Rate the Dress: Mid-Century Mourning

The last Rate the Dress choice was frothy Edwardian frills in pastel hues. This week it’s frothy mid-19th century frills in sable-on-sable. One of the most common dislikes for the Hallee dress was the colour. Perhaps you’ll like black better?

Last Week:  a ca. 1900 afternoon dress by Hallee in lace and eu de nil

Hallee dress was quite popular, as has been the case with most Edwardian froth on Rate the Dress. Some of you weren’t entirely sold on the colours, or the vertical lines (although the photo is rather misleading – the vertical inserts are totally symmetrical, some are just hidden in the folds).

The Total: 8.5 out of 10

Not as good as the week before – as a couture piece, it wasn’t as good an example of its type as last week’s dressmaker’s creation.  

This week: a ca. 1850 mourning dress.

This week’s Rate the Dress will be a little bit different. It’s a full dress, but one that is so dependent on the accompanying garments and accessories that it’s essentially un-rateable without them:

Mourning Dress, 1850 - 1855 wool mousseline, Amsterdam Museum KA 19997
Mourning Dress, 1850 – 1855, wool mousseline, Amsterdam Museum, KA 19997

So I’m going to give you some options for styling to complete the picture.

What does this dress need?
  • A petticoat, because the mousseline is so sheer.
  • A guimpe or other form of chemisette to cover the deep V of the bodice.
  • Engageantes to fill out the sleeves and bridge the gap between sleeve ends and wrists.
  • And in most cases, a cap for indoors wear, or a bonnet for outdoors wear.

Let’s find some examples of those in fashion plates that are contemporaneous to this dress. The Amsterdam Museum dates this dress to 1850-55, but I think it’s on the earlier end of that spectrum – possibly as early as 1849, and probably not later than 53.

Clues to the dating? The deep V of the bodice with a chemisette for filling is rarely seen on dresses in fashion plates after 1851 – particularly when framed by gathered-in pleats, as seen here. Skirts with tiers of ruffles were fashionable throughout this period, but after 1853 they tend to overlap, rather than having space between them. Additionally, the skirt, while shown over a too-small hoop (note the way it droops on the sides – although there is a horizontal tear just under the front point that has been mended, lifting up the front of the skirt) isn’t quite large enough to fit over the large hoopskirts of 1854 onwards. The wider pagoda sleeves indicate a date after 1848, when the slim sleeves of the 1840s become less common.

Here examples of similar dresses in plates from 1847-1850, so you can imagine how the extant dress would have been styled.

The plaid day dress from April 1850 is very similar in shape, although with less tiers on the skirt, and a smooth, rather than pleated, bodice. Colour the bonnet and all the accessories black for deepest mourning, or leave the engageantes, chemisette and cap white for a less extreme look, and you can imagine how the dress in question might have been worn:

Dresses, April 1850
Fashions for, April 1850

Here’s an indoor option for accessorising our dress, with cap instead of bonnet:

Morning Dress & At Home Costume, August 1849
Morning Dress & At Home Costume, August 1849

Yes, the white one is a morning dress – for wearing at home in the morning – not a mourning dress! The catalogue describes the second dress, the one similar to our Rate the Dress, as:

Walking, or home costume. The dress of French gray silk, with two deep flounces, headed by a narrow band of black velvet, and edging of the same. Plain corsage [bodice], half high, and finished with the velvet trimming, as are also the sleeves. Undersleeves, very full and gathered into a band at the wrist. Black mits of twisted silk. The cap is composed of alternate ruches of lace and ribbon, with a knot of small ribbon puffs on each side of the face. These dresses are suitable for spring or fall, for morning visits, or an evening “at home” costume. The exquisite simplicity of the first cannot but please; the other is intended for second mourning.

For another indoor example, and one from the earliest possible date for our dress, check the pinky-brown ensemble in upper left. Note how the sleeves are still quite slim, the chemisette with brooch fastening the collar. This almost certainly depicts an at-home costume, which, like the white one above, may fasten at centre front.

Dress designs from 1847
Dress designs from 1847

Here’s an example with a bonnet suitable for outdoor wear. Note the slim sleeves of both dresses, and that the teal example appears to wrap over at the front.

Fashions for 1847
Fashions for 1847

And finally, one example with no cap or bonnet at all. Once again it has a chemisette with a falling collar fastened with a brooch, and shows the newly-fashionable wider sleeves:

1850, digitalgallery.nypl.org
1850, digitalgallery.nypl.org

So, you have a dress, unstyled, and a multitude of options for completing its look. What would you pair it with? And how would you rate 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.  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. Claire says

    Not being a fan of black, I am surprised how much I really like this dress. The transparency of the mousseline is probably what makes this work for me. It takes away a black opaque look and highlights the horizontal pleats. I like the sleeves too. They add interest without being overly elaborate for such a sober purpose. Rather inspiring over all so I will give this…

    9 out of 10

  2. Tracy Ragland says

    First, thank you for including all of the examples! I actually like this dress quite a bit, although I prefer the silhouette from the next decade. The sheer fabric lightens the heaviness usually associated with mourning dress.


  3. I love the mid-century fashions before the huge hoopskirts came in.
    And this one is wool mousseline, so that’s one more reason to love it. I wish I could get my hands on a lightweight wool like that one of these days.
    Thanks for the explanation about the tear, that was the one thing that was bugging me and clearly it isn’t a design flaw.
    10/10, would wear. (Despite the black and mourning.)

  4. Johanna says

    I like this one a lot! So simple and stylish, and before trimming starts going overboard. I imagine it styled with fairly plain accessories and can easily put it at


  5. Christina Kinsey says

    I can imagine this with a white chemisette and undersleeves, plus petticoats to puff out the skirt. It could look really elegant like this and age appropriate for an older lady without being frumpy either. The light fabric and the flounces lift it too and the bodice design draws the waist in
    I give a 9.5

  6. Nannynorfolk says

    I think this is really nice, and very elegant. I would imagine that the chemisette would be more subdued than white as this is a first mourning dress, there were exact rules then about dress. Only thing is it’s very sad as it was worn by someone who’d lost a loved one.

  7. Kathy Hanyok says

    Yes to a petticoat (black) the correct hoop and engage antes. I know it needs a chemistry but I’m not a fan of collars with this. Maybe something pin tucked with lace on a round neckline. Otherwise, I really love the cut of this gown, even the tiers, which as a short person I would look like a mushroom. I like this “Choose your Accessories”. 9/10

  8. kathy in KY says

    I guess if I were living at the time I would have to add the sleeve doodads, and even today I would need to fill in at least some of that deep neckline, but wow, I love this dress as is!!! I don’t care that the horizontals on the skirt are sagging or that you can see the forearms. I just love it. Not period-correct, but gorgeous. 10

    • It would work really well even today, wouldn’t it? That’s precisely why I love these simpler mid-19th century fashions.

  9. Elaine says

    I really like this. It is elegant and restrained. I even like it “as is” without accessories, although that wouldn’t be period appropriate. 9/10

  10. Like Kathy in KY I don’t care if this dress is period-correct. It’s an elegant stunner, and I’m sure it would still be so with all the appropriate accoutrements, but there’s something especially appealing the current state of simplicity.

  11. nofixedstars says

    i think it’s beautiful. i love black, it delights and soothes my goth little soul. with the correct undergarments, this gown would present beautifully as an elegant mourning dress. adaptable, too, because the fabric is low-sheen and with a change of chemisette and under-sleeves, headgear, etc, one could take it from full mourning to half mourning easily; and toward the end of second mourning perhaps even indulge in some quite frothy lace engageants and chemi, thus appearing very fetching despite the somber hue… and i see no reason why it couldn’t be worn in non-mourning phases with a nice contrasting colour under the V bodice and flashier accessories.

    honestly, i’d wear it now. there is nothing i would change about it, and i think it would look very flattering on.

    rating: 10/10

  12. I love seeing this as a ‘choose your own accessories’ option, because the stripped down version allows an amateur like me to see fashion evolution. I find it fascinating that I could easily see this worn over a silk dress with a slightly full skirt (or a petticoat) to a formal event today.

  13. Would one wear this with black petticoats, to reduce the paleness of some sections?

    I think I would call for a chemisette with falling collar, engageantes, and a cap, all trimmed with black lace and/or ribbon, and perhaps a stately jet brooch at the bottom of the V.

    or 9/10
    if black petticoats included. (Those see-through bits over the light underthing just give the dress a feeling of rustiness, in my opinion.)

  14. Thanks for the illustrated tutorial on the “deep v with chemisette” style of dress!

    In general, I like the 1850s dress silhouette a lot, so I am favorably inclined toward this example. What I don’t like is the bonnet style, so I would prefer to show/rate this gown with indoor headwear. Here’s how I’d like to see it:

    * A ribboned cap in the style worn by the woman on the far right in the August 1849 plate;
    * Engageantes in the style worn by the woman on the bottom right in the “Fashions for, April 1850” plate;
    * A chemisette with a collar as shown in the plate from 1850, digitalgallery.nypl.org
    * All other necessary undergarments to produce the right skirt and bodice shapes.

    All accessories in black, and the chemisette would be worn with a brooch.bearing a jet stone.

    As so accessorized, 9 out of 10.

  15. I quite like the simplicity of this dress. The simple bodice pleating and spaced, unfussy ruffles on the sleeves and skirt provide the perfect amount of texture to the solid black fabric. The deep vee provides a nice contrast to the relative simplicity of the bodice pleating and ruffles while maintaining an almost streamlined look.

    I would style it with:

    * A black petticoat;
    * A chemisette similar to the one worn with the 1847 pinky-brown ensemble;
    * Engageantes similar to those worn with either August 1849 dress;
    * A cap similar to either August 1849 or the 1847 cap worn with the pinky-brown ensemble;
    * A bonnet similar to the 1847 black option;
    * A brooch fastening the chemisette at the neck, either jet or hair jewelry (!).

    Black accessories for deepest mourning and white accessories for half-mourning. Slightly more elaborate accessories would also work for this dress; I can see the chemisette, engageantes, and bonnet from the April 1850 plaid dress working well with this dress.

    I often forget just how much I like the silhouettes of the late 1840s and early 1850s, and I really enjoyed thinking about how to style this dress. Thank you for providing such thorough information!


  16. Cirina says

    I like it. Black petticoat would be preferable.
    BTW you have dropped the #Rate The Dress tag, I was very surprised when I have finally found the last two posts.

  17. Paula Perry says

    I love it. The light fabric gives it an airy feel, rather than the heaviness usually associated with “mourning” of this period.
    I would wear it.


  18. Lylassandra says

    I love this dress! It manages to pull off tiers of ruffles while still looking elegant instead of fussy. The sheer fabric is lovely– though I wonder if it would be worn over white or black? Were colored petticoats a thing? And I’ve always been a huge fan of the deeps Vs and graceful open sleeves of this era.


  19. PepperReed says

    My inner Goth adores this black sheer wool dress, altho the reason for it is sad. I’m typically not a fan of this style, but the plain color actually keeps it from being over the top.


    I’m curious if this could also be worn for half-mourning with the right accessories (grays, soft purples), or if that would need a different sort of garment?

  20. Tereza says

    I like it as it is! I think it would be great to wear contemporarily, Sanna Marin-style (google “Sanna Marin topless” if you missed that) and don’t give it a 10 only because I would not feel like doing that myself 🙂

  21. Emma Louise says

    I really like this dress, It’s a perfect piece for layering. I even like the ruffles on the skirt – I can be fussy about them! But these are a good example, they add texture but aren’t too frilly. As for the accessories, it would suit quite a few different styles, but I think stylistically I’d like it best all in black with a brooch at the throat.

  22. JessieRoo says

    I know I’m late to the party, but this dress is too good to pass by. It iui s perfectly restrained, has a lovely light feel despite the dark color, and a lovely silhouette. I think it would be perfect with a crisp, pintucked chemisette type thing with a sharp little collar and black bow or a fluffy, ruffly confection to fill in the front and sleeves. I would very happily wear a historybound version of this with a shorter skirt and a low-ish, square-necked camisole to fill in the neckline.

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