Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: Arabella in all the ruffles

I was rather surprised at how many people didn’t like last week’s ivory and gold lace-embellished frock.  I thought, in the general scheme of ca 1850 evening wear, it was rather fetching without being too frou-frou, and while a lot of you agreed with me (Kate said everything I might have by describing it as “Sweet and demure, but lustrous and rich, ethereal and pretty”), a lot of you also thought it was totally blah and forgettable.

So it only came in at 7.4 out of 10 – not very impressive at all.

Since I promised colour, this week’s Rate the Dress goes back a century to another lace-embellished ballgown.

Here is  Arabella Astley Swimmer in a very pink frock embellished with poofs and ruffles in delicate white silk, with spangles in silver, and beads in black.

I’ve provided two version of the image: a smaller one, with slightly better quality details, and a larger version.

Arabella is shown carrying a masquerade mask, but that reflects more of the fashion in portraiture than that her dress was specifically for masquerades.

Anton Raphaël Mengs, Arabella Astley Swimmer, Lady Vincent of Stoke D’Abernon, 1753

Other then the spectacular ornamentation of the petticoat, and the elaborately ruffled stomacher, the dress is pretty standard mid-18th century high-fashion formal attire, with the one other quite interesting feature being the double sleeves, with small upper puffs with dangling ruffles above the usual elbow ruffles.

Anton Raphaël Mengs, Arabella Astley Swimmer, Lady Vincent of Stoke D'Abernon, 1753

Anton Raphaël Mengs, Arabella Astley Swimmer, Lady Vincent of Stoke D’Abernon, 1753

What do you think?  Is Arabella’s frock memorable and fabulous in the general scheme of 1750s fashion, or nothing much special?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10.


  1. SueAnne says

    I really like it! The layered sleeves look like a lot of fun, and I rather enjoy the detailed trim and the petticoat. Too bad she didn’t sit for a second painting of the back of the dress, haha; I’m curious if the back of the bodice had any special ornamentation.
    10/10 for the front of the dress!

  2. I would have liked it a lot–it’s a charming color, and a graceful mid-18thc silhouette–with just the right amount of lace. But the black bead trim greatly detracts from the look, in my opinion–it makes me think of raisins in a cake, rather than fashion.

    A 6 out of 10, only.

  3. Lynne says

    It is pleasing and rich without somehow having the wow factor. The black lifts the pink, and much bother has been gone to on the petticoat. The sleeves are graceful, with their lace.

    8 out of 10.

  4. Tracy says

    I agree with SuAnne, except I’m not curious about the back as much – and I love the pink/ white/ black combination. Are those spangles on the white lace though, between the black beads? My one and only (so far) 18th century dress is that color pink, with silver lace edging the furbelows. So yeah, definitely a happy sight to me.


  5. I like it a lot but I am torn on the the black beads. On the one hand they distract from the general colour scheme and looks like she has thrown raisins all over her, but the distraction is also good because otherwise the whole gown would probably have been too sweet and too frou-frou.

    Since I can’t decide, but like the general look I will go for a 7/10.

  6. I really like those pops of black against the rose pink in this dress, and the contrast does make it a little bit edgier. The higher sleeve ruffles are also something I’ve never seen before, and I think they are amazing – I’m fascinated and intrigued, and I’m so happy to see something I’ve not seen before from this period. The frou-frou isn’t overdone as the embellishments are so tight and restrained and controlled, it could so easily be an explosion of whipped-cream and floof. What is also absolutely fascinating is that there seem to be stripes of the gathered gauze around the skirt, probably concealing all the seam lines, and I think that is fabulous too, this is a 18th century dress with a LOT more attention to detail than usual.

    It’s a good shade of pink for her too, and in general – this is an edgy rose pink, rather than a sweet insipid pink or an aggressive in-yer-face pink (which I do like, but not in this instance) and I think it suits the sitter very well. She looks extremely clued-in and on the ball. quite intelligent and confident, and like she knows her mind. So she is wearing this dress, there is a real balance between the sitter and the frock, with neither overpowering the other, but both really standing on their own merits.

    I also love the mask as an accessory – so interesting that it’s a mask that looks like a face wearing a mask, and I think it adds to the overall intellectual/intelligence effect – this is a woman saying “Just because I am wearing a pretty pink dress in a pretty pink portrait doesn’t mean that I’m a painted doll. See, I don’t need a pretty pink doll-face to meet with your approval. Any complaints?”


  7. Florence says

    First of all, great skill by the painter! I can almost hear the silk rustle…

    I really like that it’s not Barbie-pink but leaning more towards coral. That makes it a very sophisticated colour. I agree with some of the other commentators that the black is needed to stop from being to sweet and girly.
    I’m not sure about the upper-arm-ruffles, but I love how the trim ties everything together with the petticoat.

  8. This is the ultimate pink frou-frou “princess” dress.
    Not really my thing personally, but pretty much the most perfect example of its kind I can imagine, i.e. perfectly of its kind yet without being boring and predictable.
    It also seems to be slightly assymmetrical? I should maybe be annoyed by that, but I’m not. It’s definitely way more intriguing than I normally find pink frou-frou to be, so, yay for the dress and the wearer – I like Daniel’s observations.

    (The raisins comparison is amusing, but I don’t see it. If I see anything, it’s blackberries!)

    • P.S. Trying to picture it as an extant dress: depending on the state of the colours and how well the fluffiness of the ruffles would be preserved, and maybe museum presentation, it could be either rather awful, or still gorgeous.
      The mental image makes me wonder about other extant 18th century dresses I’ve seen, and how the rigidity of museum presentation may detract from some.

  9. I really like it; theres something about the way painters capture taffeta that makes the ensemble much more opulent than the reality of design; maybe its all the minute wrinkles. I like this design and the creative sleeves, but its not quite a 10 because I think the stomacher needs something. Like a black bow.

    This lady is quite beautiful, but I can’t help but feel that that thing in her hair is a spoon…..


  10. I found myself nodding in agreement when I read Catherine Raymond’s comment, except that my impression was some sort of plant disease rather than raisins. I think if the black had been applied in some sort of very narrow band in appropriate locations I could have appreciated the combination better.

    The coral tone of the pink for me save the garment (sans beads) from insipidity.

    8 of 10

    7 of 10

  11. Julia Ergane says

    LOVE LOVE LOVE Now this is a dress I would not be ashamed to put in my closet! It is utter perfection for the mid-18th century. It has just the right amount of frou. I absolutely LOVE the sleeves! 10/10

  12. Rachel says

    I love both the sleeves and the bright salmony color. The cut looks very uncomfortable, though I know that was style.

    The little black embellishments are trouble. Once I stopped thinking about a ham dotted with cloves (at least there won’t be another one at the masquerade), I started thinking about fly paper.

    But that aside – while I’m not super fond of very frilly, lacy, bouffant dresses, I think this dress strikes a great balance. It’s way frilly, but something about it carries that frilliness so well. It doesn’t feel ridiculous. And I’m in love with that neck ruffle.

    I’ve seen the mask-in-hand in other portraits, but I’ve never known what it signifies. That we’re seeing the subject’s true self? Hardly seems likely, in such a studied and opulent composition.


  13. Johanne says

    Don’t always agree with Daniel. For all the reasons he stated, today I do. This dress is exciting and makes the wearer intriguing.


  14. ceci says

    She looks so beautiful and smart…..I’m a bit troubled by the way she seems to be rotated at the waist so that the skirt is more oriented toward the front of the picture than her torso is – hope she didn’t stand like that long!

    I understand the desire for a sophisticated black accent but I wonder if that’s our times vs hers; the wearing of pink might have been edgy enough then? I think I’d like it better with pearls or perhaps gold beads in place of the black. The hair thing does look like a spoon – maybe its some kind of feather tuft, though?



    • I think one side of the overskirt is lifted slightly/pulled back to show more of the petticoat and offer more sense of movement and drapery as well as balance the composition better.

  15. Erin says

    I immediately went to the comments on this one to see what everyone else thought! I do like the carnival vibe on this dress; the sleeves are incredible, the black embellishment is so fun on the salmon background, and the stomacher is nice and restrained. However, I feel like it could have been elevated with a focal point, maybe a larger black embellishment somewhere? It’s close but somehow lacking… 7/10

  16. Kathleen says

    I really love this dress. I give it an 8.5/10. The dark beading matures it. The sleeves are breathtaking. And I love this shade of pink. I can imagine a fan with the beading echoed in it. This style could also be duplicated in any sherbet hue and it would still be stunning.

  17. Wendy says

    love it! Splendid, beautifully balanced, frilly in some places and plain in others, great cut blah blah blah. I liked it how it was until other commentators said it needed a black bow or other black ornament, they are right. Preferably of black silk velvet.

    I like her hair ornament, I have a similar brooch, probably worth about 1/100th of the cost of hers!


  18. I want to like this dress but there are too many things that I think detract from the overall beauty of it. The double ruffled sleeves – with one ruffle being about mid biceps and the other being at the normal elbow length- are one distraction. I think only the lower ruffle should be on the dress or have a nice double ruffle at the elbow point. The way it is now, it looks like she made the sleeves too short and, rather than taking it apart again, just added an extension. Whatever the black beaded (?) things are on the dress and petticoat, they are too heavy for the dress and are causing the petticoat to be “pinched”. It doesn’t quite work with the overall “lightness” of most 18th C dresses and makes the petticoat almost look like a half done baby quilt with black yarn balls rather than a petticoat.

    I have never been a fan of the ruffled chokers. They look like lazy ruffs and don’t look good on most people.

    I do like the overall cut although I’m not sure what is going on with the petticoat opening. I think she’s just angled away from us but it looks like the petticoat opening is offset a bit – which doesn’t help the dress rating. I do like the color combo but I think adding the black in in another way would work much better than what is going on here.


  19. Quinn says

    Very pretty! I’d say an 8.5/10 to 9/10. It’s not an “I need to make this now!” type of dress but it is really pretty! Love it!

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