19th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: a butterfly ballgown, ca 1865

Last week’s purple velvet aestheticism inspired reception gown / tea gown proved very popular, with many of you commenting that you loved it because you could actually imagine wearing it.  It did loose points for awkward lower-front rouching (which I hadn’t noticed and will now never be able to unsee!), and not everyone was on-board with the long train, all-over high-necked-with-velvet thing, or the Renaissance sleeves.  So, for lots of excitement with a few niggles, a still very regal score of 8.5 out of 10.

Although no-one commented that last week’s gown made them feel hot as happened with the green velvet gown earlier this year, this week I chose a dress that seemed much more summery in theme: an 1860s ballgown of butterfly patterned chine silk.

Were it not for the striking butterfly patterned fabric this dress would never have made it as a Rate the Dress choice.  It’s almost completely devoid of ornamentation or design interest except for the tassel-trimmed sleeves, which would flutter and move with the dress, evoking wings, or delicate cocoons hanging from leaves – quite appropriately for the fabric.

The dress has one other unusual and intriguing feature: it appears to fasten up the front, which, combined with the pattern placement on the front, makes me wonder if it originally had a detachable bertha or guimpe, or other form of trimming which obscured part of the front.  The museum record indicates a three-part garment, and Robe à transformation would suggest a dress with a day and evening bodice, or other method of altering the aesthetic or suitability for various occasions.

Without confirmation we can only guess, and rate the dress as it is (though hopefully without subtracting anything for the unfortunate glove choice).  Do you think this dress has pulled off elegance and impact by relying solely on the fabric and the sleeve trimmings, or are even butterflies and dragonflies not enough to make it interesting?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10



  1. From a distance, it seems rather undistinguished, but the closeup of the fabric is stunning. The lines of the bodice with V-shaped waistline is quite flattering, and the grand sweep of the skirt is magnificent.

    I wish that there could have been a more defined butterfly on the bodice, but I can also see that it would be incredibly difficult to place one or more butterflies without throwing it off balance or putting undue attention to sensitive areas.

    8.5 of 10

  2. Stephanie says

    It’s stunning. I love the simplicity and the fabric. It has just enough trimming. I agree that there was probably a bertha or something, but its lack does not affect the score for me.

  3. It’s beautiful, and it’s the simplicity that makes the fabric pop. More decorations would have overburdened it all.


  4. It’s nice, but unmemorable. A broad, dark purple sash tied in the back (and picking up the dark purple of some of the butterflies) would help. Also, it appears to show an odd separation of the breasts, though that likely has to do with the way it’s being displayed.

    7.5 out of 10.

  5. Well, I can see that the maker felt the aim was to show off the amazing print fabric, and that frills and furbellows would obscure this, but it does seem a little … bald … around the neckline, as if all the trimming has been taken off for adjustment at some point, and never sewn back on. The front fastening seems a bit obvious for high Victorian modesty levels, for one.
    It’s well made, it’s pretty fabric, I hope the wearer was happy with it. 8/10
    What’s with the rubber gloves?

  6. ceci says

    The fabric is stunning. The sleeve trim is very caterpillar/cocoon-ish which seems almost like an amusing reference to the print, but surely not? Something must be missing from the front, it looks unfinished.

    The gloves remind me of Daisy Duck.

    But the fabric is so lovely…..9 of 10.


  7. I do agree with the Dreamstress that this gown likely had a detachable bertha or something of the sort, since the neckline is so very plain.

  8. Tegan says

    I’m bored with it. It’s such a background dress. I’m sure the execution is excellent, and it must rustle delightfully, but I find nothing interesting.

    5/10 for indifference but no hate

  9. SueAnne says

    From across the room: Yawn. Too plain. Definitely missing something.
    From across the table: It fastens up the front. Odd. Those butterflies are nice though.
    From zooming in on the photos: Wow, the print on this fabric is beautiful. Too bad the rest of the dress isn’t pulling its weight. And are those sleeve tassels supposed to look like ears of corn? Oh no, now I can’t unsee that.

    6/10 because it’s only memorable in how forgettable it is (aside from the dangling corn cobs!)

  10. Kathy Fields says

    I adore it, tho I will admit the back of the bodice is prettier than the front. 10/10

  11. Murgatroyd says

    i love the subtley of the colors in this fabric, that improves and becomes more intricate once you get closer. that combined with the minor trimming gives it a very simple and unaffected feel. i was all set and ready to give this a 10 but then the close up of the sleeve trimming…… maybe it’s the theme of the fabric, but those dangling bits look a lot like maggots to me, or maybe even snake rattlers. it was very off-putting. 7/10

  12. chava says

    Lol at the ear of corn tassles! It’s so true though. And yet it’s missing something…

    7/10 for the print.

  13. Claire Payne says

    I can see how you love the tassels but they aren’t my ‘cup of tea’. Without tassels, I would have given this 9 out of 10. With the tassels, I give it 8 out of 10. I love the silhouette, the muted tones, the style of the butterfly print and the neckline. I could almost see it as a 1950’s dress if it were shorter in length. Definitely something I would love to wear…without the tassels.

  14. Emma says

    I love it. I tend to favour less ornamentation rather than more so I’m happy with that aspect. The fabric is fantastic and against all odds I really like the sleeve ornamentation. There’s something odd about the way the bodice is sitting but I think that’s just a fitting issue so in all I think it’s just about perfect.

  15. Florence says

    Utter perfection!
    The clean lines without frills really leave the stage to the fabric.
    I love it!

  16. All I see now are cocoons on those sleeves. I’m pretty sure I would spend the entire time watching her sleeves to see if they were really cocoons.

    6/10 because I can’t quite decide if I like it or not. So a little above normal.

  17. Pat Winship says

    Love it. The subtlety of the fabric is wonderful. Just enough trim. I agree that there must have been more on the front to cover the opening. That’s the only flaw. 9/10

  18. youtube.comThis is one 1860s dress I can wholeheartedly get behind. Would wear. I think it’s the first time I’ve felt that way about an 1860s dress. (More often, they’re maybe even gorgeous to look upon but not overly personally tempting.)
    I don’t mind the simplicity. I like simplicity, when it’s well-balanced. It allows one to play with the accessories. And I do think this dress is well-balanced (also not a given for me with the 1860s.)
    Even the fringe is nice, for me; more than corn, it reminds me of spruce cones. I find it cute and cozy; for reasons beyond my understanding, it evokes in me feelings that remind me of these two animated guys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1priYRkWfU
    Subjective or not, there’s only one way I can rate: 10/10.
    Thanks for sharing. 😉

    • 10/10 for the same reasons – the well-balanced simplicity, and that it’s an 1860s dress I’d want to wear. So beautiful!

  19. Emma says

    9/10 I love the fact that it’s not overdone! Those gloves are fairly awful though…

  20. Susan says

    Stunning. I’d wear this in an instant – to the right event, and I do have one in mind.

    But ditch those gloves. Awful!

    Dress: 10/10. With the right gloves – net, perhaps, as a subtle reference to the butterflies, – 15/10!

  21. Elizabeth says

    Completely stunning in its simplicity. Anything more would be too much.

  22. That textile is EVERYTHING. The dress is, construction wise, a big ol’ dose of unimaginative boredom non-entity meh, but the FABRIC!

    I see it with a really gauzy, mesh-effect fan and a flowing scarf of tulle.

    If it were a plain coloured dress, it would be pretty much 5/10, purely for the crime of being uninspired and dull. But the silk is EVERYTHING and bumps it up to 8/10 – not going the full 9 or 10/10, because, well, styling isn’t there.

  23. Bernice says

    Wow. That fabric choice is so perfect for a ball gown like this, and I’m struggling to find a fault with it. (The fabric does admittedly resemble far too many examples of curtains and duvet covers, though…) And those gloves, oh dear…
    I actually prefer something plain over too much decoration so the styling doesn’t really strike me as uninteresting. If anything, I find the fringe on the sleeves out of place, as if the person who made/wore this dress showed it to a friend who said, ‘No trim? But there has to be some TRIM!’, and then grabbed the first thing they saw and slapped it on. I think that fringe (or tassels, I have no idea what that is) is a bit of an all-or-nothing decision, but just some isolated trim on one part of the dress makes it look like an afterthought.
    Also, the sleeves. Apart from the trim, I still think they’re not quite right. I feel like they should be more tailored, less draper and fussy, which would fit in with the simple look of everything else (although I know that’s probably because I don’t really like mid 1860s fashion anyway). I would also definitely have liked the bodice better with a lace bertha which would have added to the ethereal aesthetic.
    But still, anything with butterflies instantly gains points, so still 10/10 (because it not the dress’s fault that the bertha may have been lost or that I’m being subtly influenced by those horrific gloves)

  24. Bernice says

    Also, am I the only one who looks at that dress and thinks ‘prom’? My mind has been playing Taylor Swift’s ‘Love Story’ all this time…

  25. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    10/10 because of the simplicity. The skirt is wonderfully pleated, the back bells out just enough. The fabric – Silk plain weave (taffeta) with printed warp – was not easy to weave, so this may have been deliberately simple to show off the fabric.

    This is what the governess in that romance novel wore to the ball – unassuming, modest and perfectly sewn.

    From the color, which looks like pale mauve, this might have been a gown worn in late mourning, after the deep black and grey was no longer required.

  26. Alice says

    The fabric is gorgeous! The shape is nice (I’ve always liked the shape of 1860s skirts). I like the little dangly trim. The color is lovely. But on the whole I find myself a bit bored by the simplicity. Good accessories could make up for that (a shawl or some jewelry) but the dress by itself is a 6/10.

  27. 10! This really appeals to me…the design, the fabric, the details. It would be a dress I’d love to wear.

  28. nanny norfolk says

    What do I say? It’s all been said before. Lovely lovely except of course the tassels & the awful gloves.
    But it’s a 10 from me.

  29. It’s gorgeous! I love the simple lines to show off the amazing fabric, and it actually looks wearable to my modern eyes. The little trim on the sleeves is adorable.


  30. Oooh, a 10! Simple and dignified, no running around looking like an over-dressed window drapery exercise. The lines of the bodice and minimal trim on the sleeves are just the right amount of flair to keep it from being plain. This is for the lady who wants to be known for her grace, not being a show-boat. And that lovely print could be worn today.

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