Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: 1860s Aniline & Apron Effects

Thanks for your well wishes on lasts week’s Rate the Dress.  My  posts are going to be written with help for at least another week I’m afraid…

Quite mixed feelings on last week’s 1906ish corded velvet ensemble.  Some of you thought it rich and regal, some of you thought it irredeemably ugly, and some of you liked it, except for a) the mismatched lace and/or b) the fabric and/or c) the clunky sleeves.  Lots of things to detract from perfection pulled the score down to 6.6 out of 10.

I personally loved the fabric and would take a chair upholstered in it any day of the week, but do struggle with 1906 sleeves.  They just make me think of an ape posturing to make itself look as big as possible in the chest and shoulders…

This week’s Rate the Dress, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is also purple and black.  The dress,  one of the extremely fashionable new purple shades made possible by the discovery of aniline dyes, features the simple shape and enormous swathes of fabric typical of the mid 1860s, with visual interest achieved through applied ornamentation: in this case an ‘apron’ effect on the skirt, and trimming on the bodice and mancheron sleeves that enhance the illusion of a tiny waist and full rounded bust.

The lace and bead trim anticipates the late-Victorian  fashion  for layered and  trims in jet, lace, and other materials, but  its placement is pure 1860s.

The lace is almost certainly machine made – reflecting all the improvements in machine lace technology since the invention of the bobbinet machine in 1810.

What do you think?  The early-mid 1860s silhouette doesn’t always make for very exciting fashion.  Does this take on the style of its era, with all the new trends, and some unusual  twists on trimming,  do enough to set it apart as interesting, and more importantly, elegant and aesthetically admirable?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10.


  1. For me, even though this is not a style I particularly fancy, this is quite lovely. I particularly like the use of the trim to define the apron shape on the skirt. The black grounds the exuberance of so much rich purple.

    9 of 10

  2. The color is great, the trim elegant, and its placement suitably restrained, and the late 1860s silhouette, with the fullness at the rear, is one I usually love. So why don’t I really love this dress? Maybe it’s too serious, too intense? Too much unbroken purple? I’m not sure, so I’ll stick with 7 out of 10.

  3. Ari says

    9/10 At first I loved it (and I still do) but I think the trim should be echoed on the back and maybe be more present on the undersleeves.

  4. SueAnne says

    I like that this dress uses so many new-at-the-time trends, and I’m swooning over the lace and beading. However, the shape of the “apron” on the front just isn’t doing the trick for me. Minus a point for that, and minus another for the vast sea of unbroken purple through which the wearer must swim (aka I wish there was more trim, like Ari said above.)

  5. Emma says

    I don’t like the “apron trim” but I like the rest of it. The colour is nice and the trim on the bodice is great.


  6. Aniline and Aprons! I love it! It reminds me “Arsenic and Old Lace”which of course from a dye point of view has a whole other level of meaning!
    Also thank you for nailing what I just wasn’t sure about in last week’s dress. The Ape Thing – that.
    I love this. Pleasing and unchallenging though it is. 8/10 because I quite admire a bit of batsh!t crazy.

  7. This dress does make the mannequin’s waist look miniscule. and also, remarkably, it looks like the wearer was EXTREMELY TALL. Remarkable, because so often, such full crinolines can make a woman look quite short and dumpy, but here, she looks about seven foot tall, like she’s wearing chopines under the crinoline.

    The proportions of the skirt are fantastic for a crinoline. It has that good shape and movement and the flow of a good crinoline skirt.

    Having said that – I don’t think it is a particularly outstanding dress apart from having such a good skirt and being such a good example. I feel like I’ve seen so many purple and black crinoline dresses and I’m not a big fan of that style of passementerie, although I suspect a lot of my aversion is because it hasn’t aged well – the blacks always seem to lose colour differently depending on the different materials in the passementerie, it probably looked better when it was brand new and all one solid shade of black rather than various tones of rusty black.

    But even so – purple and black for the 1860s? Groundbreaking.

    Big fan of purple here, despite how it may sound, but I just feel a little bored by this dress. It’s not bad. It’s not exciting. It’s nothing really new. It’s been done hundreds of times. It’s kinda blah. There’s really no flair or inspiration to enliven such a classic silhouette. You could probably go out to any biggish antique clothing dealer or auction and buy a version of this dress, so many have survived that purple and black dresses must have been the 1860s equivalent of blue jeans. (I actually own one myself, although in a much plummier magenta silk shot with black). The trimming just seems a bit skimpy, although the placement is momentarily charming, I suppose.

    Is it nice? Absolutely. It’s a good example. Is it a great example? Not to me, but I would certainly display it as a good example of its period. But does that make it an amazing dress? Would I display it in isolation as the ultimate, best specimen of its era? Possibly, because if visitors hadn’t seen many crinoline dresses before, then they would be blown away by this. I know that if this had been my introduction to 1860s fashions I would have been absolutely enchanted by the hugeness of the skirt and the billow and sweep. So I have to try and remember that just because I’ve seen it so many times before, others won’t have, and they will probably be awed by it. But for me, it’s got to be 6.5/10.

    • Actually, this is the kind of dress you would display with an amazing bonnet, a frivolous little parasol, and a glorious black lace shawl spreading out over the back of the skirt and suddenly it would look spectacular as part of an ensemble. It really, really needs accessories.

      • Barbara Reed says

        Agreed- accessories would make a world of difference in the overall appearance. Love the color combination and another person’s comment could put it into context as well-it could a mourning gown, given the Civil War time-frame.

  8. This was a scrolldown “hmm” for me. “I LOVE the trim on the bodice, love the color…wait, so there’s ONLY the ‘apron’ trim? Interesting design choice.” I would like it so much better if the apron shape was repeated all the way round the skirt, which is definitely a style of decoration you see in fashion plates at the time. Of course, I know in real life maybe one can’t get more of the trim, or enough to do all those motifs would be too expensive… but if that happened to me I would have just trimmed the bodice! Would have been a 9 with skirt trim like I’m imagining, but the sad lonely single apron knocks it down to a 7/10 for me.

  9. Tegan says

    It’s the kind of dress I wish we could see the innards. It’s so simple and beautiful and in good shape, I want to also see construction!

    I think the eye catching point of this dress was the bright purple dye – and so it does a good job of that. I also actually love the trim! I just costumed the 1860s and I love seeing the in period ways to exaggerate the tiny waists (or create the illusion of one!)

    So because it’s simple and beautiful and I like this era, I give it a 9/10. Would have been higher if it was innovative in ways other than color.


  10. I see I didn’t comment last week. I’m not sure why (I guess something interfered), because I do remember writing a comment about how that dress reminded me of how I used not to like Edwardian fashions, and how I could not put my finger on it but it was exactly the thing that made me dislike them at the start.
    I think you did lay your finger on at least one aspect of it, here. 😀

    This dress? It’s not love, but I do rather like it. It’s well-balanced, and simple enough to balance out the striking colour. Daniel describes the details of most of my other feelings much better than I could. 7/10

  11. Julia Ergane says

    Ho-hum. I don’t particularly like these sleeves, though the skirt is wonderful. Purple is one of my favourite colours; but, that alone will not get this dress a good grade here. Ordinary. 6/10

  12. mom says

    Oh GOD. Imagine being a toddler and seeing that mountain of a dress sweeping up to you and then towering over you, if not engulfing you completely. It must have scarred small children for life. It’s just so huge and monolithically aniline-dyed.
    The stuff of nightmares, if you ask me.

    3/10 because well-made, but psychologically speaking…a BIG mistake.

  13. Katie says

    I love the colour and the overall silhouette – the huge sweeping skirt is amazing! The slope shoulder bodice shape is enhanced by the trim but I’m not sure about the apron effect on the skirt. Not sure how I would trim the skirt though – it’s just so huge and purple it definitely needs something more to break it up. 8/10

    • Perhaps, instead of the “apron”, narrower tabs trimmed like the apron, descending from the waist all around the top of the skirt, would serve?

      • Katie says

        Yes, that would definitely better I think. Pretty sure I’ve seen skirts trimmed like that before too.

  14. Rachel says

    The purple takes some getting used to, but the dress is lovely, bold but still refined. However, the back view is kind of uncreative, and the dress overall doesn’t feel very memorable. But maybe that’s because so many dresses have played with these kind of colors and trimmings since?


  15. It’s just there. I’m surprised I’m saying this, but I want a bit more trim. I never thought I’d say that though.

    Once I read Daniel’s comment I did realize that if it was accessorized just right it could be amazing, so that’s what I’m picturing.

    As is 7/10- It’s done nothing to warrant a low score, and nothing to earn a high score, it’s just there.

  16. Wendy says

    As son as you said “purple and black” my dress antennae went up, but ultimately I was disappointed. Love the color, and cut, the trim itself is nice but I HATE the placement of the trim. The apron effect just looks stoopid. It would look much better if the vertical placement had just followed the seams down to the hem. And as for the stuff “around” the bosom, “hey look at my fabulous boobs”. Get rid of that. Plus the cut of the lower part of the sleeves is pretty boring.

    Change the trim placement ( all around the hemline would look fab) and the cut of the lower sleeves and the score would be high. As it is, meh. 6/10.

  17. Nancy says

    I think historical context needs to be kept in mind. This would be right in the middle of the Civil War. It’s likely lace and trim were becoming more difficult to obtain (so the unadorned back) and purple was used as a mourning color a year or so after the death of a loved one. That is probably why there are so many purple and black dresses from that era.

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