Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: a proper polonaise dress

This week Rate the Dress is going from not-a-polonaise to actually-a-polonaise, with dresses separated in time by a century.  Last week’s was exquisitely presented, this week’s choice less so – but hopefully you’ll find it no less worthy of comment.

Last week: a painted silk ca 1780s not-a-polonaise.

You thought this dress was practically perfect in every way: it even racked up a total of 360 points: a round of applause if I ever saw one!  It lost a few points for the not-matched but not-not matched bodice, which I quite expected.  But otherwise…pretty much fabulous.

The Total: 9.5/10

Woot woot!

This week:

Since last week’s dress wasn’t an actual polonaise, I thought I’d pick a real one this week.  Not a real 18th century polonaise dress, but one from another era that used the term.

1870s and 1880s ‘polonaise’ dresses were bustle dresses with the bodice and bustling overskirt cut in one, and the bustling overskirt opening over the (often contrasting) underskirt in a V, inspired by 18th century dresses which opened over petticoats.  The  overall aesthetic as well as the use of the term ‘polonaise’ was a deliberate nod to the 18th century.

Bustle dress, silk, 1880s, August Auctions, Lot 356, May 9, 2017

Bustle dress, silk, 1880s, August Auctions, Lot 356, May 9, 2017

Victorian polonaise gowns were just one part of the Georgian revivalism so fashionable in the second half of the 18th century (other examples I’ve covered are 1870s  Louis heels, 1860s-80s Pompadour fabrics or Pompadour taffeta,  and 1860s bergere , but they have contributed to the modern confusion around ‘robe a la polonaise’ dresses.

The front of this dress, with its open bodice front that evokes a stomacher, and open skirt, is classic Victorian polonaise.  The back view is a little less straightforward: the butterfly bustle on this 1880s gown could just as easily be referencing 17th century mantua as late 18th century pick-ups.

Bustle dress, silk, 1880s, August Auctions, Lot 356, May 9, 2017

Bustle dress, silk, 1880s, August Auctions, Lot 356, May 9, 2017

This dress is an example I’d love to see given a full museum treatment and presentation.  Auction houses are under significant time and financial constraints, so their mannequins and steaming are less than ideal, and it’s definitely not doing this dress any favours.

Bustle dress, silk, 1880s, August Auctions, Lot 356, May 9, 2017

I know it’s not the ideal presentation, but let’s not hold that against the dress.  What do you think of it?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10

A reminder about rating — feel free to be critical if you don’t like a thing, but make sure that your comments aren’t actually insulting to those who do like a garment.  Our different tastes are what make Rate the Dress so interesting.  It’s no fun when a comment implies that anyone who doesn’t agree with it, or who would wear a garment, is totally lacking in taste.

(as usual, nothing more complicated than a .5.  I also hugely appreciate it if you only do one rating, and set it on a line at the very end of your comment, so I can find it!  Thanks in advance!)


  1. 9/10
    I have a fondness for poloniases, because it took me a long time before understanding what the heck Laura Ingalls Wilder was describing in her books. The colour is great, as is the pleating on the front.

    • Donna says

      The Brown Poplin chapter landed me here too. Gorgeous dress!!

  2. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    You got me with the stripes, and the color. Although I don’t like bustles, I love burnt orange and tidy stripes.

    The stripe-wrangler did a wonderful job – look at the back of the collar matching, and the way that the stripe on the pleated front has not only been pleated down to a single stripe effect, but pleated to match to the collar stripe where they join.

    The bustle is well-balanced – it is decorating the skirt, not loading it down.
    Skirt size

    Crisp and jaunty, conservative, just the dress for a stroll through an autumn park or shopping for a new coat.


  3. I see what you mean about the poor quality presentation, but the dress itself is fabulous. It’s not one of my colors, but otherwise I’d gladly wear it.

    10 out of 10, again!

  4. This dress reminds me so much in cut and color of the first Victorian gown I ever made. That was one of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on, so anything that smacks of it will get high marks.

    I agree with Tsu Do Nimh above that the stripe wrangler did a beautiful job. The stripes complement the bodice pleating perfectly, and I love the bias at the wrists.

    The only detractor is the fabric — shiny silk just isn’t my jam. I get itchy just looking at it!


  5. Elaine says

    I love the way the stripes were used, and the dress is very elegant. Definitely poorly presented. I’d love to see this dress presented properly. 9.5/10

  6. The stripes seem to me to be masterfully handled. Although the color is bold, the fact that the striped fabric is in the same range tames it, and I find the overall effect lovely.

    Although I do like the sheen of the fabric, I imagine it would crumple very easily when being seated.

    Still, 9.5 of 10.

  7. Adriana says

    This is one of my favorite dresses, ever. I’m a sucker for orange and the coppery silk has such a wonderful sheen. The stripes and the pleating at the front bring the solid top layer out of being boring. The “butterfly” at the back could definitely use a steam to look its best, but it adds interest to what would otherwise be a very plain back. It’s a good take on a little-used color: making the orange the statement, but not the only merit of the dress. It would be great to accessorize. Imagining it at its best, I’ll give it…


  8. Nicole B. says

    Such fine taste and tailoring–I am in love. Gimmee.

  9. PepperReed says

    Gorgeous!!! That color and the clean lines and fine details are wonderful. I hope whomever won this auction really put some effort in restoring and presenting this dress appropriately.


  10. This is a lovely example of a typical 1880’s polonaise. I love the coppery color. Funny Little House on the Prairie was mentioned because as I was looking at the photos, it reminded me of the “Mrs. Olsen” dress I have in my vintage clothing collection. (actual costume from the TV show).
    I give your dress 10/10.

  11. Karin says

    Such a beautiful dress! Really like everything about it!!


  12. Tracy Ragland says

    Magnificent! Even though I’d feel like the Great Pumpkin wearing all of this orange, it’s a beautiful dress.

  13. Lynne McDonald says

    I think that is totally charming! Wearable – it would look good on so many people. I love the colours, and the use of the stripes is very pleasing.

    This is one of the occasions when later use of an historical style results in a really happy melding of form and fashion.

    10 out of 10

  14. Tricia Howard says

    About the dress. You have done a beautiful job, both with the style, and the colour. It is beautiful.
    You get a 10/10

  15. Daniel Milford-Cottam says

    I really like this style a lot too. The stripes on the underskirt and accents are jaunty and make what could be a very simple dress lively and young. I also like how relatively clean the lines are. It’s a dress I could see being worn by many different women in different circumstances, and looking smart and appropriate almost every time. Also loving the richness of the rust brown. Because there isn’t really too much detail to rate and because it is a little basic for the time, although it’s a great dress, I’m going to give it a 8 out of 10. On the right wearer with the right hair, hat, accessories and touches, an easy 10.

  16. I find nothing wrong with this dress. I generally do not like orange colors, but this burnt orange/autumn orange is lovely. Maybe not the best for my coloration, but that’s no reason to take off any points!

  17. Magdalena says

    Really eye-catching! I love the colour, the stripes (surprisingly enough!) And the cinch that knots it all up tidily at the front.


  18. Mary Ann Hadley says

    Yes, indeed! If I had the budget, I’d like to reproduce this one! Such beautiful color, the wonderful stripes, the simplicity of the design…so attractive. I think I like this period because the dresses are seldom overwrought. I like the spareness but the luxury of the fabric gives it a richness.
    A definite 10.

  19. Rachel says

    The shape and colors are beautiful. I don’t know if the sleeves are supposed to be a bit short, but I love the striped cuffs. The dress does make me wonder if something can be too bronze, but it’s such a lovely color, and it saves the dress from looking too staid and predictable.

    I wonder a bit about the waist. Maybe it’s the presentation, but as it is, it almost looks as if the front of the dress was hurried tacked together, relying on the folding and bunching of the fabric to give it shape. It’s interesting and organic, but is it too sloppy? A belt would make it more polished, but then would the dress lose some individuality? Or was there originally a belt and it’s now just missing?

    Despite a bit of waffling on some aspects, I like the dress. It’s flashy, but also restrained and mature.


    • I love it. Replying to Rachel’s comment. I think whoever dressed the model did a poor job with the belt. It looks like there was a hook not hooked leaving it looking sloppy. Demerits for the dresser not the dress IMHO.

      I’m just about ready to make my first polonaise and out of silk too. AHHH!!! Seeing this is a real inspiration.


      • From the looks of it, the hook has come off, or is loose, so the dresser didn’t hook it, because that would put stress on the garment – it’s visually untidy, but is best practice from a conservation viewpoint.

  20. Jess says

    This dress has been on my mind since I saw it on Pinterest about a year ago – the color, the sheen of the silk fabric, the simplicity of the silhouette, and just enough visual interest created with the stripes, the pleating on the polonaise, and bustle. Gorgeous. 10/10!

  21. Diane Schanz Miller says

    Not a color I’d wear but beautifully made and gorgeous.

  22. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    QUESTION: If you were going to make a very similar dress, is there a commercial pattern that would be a close match?

  23. Ahna says

    Love the color and the unfussy but handsome design, including the peek of cream at collar and cuff. It loses one pt for the ‘lack-of-better-idea’ diagonal on collar and cuff, though.

  24. I used to own this dress – having Karen Augusta sell it for me when I was thinning out my collection last year was a painful decision. She sold over 100 pieces of mine in that sale, so I can’t fault her for not having tons of time to steam it and perfectly mount it. This dress was one of my favorites, with its bold colors.

    Yes, there is a loose hook at the waist – no belt, though. The overskirt and top were one piece. The overskirt hung a little strangely, but I loved the clean cut, matched stripes and great tailoring. It was made by a French designer – no one I had heard of, but one who had real finesse!

  25. Hello, I’m now the owner again! It just came up on ebay and I nabbed it. Glad to get it back. By the way, the seller let me know that Karen Augusta recently passed away from cancer but her husband and son are carrying on. Next auction is next week.

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