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Rate the Dress: 1810s Frills

Dress and spencer, France, 1818-1820, Roll printed cotton, 49-32-17.A.B ©Les Arts Decoratifs Paris

This week’s 1810s Rate the Dress has been on my list for a long time.  It’s just taken it a while for it to work its way up to the top at the right time!  I think it’s such an interesting garment, from an interesting period in fashion history: the late 1810s played with so many fascinating design features.  What will you make of it?

This post owes a dept of gratitude to my friend Averil for making sure my interpretation of the museum’s catalogue record was accurate.  My French is entirely limited to ‘I know the names of all the garments and fabrics’, which means figuring out the subtleties of museum records (which can be a mystery even in your native language) is always a bit tricky.

Last Week: A Lucile evening dress in tulle, lace and satin

I really wasn’t sure how you’d like last week’s dress.  Stained and worn garments, even when they are ideally presented, always accrue a bit of criticism – and this one wasn’t even perfectly pressed and staged.  This time though, no one complained about the wear.  Those of you that mentioned it felt it contributed to the dresses story: sweat meant she must have danced a storm!

Most of you loved it.  If you didn’t, it was because it felt a little bitsy, with too many unrelated elements.  The roses and lace underskirt came in for the most criticism.

I do think the rating suffered as a result of the presentation: the lace underskirt was probably meant to clear the ground at front.  The too-short mannequin made the dress look oddly squat, and the lace underskirt look like an afterthought.  On a taller form it would have looked more purposeful.

The Total: 9.1 out of 10

Oooh, breaking the nine barrier!  Pretty good for a dress in that condition.  Well done Lucile!

This week: Pink roller prints and lots of frills

Unlike last week’s dress, this week’s garment is so pristine it looks unworn.  There’s two small spots on the skirt if you look very, very closely, and the suggestion of fading, but they are both extremely minor.

Like last week’s dress I think it’s suffering from a too-short mannequin.  Late 1810s daywear clears the ground, rather than trailing on it.  So imagine this just two inches further off the floor, with a pair of neat leather clad toes peeping out from underneath it!

Both appearance and the catalogue rating suggest its a matching dress and spencer bodice (similar to this ensemble we rated back in 2019). Interestingly it looks like the spencer may be short sleeves, with the short ruffly oversleeves part of the spencer, and the long sleeves the dress itself, although, like the John Bright dress and spencer, both could have long sleeves.

Note that the colours are slightly lighter in the skirt and sleeves, as though the dress got more use and display, and faded slightly.   It’s also possible it’s a trick of the layers of fabric over each other looking darker.

Averil and I did have an extensive discussion over whether it could be a petticoat and spencer, or the dress and chemisette, or a long sleeved spencer, but we think we’ve got this right between her French and my museum/fashion experience!

I think this ensemble is a couple of years earlier than the museum’s dating.  The simpler hem trim, over-long sleeves which wrinkle at the lower arm, heavily gathered back skirt pleating, bodice gathering down to the waist, upper sleeve trim, and short spencer bodice are all more consistent with what is seen in fashion plates in 1812-16 than the fashions of 1818-20 (and this dress is too a la mode to suggest someone making a purposefully outdated style).  Note how much stiffer the silhouette, and how much more elaborate the trim is, in the dress from the John Bright collection I linked above.

My initial assumption was that the fabric of this dress would be a small floral, but up close it’s little branched loops, almost like some seaweeds.  1810s-40s fabric in particular is often incredibly inventive and wacky, and seaweed-esque motifs were common.  Assembling ‘seaweed albums’ was a popular hobby from at least the 1820s onwards.

One fun little detail I noticed while studying the dress was the ruffle trim.  The ruffles are gathered over a cord, rather than being whipped or stroke gathered.  We have a late 1820s dress at Toi Whakaari that features similar cord gathered ruffles.

So what do you think of this ensemble?  Perfectly proportioned pink and ruffles, or twee?

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, so I can find it!  And 0 is not on a scale of 1 to 10.  Thanks in advance!)

21 Comments

  1. The dress is making me think of Alison Steadman as Mrs Bennett in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. All it needs is an ultra frilly cap! The details are lovely, and I feel as if it’s influenced so many things in the 70s and 80s. I suspect Waverley, the home decor fabric manufacturer, adapted the print in the 80s. From a distance I was thinking of a ditsy Liberty floral. I worked for Laura Ashley in the 80s, and the frills may have inspired different pieces in the bridal collection over the years.

    I do adore the details – love the way the gathers in both the spencer and top of the skirt meet in the center back. Also love the way that the frills were gathered over cording – I may have to try that, I don’t think there’s any danger of strain if it’s on a hem like the dress above, rather than in a place like a cuff that might be continually abraided. Also love the chemisette collar sticking up – could be very useful for disgusing a jawline that is less than firm. I wonder if that’s some of the Tudor/Renaissance ruff influence that was seen in some ensembles of the period? It’s very pretty, albeit the Regency version of a little mumsy in my opinion due to the pastel colour…lol… As a matron myself, I’m afraid this might smack of mutton dressed as lamb…which is why it suits Mrs Bennett so well!

  2. Isi says

    Wow, that certainly looks like a nightdress! I actually really like Regency dresses, and all the details of this one (the elegant oversleeves of the Spencer, the touch oft structure that the hem frills give, the contrast of gathers and definition with the waistband) are beautiful. I even really like the seaweed print! But… no, sorry, I can’t get over how much this looks like a frumpy nightgown!
    6/10
    (And thank you for fixing the pictures! They load perfectly quickly now)

  3. Crumpled Rag says

    Unfortuantely, whilst this looks like a well made gown in a perfect Regency style, it also made me think of a nightgown, I think I had one in my childhood, with an almost identical print!.

    Regency dress-8, nightgown-5

    Overall – 6/10

  4. Kathy Hanyok says

    The pastel pink and lack of extraneous trim actually made me think of a young lady, possibly Georgianna Darcy, although I think she’d have a more luxurious fabric. In that case, I find it perfectly charming for a stroll in the park. The ruffle construction is interesting. It looks much more finished than standard ruffles, which I hate making for that very reason. Being short, I wish there were less on the skirt, though. I do like the look of the Spencer with short sleeves and the upstanding ruffled collar. 9/10

    • This was rather obviously a tall person’s dress, instead… given that the skirt should in fact hit higher than it does on the manequin…

  5. nofixedstars says

    this is one of those cases where, for me, colour choice makes or breaks overall appeal. i like this period of clothing, so the silhouette is fine; i love the sheer double lace tucker shown with it; i’m fine with ditsy prints; even the ruffles, whilst not my favourite thing, can work on a frock like this. but the colour—that sugar pink—rachets the ruffles from ornamental or interesting to, well, twee, yes. admittedly, pink is not my favourite colour generally, and when i do like it, it’s only a couple of shades. this happens not to be one of them.

    i do like the little spencer and the tucks. and the ruffles are nicely done—i’d really like them on a solid colour dress, and even on perhaps a different colour print. after staring for ages at the photos, i do think the spencer is a short sleeved one over a long sleeved dress, most likely. overall, it’s a pretty thing and a good example of a day dress from the early 1800s. it seems churlish of me to boggle so at the colour…

    still, it does affect my liking. so the rating will lose a few points for my aesthetic preferences. rating: 8/10

  6. I like it a lot, it’s a well executed dress of its kind with nothing too extraneous or unbalanced, except that… yeah, it’s a bit boring and… twee?, and that does seem to be down to the colour; specifically, I think, down to the fact it’s this kind of print in only one colour. Not just because it’s pink; if I imagine that print in some other colour, it actually doesn’t help that much.

    If I picture this in a solid instead, it’s pretty much THE 1810s dress for me I think. I’d have to adapt it for myself a bit (see about the amount of ruffles on a short person 😀 ) but – yeah, it’s tempting. 😀 Those corded ruffles are great – they have just enough of that 1810s dimensionality to be interesting rather than… well… twee; but also enough of the softness of the previous decade to still appeal to me, compared to all the usual 1810s puffs and padded hems. 🙂

    8/10

  7. I find this utterly charming, and although pink is not a color to my taste, on someone youthful it would be delightful. The scale of the pattern is small enough that the complexity of the ruffles doesn’t seem in conflict.
    A long while back when I was doing costuming for community theater I had occasion to use the corded gather method and found it easier to arrange the gathers smoothly and evenly.
    9 of 10

  8. Elaine says

    The Regency is one of my favorite periods for clothing. But this isn’t doing it for me. I do like the pleating in the back and the overall shape of the dress. The ruffles, while nicely done, are just too much and I dislike this shade of pink. It looks rather dirty, which apparently is not due to aging since it was stated that the dress is in pristine condition. 6/10

    • Elaine says

      I meant that the color looks like a dirty shade of pink, not that the dress looks dirty or in need of cleaning.

  9. Penny says

    Have wanted to make this since the first time I saw it. Love the ruffles, frilly but not fussy. Now to find an appropriate cotton print for it………….
    10/10

  10. Pal K says

    I read an article early last summer that COVID had brought back the dress…specifically the housedress or wearing a dress around the house instead of shlumpy sweatpants and swapping out a professional blouse for a boxy t shirt…
    I realized I had been throwing on some easy wear dresses I hadn’t worn in 10+ years because they were easy wear and less schlumpy.
    I would wear this dress today…with out the neckline ruff…
    Love the corded ruffle technique…tucking that away for future use
    10/10

  11. I like the trim on this one, but not the general silhouette and design. The early 1800s were of course big on high waists, but the waist on this one is at a higher level than I like. In addition, the combination of the pale seaweed print, limited ruffle trim, and high collar makes me think of a winter nightgown. It’s not an ugly look, but it’s a plain and boring one, at least to me. It may well be intended to evoke a dress + spencer look, but I don’t think it does that very effectively. In my opinion, what makes spencers work to sharpen up a look is the color contrast between the spencer and the gown–and there is no such contrast here.

    6.5 out of 10, because the ruffles and pleats are handled well.

  12. Cirina says

    I had a nightgown like that when I was a child. It was printed cotton flanel, and it even had ruffles in the same places like this one.
    In different color or fabric, maybe.
    As it is, in all it’s nightdress glory,
    6.5 out of 10

  13. Yes, it looks like a nightie. But a lovely frilly pink nightie, for those who love frilly and pink. I’m not one of them, but I can still appreciate the way it’s put together (the back pleating, the frilly standing collar…)
    I do wonder if it was chosen to look deliberately sweet and girlish by/for someone whose height made her seem more mature than deemed desirable.
    8/10

  14. Emma says

    Oh gosh, this reminds me of those old-fashioned nightgowns. As nightwear in a costume drama it wouldn’t be so bad but I can’t like it as a dress, at least from the front. I prefer the back view as I do think the pleats are interesting.

    1/10

  15. Emma Louise says

    As I’ve never had or seen a nightgown like this it’s not an association that bothers me. It is all very frilly cutesy and not really what I would want to wear, but it is well done and I think it would make a lovely dress for someone else.
    9/10

  16. Lisa A says

    I love it all–the dusty rose-pink, the unusual print, the slender silhouette and well-done gathers. It’s not flashy but everything seem in harmony and proportion. I can see why it looks like a nightgown to our eyes, but it wouldn’t have looked like a nightgown then, would it? If I imagine myself then, I would feel so put-together to wear this for a pleasant day reading, taking tea with a friend, walking in the garden. Lovely. For its purpose and time–10.

  17. Debbie Farthing says

    This is such a lovely dress! I have a weakness for spencers and this one is so interesting. The color does look rather washed out but that may be a problem with the photography. I think a taller mannequin and repositioning on the arms would make this look far better. It needs more context with little boots and other accessories.

    8.5/10

  18. Penny says

    It’s definitely getting into the twee frou-frou pastels and ruffles and frills and trim that later years will become known for. But it still has an overall elegant vertical line and some lovely gathering at the back. It was probably considered fashion-forward at the time. I love the spencer with sleeve caps over long sleeves in the same fabric idea. Very cute. Thanks for showing it in so much detail.

    8/10

  19. Mariana says

    It’s not my favorite era, not my favorite color, and not my favorite trim style, and yet something about the whole ensemble together is surprisingly pleasing to me.

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