Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: Madame Houbigant in all-white

Last week’s very vividly green 1840s dress sparked a lively discussion over whether it was actually poison-green (i.e. arsenic green) or just poison-green coloured.  Deadly or not, most of you liked the brilliant hue, and while not everyone was keen on the ruffles and ties and overall silhouette, it still came in at a rather nice 8.5 out of 10.

Whew!  We’d been on such a bad streak, nice to have a good score again.  Will this week’s choice revert back to the poor scores, or set us on another winning streak?

This week let’s look at Madame Houbigant, wife of perfumer Jean-François Houbigant.  Her feather-trimmed cap, heavy satin over-robe, lace chemisette and Kashmiri shawl provide a more mature take on the ubiquitous all-white ensemble of Regency and Empire fashion.

Nicole Adeläide Deschamps was the daughter of a perfumer herself, and her husband entered the trade by apprenticing under her father in law, and then founding his own business.  After rising in prominence under the ancient regime, and surviving the revolution, Houbigant Parfum went on to become the personal perfumers to Napoleon.  He travelled with their perfumes on campaign, and they were asked to create a custom perfume for Josephine.  This portrait, showing her in the height of Empire fashions, was probably commissioned to commemorate the success of Houbigant Parfum under the Napoleons.

Unfortunately the triumph of Houbigant Parfum was also marked by tragedy: Jean-François died in 1807.  After her husband’s death, Madame Houbigant continued the business. Unfortunately, in order to do so she had to marry a licensed perfumer, so she chose the chief clerk of Houbigant perfumes.  I really hope she actually liked him!

(All of this makes me wonder if Houbigant Parfum is yet another business where the husband gets all the credit.  Starting a business is admirable, but Nicole Adeläide potentially kept it going for 30+ years after her husband’s death, including a period where it was official perfumer to Queen Victoria.  She barely gets a mention in any of Houbigants official marketing.  Did the chief clerk really do all the work, or should Madame H be receiving far more acknowledgement?).

Getting back to the actual question at hand: what do you think of  Nicole Adeläide’s ensemble?  Has she successfully mixed luxury, as befitted Houbigant Parfum’s success, with restraint, suitable to her age, and merchant background?  As an example of Empire fashion, incorporating delicate laces, a luxurious Kashmiri shawl, and the heavy silks that Napoleon was promoting over imported muslins in order to support the threatened French silk industry, does this outfit work?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10




  1. I like parts of this outfit. The turban with the feathers is charming. I love the extended cuffs on the satin dress. But the ruff just looks silly, the translucent lace of the partlet-like garment over her bosom looks undignified. The result makes Mme. Houbigant look faintly ridiculous, and doesn’t flatter her good points.

    Judged independently of Mme., only a 6. With a different partlet and no ruff, I’d have given a significantly higher score.

  2. I like most of it, but the ruff is definitely a poor choice, too fluffy to pair well with the rest of it, should have kept the fluff to the hair decorations instead. Without that though I do like the rest, it’s restrained but still luxurious. 8/10

  3. Emelie says

    While the main garment does a wonderful job of showing of the luxurious silk with its clean lines devoid of any frou-frou obscuring its surface, I’m not sure the cut of it best suits Mme. in her age. It seems to me rather to deep in the front, and makes me wonder if that is her corset showing through at the bottom of the chemisette, it would certainly be the right place for it to do so, or a modesty panel beneath. It would maybe be a suitable paralell to look at todays partly see-through tops and their typical owner – the young woman, in her late teens or early twenties.
    Onto the ruff, it makes me think of three things, only one of these, historicism, is good. The others are polka-dots = small girl so again not quite age apropriate, even though they can work in other contexts as well, and… clown. Even though I’m sure no-one would have pulled such paralells during the era of the portrait, they can’t help but be part of my modern mind as I judge it.
    I’m unsure about the structural pattern of the chemisett, as it makes me think of fish scales, and the sheernes of it makes it almost look like it is Mme. who is scaly. I sure would not have choosen it.
    The lace at the neckline is perfectly delicate on its own, but put into context with the ruff it comes of as messy.
    I like the turban with its lovely ostritch feathers, and would not stop to pair it with anything in the era with suitable white tones.
    The shawl isn’t very interesting, but it is unobtrusive.

    Overall, 6.5

  4. Daniel Milford-Cottam says

    I’m wonder if he died during the painting of this portrait which is why she’s wearing all-white as an alternative form of mourning. She does look fabulous though, the dress gives her a great bosom and I love monotone looks with tons of texture to enliven a single hue. The ruff isn’t an ideal choice but it all comes together well and the turban works beautifully for her face, I think, helping add height without width.

    • Daniel Milford-Cottam says

      Forgot the rating for which I’m going to go with 8, as I’m not entirely convinced that the dress would have looked as good in person or as flattering as it does in the portrait.

  5. SueAnne says

    I’m not a huge fan of the headpiece and collar combination, texture-wise, but judging the dress alone, I like it. There isn’t too too much going on to confuse the eye, and I think the red shawl (with a very pretty trim!) compliments the all white dress well. 9/10

  6. Although I do like the dress, for the most part, I am distracted by the depth of the neckline, since the undergarments are so delicate, and the dress itself looks winter weight, that there’s a disconnect. If it[‘s cold enough to warrant a heavy dress, wouldn’t she be uncomfortably cold through the poitrine.

    The ruff is a bit excessive, but the ostrich feather creation is graceful and lovely.

    8 of 10

  7. I like the dress, especially the elegant treatment at the shoulders.
    The dotted ruff & bubble wrap looking texture of the chemisette are the only things I’d take off points for.
    I have never seen a painting yet that can convey the true detail & delicacy of a Kashmiri shawl (My husband is Kashmiri & sells them). And nothing screams “luxe” more than a scarlet red $$$$’s accessory like that shawl! Whether that shawl is made of cashmere, pashmina, or shahtoosh – be assured Mdm Houbigant will be quite warm!

  8. Wendy says

    I love that she has carried off three sheer textures! I love the robe with the shoulder treatment and the tie in front. I am a sucker for a ruff so I love that! And her turban and curly plumes are fabulous. I’ll bet she carried this off with aplomb. 10/10 for me. C’est merveilleux.

  9. I have a different take on her layers than previous commenters. I don’t think we’re seeing a v-necked dress with visible chemise or underwear; I think the main outer garment is a long jacket (pelisse), which makes the stuff inside the v-neck her dress, not her underwear. And the “fish scales” effect looks like quilting or matelasse to me. The first thing I thought was how snug and warm she looks!

    I always think Empire-waisted clothes look better when the wearer has perfect posture, so Mme Houbigant’s slumped posture looks sloppy and dumpy to me. However, it was common in portraiture of this era for women to look like modern teenagers, all curled up and soft. I think that they saw it as elegant lounging, in that time. As for all the frills around the face, my experience with making clothing of this era is that while my modern sensibilities push me toward clean lines, they just look bald and boring when they’re done, and a ruffle or two are very welcome.

    The dress certainly works as a statement of French pride and an advertisement of the country’s luxury goods! All that lace is probably Alencon (French) or point de gaze (Belgian), and the rich textures are lustrous. It’s not a stunning fashion statement, but it’s a nice example of an 1807 ensemble I’d probably enjoy wearing.


    • I didn’t even realise that’s what everyone was thinking – I automatically took it to be a pelisse worn over a dress! I do think the “fishscales” are a chemisette, though, and that her dress IS low-cut.

  10. Susan says

    Beautiful fabrics, beautifully rendered by the artist…but not very becoming to Madame H., who seems to have been a lady of great strength and achievement.

    The color adds pounds. The cut of the dress adds size to the abdomen and upper arms, and gives the appearance of poor posture plus too-long sleeves. The satin looks wrinkled. The lace ruff is lovely on its own – but unlovely on this wearer. The lines are not becoming to a well-endowed, mature lady.

    The accessories – shawl and turban – are fine, though given the shape of Madame H,’s face, a larger turban would have provided more balance and also lifted those feathers up so they wouldn’t appear to be flopping in her eyes. But the turban and shawl are acceptable – it’s what’s in-between that’s not.

    In a darker color – navy, deep green, dark red or purple or a rich warm brown – the dress would have looked a lot better on this wearer (and would have set off the lace more dramatically). The white satin accentuates apparent lumpiness which might not have even been there, if a different colored satin were used for an otherwise identical dress (with correctly hemmed sleeves, of course!)..

    On a more slender, tall young lady with better posture – the white might have worked. But it’s just not right on the worthy Madame Houbigant.

    Sadly, 5. With points for the shawl and turban rather than the dress.

  11. I like the long sleeves. I have a soft spot for these long Directoire/Empire/what-have-you sleeves, and I think they work well on her, and this garment.
    Like others before me, I’m not sold on the ruff. Those are among my less liked features of the era (and tellingly, I tend to focus a couple of years earlier than this when it was less prominent…)
    I like the monochrome, and the red.
    I’m intrigued by the ostrich feathers, because only recently, I started noticing that 1806-07 (or thereabouts…) tend to put decoration smack in the front of the headwear…
    All in all, I like it with some small reservations, so it gets the usual score of 8/10 I give such things.

  12. nanny norfolk says

    I agree with Susan, the dress doesn’t suit her & looks uncomfortable. But I was really impressed by the artists rendition of the white silk. Perhaps if she wasn’t slumping in the chair it may have looked better.
    5 out of 10 I’m afraid.

  13. I’m another one who thinks this combination of dress/trim/wearer/pose just doesn’t sing, and leaves poor Mme looking dumpy. An unfortunate “feather bed with a string round the middle” dress, which is a shame.

  14. Love the turban and the shawl. The ruff looks itchy and uncomfortable, and the layer under the white silk jacket appears to be unattractively low cut for a mature lady with a sizable bosom. I don’t understand the shoulders. 6 points, despite the intriguing back story about the lady.


  15. I’m going 8/10 for this one.

    I love the white overdress, especially the sleeve detail at the shoulder. The turban is great, and I just want to snuggle up in that gorgeous red shawl. The only thing I don’t love is all the lace under the neck. It might be just my modern eyes aren’t used to that amount of fuss, but I think that section is a bit overdone. It doesn’t detract too much from the overall aesthetic though, so it’s a pretty high score!

    I’m also loving the painter’s mastery of drape. I’m going to do a couple of studies of parts of it to try to improve my illustration skills!

  16. Hearthrose says

    Am I the only person who wouldn’t have considered the shawl part of the outfit if you hadn’t mentioned it? It is not worn over Mme’s arm, or more than draped over her knee. To me, it looks like a blanket that she’s sitting on, which only emphasizes her age. Were it displayed properly, it would undoubtably be my favorite part of this ensemble.

    I like the clean lines and long sleeves on a woman of a certain age and size – since I am both of those things. I like the ruffle on the over-dress – very flattering. The inner ruffle is not, it emphasizes what it is trying to hide. I don’t mind the sheer shirt or the fish scales or the visible corset, but I do mind the wee white turban. Between that and the inner ruffles, Mme’s head has become very small and very round. A larger turban, matching the shawl? That would have been something.

    Mme looks very practical and intelligent – and regrettably, she’s a bit of a fashion victim. The fashion for all-white is doing her no favors… although I suppose I’m not supposed to be wishing I could go back in time and make her a rich red/brown dress instead.

    6/10 – this would have been worn by someone else better, and Mme deserved something more flattering, but it’s not the dress’s fault.

    • You’re not the only one, I think. Or, at least, I think I might have paid more attention to it originally, on my own, if I wasn’t looking at it on my phone at first…

  17. I’m with Karen Roy, I think it’s a heavy over dress with an under dress and a sheer layer as well. I think it’s an interesting look if it’s done well but I don’t think that’s the case here. Perhaps it would look better standing up where the square neckline and delicate sheer fabric would provide interest rather than being overwhelmed by everything else. As it stands I think the ruff and the heavy white fabric draw the eye and not in a particularly good way. I’m not fond of turbans in general but it’s a nicer one than I’ve usually seen. The shawl is lovely.

  18. Florence says

    I like the overly long sleeves and the detail at the sleeve head.
    But the lace ruffle, the ruff and the feathers together is a bit much.
    Only one of these three (preferably the ruffle) would have made the outfit less fussy and would allow the details to shine.


  19. Slightly off-topic, i.e. dress-rating.
    I think your suspicion – that the chief clerk might not have been the one calling the shots – is well-founded. It was an established practice for widows of master craftsmen to marry clerks; and there were many of those widows due to age difference between husband and wife. Many of these widows must have been older than their new husbands and more experienced in business matters. So it makes sense that they ran the business or at least acted on an equal footing with their husbands. For the craftsmen who married such widows, this was a step up in the world; for the widows, a way to keep their business and their influence; the law, if there was one to that effect, was complied with as there was a man in charge of the business. What a workaround for women in such limiting circumstances….

  20. Also off-topic, as regards rating, I feel like… in this particular case, it really has a lot to do with how you perceive the fashions of the time. A lot of my own assessment of this outfit draws on what I’ve observed of the era over the years; this falls at the tail end of my favourite decade or so. And so I see the elements of that era I like or am intrigued by, and rate highly. Someone with less emotional (?) attachment to those elements rates completely differently… I think this is the first time that’s happened to me with Rate the Dress to such an extent (it usually happens to me when I like 1840s dresses others find boring), and it’s an interesting experience. 🙂

    • P.S. Because come to think of it, my reaction was very much on the level of “I’d wear it!” (with slight alterations in the neck ruffle and headwear area – to be honest, the neck ruffles as is might even work better for me than they did for Mme Houbigant, but conversely, the headwear as is would look less accomplished above my narrower face…)
      … and it does offer me a very different perspective when I look at it not just as clothing to potentially admire, kind of aspirationally in the best case scenario, but actually as potential inspiration for what I actually do, clothing-wise.

  21. Bernice says

    I also agree, this dress looks like a heavy overdress with another underneath, perhaps a pelisse but them why is she wearing a pelisse for a formal portrait when the pelisse is outerwear that was seen as a practical solution to combining the regency silhouette with warmth for winter? And why would she be wearing a pelisse in a scene which is quite obviously indoors, while holding a book, and if it a pelisse, I doubt it would have been made cut so low since most examples I’ve seen (mainly fashion plates) have shown them with high necklines. I also love those long cuffs which look elegant and refined but also, as I can’t help thinking, warm too so the wearer’s hand would have been partially covered.
    With regards to the ruff and chemisette, I would definitely tone down the ruffles and also raise the neckline of the under dress. One of the things I find a little alarming about this era is the depth of the fashionable neckline- it’s as if all you’re waiting for is for someone to draw a deep breath for an accident to happen. So, if the dress is an under dress, I would raise the neckline, if that’s a chemise or corset (which I think is less likely), I would make the chemisette opaque. The feather turban is quite interesting and adds yet another texture to this white dress, although personally, I wouldn’t wear it.
    Overall, 9/10 because basically all of my criticism is centred on one area, which is the neckline and chemisette.

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