straight sleeve. I’d wear this dress now. 8.5

  4. Rachel says

    Oh my! What a flattering dress – and really kind of timeless, I think.

    It’s modest without being prudish. It probably moves beautifully, but it still has shape and structure. I suppose it could run the risk of looking a little witchy, but it’s so so romantic. It could compliment different body types, and, style-wise, I think you could wear it today. It’s just really lovely.

    And it doesn’t even have much of a pigeon breast!

    I really, really like it. The black sets off the lines of the dress even more beautifully.


    • Elise says

      Exactly, timeless. In fact, my inner 90s Goth that never went away may or may not have owned a dress just like this one! It makes it too personal to rate, but wanted to pop up and support your “timelessness” of it.

  5. Love this gown! It reminds me of my wedding dress which my mother lovingly smocked for me. I would wear it in a heartbeat. 10/10

  6. PepperReed says

    Love this! I’m not a smocking fan, but it’s used to good effect here. I wish there was a close up of the sleeves.

    Solid 8 out of 10.

  7. redbarngirl says

    It looks an awful lot like a graduation gown, and that is coloring my view of it. Minus the waist smocking, it would blend in nicely at graduation, and that’s not a good thing. I want to like it a lot, but I can’t. 6/10

  8. I love the surprise of intricate needlework half-hidden in tone-on-tone. And what is even more appealing, the natural silhouette looks comfortable, so 10/10

  9. Tracy W says

    Someone (or several someones) was or were extremely good at smocking. Pity they used their skills on this dropped waist nightgown of a dress. And I usually love black, too! The work is amazing. The dress is, sadly, not.

    4/10 for the mad skilz.

    • LoriWatk says

      Just had to applaud your use of the phrase “mad skilz” which made me smile.

  10. Tracy Ragland says

    This dress isn’t my favorite. The overall line is nice, but the sleeves seem discordant. A plainer sleeve would suit me better. The main problem is the uneven smocking at center back. All of the attention to detail and the back doesn’t line up??? 6/10

  11. MayravB says

    I love it! An elegant, adult version of smocking that isn’t twee.

  12. Samantha says

    Smoking! I love it but I hate the smocking (I think that’s what I’m looking at) running down the sleeve.

    One day I’m going to figure out how to get my pleater to work in the middle of my fabric Luke that but until then, I’m going 8.5.

  13. KDB says

    LOVE IT…the colour, [most of] the smocking…would wear something heavily inspired by this piece as part of my modern wardrobe.

  14. Tegan says

    It’s very well executed. Something that simple HAS to be perfectly executed. But I really hate Aesthetic movement clothing. It just looks so blah.
    4/10 for perfect construction does not redeem boring

  15. Oh my. I think I’m in love with this dress with all the fiery passion of 100,000 suns.

    And I’m not generally a fan of black clothes on me (my eyes skip over the colour whenever I’m clothes shopping or looking at fashion plates. I have no idea why. I don’t own a LBD because I can never seem to find one…) nor am I big fan of ruched sleeves.

    I am, however, a fan of monocolour embroidery on the same coloured background. Add some smocking to give shape and I’m totally there.

    9/10 from me!

  16. apricots says

    The detail on the neckline is stunning, the gathers look nice and comfortable, the smocking is great. BUT I am really not a fan of the sleeves! They look puffy, and not in a good way. The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man would turn to this dress for formal wear. 4/10 as I’m on the verge of calling the Ghostbusters to take out those sleeves.

  17. Buttercup says

    Yes I think it’s a winner. I like the shape, style and detail. I could imagine someone wearing this dress today. 8/10.

  18. Fascinating, it’s clearly a slight evolution of this dress with more updated details to keep it fashionable, but still recognisably the same model with a lot of the same detailing.


    What strikes me is that the dress is too elongated. It is hanging on the figure with gravity pulling out the bloused bodice – the dropped waist should be higher, up under the bust, so the figure is too tall for the dress, and the waist is a little too long and the hips too narrow to hold it up.

    Also, all-in-black makes it lose a lot of impact – in another colour, you could really appreciate the detail and delicacy, as this is a beautifully conceived dress and I love how it has been adjusted and modified to keep it on-trend while retaining the familiar lines of the original concept. You could see Liberty maybe doing this dress for every decade in the 20th century and it working quite well most decades, except maybe for the 1920s, and even then, I bet it would work well with less clinging waist smocking to maintain a more elongated silhouette.

    So this is a beautifully conceived staple design that is let down by mounting and distortions, and by being in a drab, all-swallowing colour that sucks up a lot of the beauty in the detailing. This would be so beautiful in other colours, and yes, it is chic in black, but it feels like it has been dyed black, the colour is so flat and lifeless and not at all like you’d expect a lovely Liberty black dress to be – barely any jewel tones, lustre, glow, texture, even the lovely embroidered accents are the same tone of black.

    6/10. A good (if slightly “safe” classic) design that suffers from a poor choice of fabric (or poor choice in re-dyeing), unfortunate distortions, and rather basic mounting that looks like it was just dropped over the top of the dummy. Another colour would immeasurably improve it.

    • Elise says

      Really, dyed? How interesting to think of a “make do and mend” mentality to turn a general dress into a mourning dress….

    • Well, would you look at that, that execution of the idea did put pleats at the bottom, as I suggested (below) for the rated dress!

  19. Chelsea says

    Think I would go blind trying to make something like it…but oh my!!! Amazing 10/10

  20. I love velvet, especially black velvet. I’m not fond of the loose smocked Aesthetic design, but such a dress is hard to rate on a mannequin, whether well-displayed or not. How well such a simple dress looks would depend more upon the coloring, bearing, and personality of the wearer.

    The handwork is lovely, but it makes little or no fashion impact because it cannot be clearly seen at “social” distance. (I can barely even see the buttons in the close-up, though that’s because my monitor tends to display on the dark side. Still, black-on-black can be harder to see and appreciate than white-on-white.)

    So overall I agree with Daniel though my reasons are slightly different. 6 out of 10.

  21. Stephanie says

    It’s stunning. I love its subtlety and how it is both structured and soft, austere without being severe. It also reminds me of my beloved great auntie Jean, who made smocked dresses first for my mum and her two sisters and then for me and all my cousins (the boys got romper suits instead of dresses). I even wore some of Mum’s dresses when I was little. During and just after World War II, Auntie Jean worked at a very prestigious girl’s school in Ottawa. While she was there, she would smock dresses for her nieces and the students would sew them. So I would wear this dress in a heart beat. I would even consider learning to smock to make this dress. 10/10

  22. Julia Ergane says

    Generally I like black dresses; however, I do not like this black dress. I agree that the mounting is all wrong, so any pluses it might have are severely diminished. In my opinion, it looks like a Great Plains settler’s dress, not something to be worn to tea. The fabric has no oomph at all. OK. I can possibly see Virginia Woolf in it. Anyway, I would not like to look like a bag of potatoes. Rating 5/10

  23. Nanny Norfolk says

    A lovely dress, apart from the sleeves which I think should have been less fussy. It must have been so more comfortable to wear than the mainstream fashions of the time.
    Liberty made lots of dresses in these arty styles. Black silk doesn’t age well because of the dyes used & as it was a Liberty dress it may have even been dyed with natural dyes which black doesn’t age well & often fell to bits being weighted with iron salts.
    But I’ll give it 9/10 because I don’t like the sleeves.

  24. Erin says

    I absolutely love this dress, maybe especially because I’ve been studying turn of the century fashion lately. It takes all the best ideas from the era and makes modern, like the pigeon breast ruching and crazy sleeve detail. The black is super elegant and non fussy. Though I agree that the display is lacking, my imagination filled in the gaps -10/10

  25. Daaaayummm look at that smocking! So detailed, giving emphasis in ALL the right places. No joke, I might use this as inspiration for a modern dress! 10/10

  26. mom says

    I love the silhouette of the dress minus the sleeves.
    While the dress looks elegant, flowing, with pleasing hints of Greek and Roman style, the sleeves look as if somebody ripped them off one of Good Queen Victoria’s frumpy widowhood gowns and tacked them on the dress.
    The smocking is lovely, but am I the only one who thinks that it oddly highlights the boobies (à la fifties comics heroine)?
    I would also have opted for a slightly lower neckline and no embroidery on the collar. It looks to boring and conventional.


    • You know, now you bring it up, that smocked bodice is similar to 1930-40s(-50s?) peasant blouses…
      (I did notice, but I don’t think it’s that odd.)

  27. Susan says

    Aesthetic movement, Liberty’s, smocking – oh, my, I can hear the bells ringing! What a great little black dress…very much of its time, but also timeless.

    If I were skinny enough, I’d wear it now. Happily.

    And I don’t even wear black very much (well, there WAS that sleeveless, ruffled full skirted black dress shortly after I turned 16, at my cousin’s Christmas party where I met that cute boy and we danced all night…but I digress. This dress is MUCH better).


  28. Judi says

    I like it. If I were forced to wear full mourning for a year, I would certainly wasn’t this tip be one of my day dresses.

  29. The back really is uneven – as we can see on the buttons – I wonder it it’s just the presentation.
    I don’t like the buttons, but I try not to hold it against the dress. It does seem too fussy a detail to me compared to the rest of the dress, though, although I suppose there are much worse options.
    Also, the ruching (?) on the sleeves is like a detail too much, above the almost plain skirt. Or, maybe, I would have liked it better if the skirt ended in pleats echoing the pleats on the sleeves.
    On the whole, though, a very elegant dress indeed, and one of the best takes on aesthetic smocking I’ve seen so far. All of the above are mostly minor nitpicks. I think I’ll stick with last week’s rating and call this dress an 8, too.

    • Further thoughts: this was probably fitted to the wearer. Maybe the wearer was uneven – entirely plausible.

      Also, I should mention that I love the lines of the neckline.

      • LoriWatk says

        I don’t think the wearer was that uneven, but high hipped, oh that I can see. I’ve got that issue, high hip bones that make finding jeans that look good and not… ummm what’s a good word for not looking trashy? You get the idea. I’d say this lady was not tall but sure looked like she was. And I too love that neckline.

        • *waves to fellow hip-bone sufferer* My big hips are apparently mostly hip bone. It’s a very recent realisation, born out of careful measuring for sewing purposes, that explains a lot.

          • And my pear shape isn’t hips at all! It’s all rear end! It’s why stuff designed for pear shapes doesn’t fit me at all – I’m just an hourglass with a couple extra hours tucked behind! 😉

          • 😀 Now that’s a very funny way to put it! I actually tend to think of myself similarly, only mine aren’t in the back, and I’ve never thought of that particular expression!

  30. LoriWatk says

    I’ve been trying to decide if the smocking is off or if it’s just the presentation of it that has affected the view of it? The world (as we know it) may never know. I like (love) and dislike (totally hate) it all at the same time. I use to be so clear on my view of things, then I started reading this website and now I’m not clear on anything. OH JOY!!! I’m not going to split the difference in my love hate relationship with this. I’m going to assume the presentation of this is wrong, I sincerely doubt that someone doing all that work would be off by that much. The buttons are horrible, I hate them, but not the use of them or the location, that is divine. The sleeves are weird if not just odd, I like the length of them. The skill alone to do all that embroidery is very nice. Love the detail of it, hate the black on black. Black silk I see does not age well, there is just no life (no pun intended) left in this mourning frock. I completely agree with Daniel, thank you for posting that link, that has helped me. So I’m going to give it…. drum roll please….. a solid 9, I seem to love it more as I stare at it. Still hate the buttons.

  31. Hawke says

    This is a wonderful dress. Simple but interesting to look at, rather timeless – I can easily picture this dress, with a few minor alterations being worn by a woman on the street today. The smocking is well utilized, the embroidery is gorgeous. But really, the thing that’s jumping out at me as wonderful in particular is that this dress could work in a lot of other colors. If anything, it might work *better* in a lighter color, the tone on tone embroidery showing up better on a lavender or pale pink.

    The only problem is, those sleeves. Oh my goodness me those sleeves. They look so completely different from the rest of the dress, not just in style and construction, but as if they were pinned on. “Woops! Forgot the sleeves! I’d better dye and pin on the sleeves from this other dress!” The left one in particular (our right, the wearer’s left) looks like it belongs on one of those jointed teddy bears. It’s distracting me every time I look at it, but I’m not sure what I’d replace the sleeves *with*.

    9/10, lost a point for the sleeves.

  32. Lynne says

    That is just lovely. Okay, it is simple, not spectacular, but I would consider sacrificing an eye tooth for that dress.

    9 out of 10 (Because a 10 really has to tap-dance hard!)

  33. M.K. Carroll says

    A perhaps irrational 10/10 because the remnants of my youthful goth self immediately went into a full swoon at the first photo and has yet to recover.

  34. metmuseum.orgmetmuseum.orgmetmuseum.orgI got curious and did some looking around, and there really were quite a number of variations on this design!

    The FIT Museum have ANOTHER variation in brown silk velvet with VERY different sleeves.

    Oh, and here’s a yummy raspberry pink girl’s version:

    Another pink version – different neckline, but clearly along the same lines:

    And another variation in a rather unlovely colour (but still more nuanced than the black here) in the Met:

    Also from the Met, pink satin with a matching cape:

    The Met also have this REALLY interesting purple one which looks like the same dress, but without any smocking at the waist (deliberate, or unpicked? I think deliberate as I can’t see stitch marks in the detail shots…) It still has the button detail though….

    And just because I mentioned I thought it might be workable for all decades in the 20th century, even the 1920s – it looks like Libertys gave it a go even then! The same ideas seem to be there….

  35. I really like the tone-on-tone decoration. Overall I don’t love this dress, because something about the sleeves feels a bit off to me, but I don’t dislike it either. I can imagine it looks better in person than in photographs though. 7/10

  36. 15/10!!!! I love it. Mind you, I’m an heirloom sewing and smocking fanatic from way back. This is an incredible example of handwork. It’s wonderfully preserved for a 100+ year old dress.

    For all those saying the smocking is a little off, remember they were pleating by hand, and measuring by eye. And black on black is HARD!

  37. Kirri says

    Love this one. Beautiful shape to stocking and sleeves. Such lovely stocking! I don’t like black particularly but this is 9 out of 10!

    (And I agree about last weeks – ugly!)

  38. I’d say last week’s dress was deeply dignified. Not sure I’d go as far as ugly, but it had a lot of dignity and presence and elegance. None of which are incompatible with ugly. Actually I’d call it a handsome dress rather than an ugly dress. Not pretty or beautiful, but handsome.

    • Without the trim (or with different trim), I would totally agree to dignity, presence, elegance, and thorough handsomeness. But the trim just did not do it for me!

      • Meanwhile, I rather liked the trim! Except the placement at the bodice. Something about the trim was so much “1880s engraving” that I could not help but love it. Full disclosure: I think it probably has something to do with the period illustrations to the Jules Verne novels I liked growing up.

        • LoriWatk says

          I really liked the trim on last week’s dress… I’m right there in that Jules Verne group so I can totally see that!

          **WAVES** Hi! 🙂

  39. I love it! simple, elegant, refined and revolutionary! I am trying to think of an excuse to make one! 10/10

    • LoriWatk says

      Excuses to make this dress are as follows —
      1) I love it enough to make it — nuff said
      2) Its timeless (no mourning required — nuff said
      3) If you like it enough to make it then you go girl!

  40. Wendy says

    i am too late to vote but give 9/10 anyway. Most aesthetic/reform dresses are hideously frumpy but this is elegant and stylish, as to be expected from a Liberty aesthetic dress. i don’t mind the sleeves!

  41. Ahna says

    Took my time savoring this post. What could be better than literature and accompanying costume?
    Please, may we have another?

Comments are closed.