Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: this dress ain’t made for walking

Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University

It’s interesting how much certain silhouettes and colour schemes evoke certain associations. Last week’s dress was one a style that always makes me think of Winterhalter paintings, and also the antebellum South. Many of you had the same reaction. The latter association always makes looking at this style of dress fraught: we can’t help but be reminded of the amount of human suffering that supported a lifestyle that allowed such garments.

For me as a fashion historian it’s important to remember that, while it’s not always as obvious, almost all extravagant fashions (including those today) are built on exploitation. Most of the garments I’ve featured in Rate the Dress depended on seamstresses, and the occasional tailor, working long hours for poor or no pay. Behind every couturier who became rich and famous there were an army of ‘little hands’, making at best a decent wage that provided a modest living, but certainly not one that could afford the garments they laboured over.

Rate the Dress is a chance to imagine a dress when worn, but also to acknowledge and honour the people who made these garments, the often unknown artists who we can’t compensate, but whose skill we can admire.

Last Fortnight: 1860s white with blue

It was a childhood dream dress, albeit one with problematic associations. You thought it the perfect frock for the extremely youthful – although Winterhalter’s portraits show women well into their 30s in similar dresses in the 1850s and 60s!

The Total: 8.3 out of 10

Technically the rating should be a bit higher, as many of you knocked of points for the Extremely Enormous Butt Bow as shown on the museum website – which I’m not entirely convinced is original, and this didn’t include any photographs of!

This week: an 1880s velvet and satin frock

As a balance to last weeks very young, very summery, dress, here’s a rich, dark, winter-y dress that, if not explicitly for an older woman, is much more mature in its cut and colours. It’s also an excellent example of a dress for honouring the maker. While the designers and seamstresses are unknown, and while the overall effect may not be to your taste, it’s hard to refute the skill that went in to the making of the dress. The draping of the overskirt in particular is masterful.

Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University
Carriage dress, 1885, The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University

The museum describes this as a ‘carriage dress’, which, in the 1880s, was an elegant dress worn for visiting (they were more commonly known as ‘visiting dresses’) that was too lavish in materials or cut for street wear, and thus was only worn if one was conducting one’s visits in a carriage, instead of walking.

Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University
Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University

One can certainly imagine a society woman descending from a carriage and proceeding into a reception room in this dress, its overall sense of impracticality declaring her wealth and status. How did her life compare to the women who made her dress, and who dressed her in it?

Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University
Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University

This dress actually has a rather restrained train for a carriage dress. It’s possible it’s been shortened. There’s certainly nothing restrained about the materials used, from the elaborate metal, bead and braid embellishment on the bodice, to the lush satin of the bustled overskirt, to the velvet main gown.

Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University
Carriage dress, 1885 The Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University

What do you think?

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.  Phrase criticism as your opinion, rather than a flat fact. 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.


  1. Oh, I love this. Rich browns, trimmed in just enough rich gold! And I love the silhouette of the late bustle period, of which this is a fine example. The lovely set of folds on the back of the overskirt and the pleats down the front of the velvet underskirt are the icing on the cake.

    10 out of 10.

  2. The embroidery (which truly must have involed many, many woman-hours of work) and fabric color are stunning, and I covet them Although the idea of wearing a bustle appalls modern-casual-me, I have to admire the skill of the one’s architecture.

    10 of 10

  3. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    Oh my.
    As a specimen of “I’m so rich I don’t need to be gaudy” style, this is perfect.

    Monochrome, restrained poshness. I want to pet that velvet.


    • Nannynorfolk says

      Oh wow this is beautiful, so many hours of work for the skilled makers who probably got peanuts for their work. I just love the colours, although not the bustle and cannot imagine being constricted in this. Still we have so much bodily freedom now it’s hard to imagine how women put up with this every day.

  4. D ThomasWilton says

    I rarely love a dress totally, this one wins! Rich deep color with loads of trim yet it doesn’t seem overdone to me. 10/10.

  5. I have two friends who portray actresses from the 1880s and this dress looks like it was made for them it’s a little over the top without being Gaudy And made with very luxurious fabrics. As a Wanabee seamstress and students of all vintage clothing I would love to make something like this! I give this dress a 10 out of 10

  6. Tracy Ragland says

    I love everything about this dress! The silhouette is my favorite, the colors are luscious, there is “just enough” embroidery, and on and on.


  7. Maryanne says

    It’s a steam punker’s winter dream! Although we’d make it more practical for adventures. That bodice is breathtakingly gorgeous. I love the way the silk overskirt is draped on the hip. Just wow. I don’t actually LIKE it but WOW.
    I love the colour, it’s an example of how brown can be so rich and magnificent, not mousy or drab.
    The bodice is worth 15 alone so I refuse to mark it down for not loving the bustle as much!

  8. Diana Pedersen says

    Out of all the wonderful dresses you have posted, I think this is my all time favorite. I would wear this in a heart beat. I may actually keep these photos and the link and try to recreate it. OM Gosh. 10/10

  9. Emma says

    It’s gorgeous. I don’t particularly like the over skirt but I can admire the feat of engineering that it is. The bodice is amazing. I love the embroidery. Because of the use of only a few colours the whole effect is sort of restrained whilst being completely over-the-top!


  10. Lisa Wilkie says

    This is magnificent. The construction is to die for and lets the lush fabrics sing. I adore the restraint of the cuff embellishment: they would catch the light as the wearer moved her hands but are simple enough to enhance the rich understatement of the outfit rather than shriek ‘look at me’. The contrast of the textured velvet and falls of satin in the bustle is just gorgeous. 10/10.

  11. Gorgeous!

    I may be slightly biased because this is absolutely something I’d wear myself but… it’s complex without being OTT, which is a difficult balance to hit. I am particularly impressed by the embroidery/beading/etc on the front of the bodice. And let’s not forget the effort required to produce even modest quantities of lace (I’m assuming the collar and cuffs aren’t later additions for display). Plus that ripply brown velvet is just so good!

    In short: just the ticket for being tastefully impressive on a winter’s afternoon.

  12. Marjo Wheat says

    It is a very beautiful dress. I’m not crazy about the bustle period, but this is an incredible example of a well put together dress of the period. Everything about it is exquisite. I agree about your comments about the underpaid, underrated dressmakers. Even these days it is still true for handmade items. No one is going to pay me $400 or so for a pair of hand dyed, handspun, hand knitted socks. Yet this would not even be a living wage as they would take me at least a couple of weeks or more to make. Just an example.
    10/10 for the dress.

  13. Nancy Jackson says

    I love, love, love this dress, and agree with all the above-mentioned comments. Additionally, since I have participated in almost 25 winter horse drawn vehicle parades, I have searched, and created, a variety of costumes for myself, as carriage driver, and for my passengers, in order to create the total image of the turnout:: horse, carriage, people in the carriage, for the pleasure of the many spectators. The color of this beautiful gown matches my Clydesdale mare. The style and decoration feeds my desire to replicate the finery of the Gilded Age. Thank you for sharing this!

  14. Lynne says

    All respect to the makers, indeed!

    I agree with all of the above – a wonderful dress. Here in Christchurch, it is a grey, miserable day, and the dress looks so warm and rich. The brown is such a luxurious brown! And the beading! It’s like a lady-like version of an hussar’s jacket, an item I wish I had managed to own.

    10 out of 10

  15. nofixedstars says

    rich but restrained, opulent but not ostentatious…not my favourite silhouette but a beautiful exemplar of its period. can’t really fault it! i’d wear it if it could be re-worked to dispense with the bustle.

    rating: 9/10

  16. Fabulous! Now, that’s a Brown worth wearing…I can just picture some dear distressed gentlewoman gingerly exiting her carriage on Baker Street to see if the famed Mr. Holmes could help her in a most delicate situation… 10/10

  17. kathy loomis says

    What’s the matter with me? I hate brown, and I hate bustles, and still I love this dress! I suppose that the lace cuffs served a functional purpose of keeping body oils off the fancy fabric, but I would probably take them off. The embroidery is spectacular but not gaudy and the two browns go together beautifully. I give it 9.5

  18. Stafford Belinda says

    Just stunning! Miraculously succeeds in enchanting me with a silhouette and a style i had begun to think irredeemable: why did women want to look like they were wearing the curtains and every conceivable trim?
    Yet this dressmaker has balanced the outcome beautifully.

  19. Vivien Dwyer says

    I’d wear this if I could (or had the figure for it!)

  20. Kathy Hanyok says

    I would go visiting with my worst enemy to be able to wear a gown like this! The bead work is exquisite and makes my eyes ache at the thought of woman-hours spent in beading. This gorgeous rich color reminds me why brown was my mother’s favorite color. I also want to say how much I appreciate your comments on the makers of such gowns, so thoughtful, thought provoking and succinct. 10/10

  21. Stephanie says

    This is a beautiful dress, and I usually don’t like brown at all. Maybe it’s that I am now a mature woman? I’m a little put off by how military the embellishments on the bodice look from a distance, but find them totally captivating in the close up photo. I love the drape of the over skirt and how restrained the dress is overall.
    I also feel very geographically drawn to this dress as I went to university at Queen’s. I wonder if the owner of this dress actually wore it to visit Agnes Etherington’s family in Kingston. Agnes would have been about 5 when the dress was worn. I wonder, if the dress’s owner lived in Kingston, which of the grand homes she lived in. I imagine that she would have lived close to the lake, probably between downtown and the university as that is where the old mansions cluster. I am imagining descending from my carriage to enter one of the mansions that is now a university building carrying, not visiting cards, but papers to be signed, in a mish-mash of student research realities and historical whimsy.
    Because the dress is so nostalgic for me and the Agnes Etherington Art Centre is fabulous, but because I’m still not 100% on the trim: 9.5

  22. Emma Louise says

    It does trouble me that beautiful things so often have ugly origins. I find myself trying to appreciate the beauty without condoning how it came about.
    Having said that I think this dress is beautiful! I can be rather fussy about browns but this one is really sumptuous and autumnal. The embellishments are intricate and elegant. The draped skirt is unusual and masterfully done. The only thing I’m slightly unsure about is the lace cuffs, but then again, what is a Victorian outfit without a bit of lace!

  23. 7/10

    Ack. I’m in the minority here…
    I love the embroidered and sequined embellishments on the bodice, the lace on the neckline and cuff. I find the under patterning of the velvet really lovely too, but the color is what really doesn’t suit my fancy. I love the reddish browns on the overskirt and the greens of the bodice front details, but the teddy-bear-brown of the velvet… just not my thing. I’d have scored it higher for a deep green, grey, mustard, sienna, anything but that basic brown. It clashes in my eyes with the sienna undertones of the overskirt and the greenish earth tones of the bodice embroidery details.

  24. Roseberriesmaybe says

    Somehow manages to be both restrained and theatrical. As I can relate, 9/10

  25. Monica Demsky says

    The embroidery leaves me speechless. Don’t like the colour. Should be dark green. I should have given a lot lower mark because the browns are ugly and I hate brown. Nobody looks good in brown.

  26. Crumpled Rag says

    What a fantastic dress, beautiful colours and workmanship.

  27. Juliet Braidwood says

    I really like this dress! Admittedly I’m probably biased because really like drapery and subtle combinations of ‘boring’ colours like browns or greys, but it’s really effective. The embroidery reminds me a little of military braiding, in the horizontal lines and symmetry, which I really like too. I’m not quite so sure about the wavy/ripply velvet, but I also don’t know if it would look a bit boring with just plain velvet…

  28. dropping stitches says

    Stunning. Rich-looking in every way.


  29. Louise says

    I’ve just had an enjoyable read through your archive. Great blog, thanks, the dress gets a 10/10 from me.

  30. Malin says

    Lovely. Elaborate while still perfectly tasteful. Such beautiful embellishment and wonderful fabrics with a maturely restrained colour scheme. 10/10

  31. Cirina says

    It seems I’m the only one who isn’t all for it. Funny thing is, I was. I saw it some days ago and I didn’t comment then, and now I have returned and… reconsidered.
    The first wiev was striking, on second glance -the embellishment is still awesome, but the overskirt is not so hot. The overall shape is nice, but I’m put off by the fabric mismatch and the “I have this bit of nice satin left, let’s put it somewhere” vibe. And the visible gathering tape, or what it is, bothers me.


  32. Lucy says

    I cannot approve of bustles but that’s some glorious draping and embroidery and a beautiful colour scheme.

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