Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: Sheer Tiers in 1920

Wedding dress, Drapery Supply Association, 1920, Dunedin, Silk with feather and metallic thread trims and metal fastenings, PC003279, Gift of Mrs Tui Preston, 1984

I’m having computer issue, which are a most inconvenient thing to happen during a strict lockdown (first world problems,  I know!).  So I’m stuck doing a lot of work from a very old, slow laptop…but that comes with a perk.  I’m finding a forgotten cache of Rate the Dress possibilities.  Such fun!  My one problem is making sure I don’t pick one that I’ve already run before.

I’m pretty sure this tiered confection is new to Rate the Dress.  It’s certainly novel for its era: embracing all the latest trends of its era, and venturing out in to a bit of quirkiness all of its own.  What will you make of it?

Last week:  an 1840s day dress in printed silk

You all agreed that the fabric for last week’s dress was absolutely gorgeous.  Opinions on the rest of the dress elements were more mixed.  Some of you loved the lace, some of you felt it didn’t match the rest of the dress.  There was also a lot of criticism of the shoulder slope, which seems a little unfair: 1840s dresses will always have slopey shoulders, and I did ask you to rate the garment as an example of an 1840s dress!

The Total: 8.5 out of 10

Down a smidge on the week before.

This week: a tiered and feathered New Zealand wedding dress from 1920

This layered, ruffled, feathered, embroidered, appliqued and lace trimmed wedding dress was worn by a New Zealand bride, 26 year old Tui McKinnon, to her June 1920 wedding.  Sixty-four years later she donated her beautifully preserved wedding dress to the national museum.

The dress was made by the Dunedin department store Drapery Supply Association.  In addition to ready-made garments, the store made custom items, like this dress, which bears their ‘Drapery Supply Association / Costumiers / Dunedin’ label

(How happy does this make me, as a Costume Construction teacher training a new generation of costumiers?  Very!)

As this was a custom piece, Tui probably had a lot of say in its design.  It’s a fascinating mix of Edwardian detailing, texture and layering, with the sweetness we so often see in early ’20s dress, and a willingness to experiment with materials and silhouette that characterised more avant garde ‘teens and ’20s fashion.

One very interesting feature to point out is the raised waistline.  The fashionable waist level in the late 1910s was all over the place: at the natural waist, dropped, very dropped, and raised.  There was even was a brief return of the fashion for empire waistlines in the early 20s, as this dress demonstrates.

It’s quite a distinctive dress, and you may be wondering what it looked like on.  We don’t have to imagine what Tui looked like in her dress: there’s a photo!  And here’s a couture version of a similarly be-ruffled dress from the 1919 film ‘ A Sporting Chance’.  You might find it interesting to know that Anna is playing Ethel’s stepmother – the ruffled dress is a perfectly appropriate choice for an older woman.

Anna Q. Nilsson and Ethel Clayton — 1919

Anna Q. Nilsson and Ethel Clayton — 1919

Getting back to Tui’s wedding dress, what do you think?  Is this a fun and fabulous example of a once-in-a-lifetime dress?  Or should this tiered and feathered dress be tarred and feathered?

(I’m sorry.  I couldn’t resist.   I did manage to hold off on naming the whole post ‘Tiered and Feathered’ though!

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. Time Streel says

    I like it! I would expect all the lace and feathers to weigh it down with cuteness, but they all work together nicely with the tiers to give a feeling of airiness. The proportions that look a little elongated on the mannequin make visual sense in the photo of the owner wearing it. And I love the touch of having lace motifs (or embroidery?) on the back ties.


  2. nofixedstars says

    while the dress has some beautiful features, such as the gold thread-embroidered trim, overall it’s a bit too…fluffy…for my taste. i think if there were fewer tiers, it would look better to me, and i might get over the feather trim. or if there were no feathers, i might get over the layer cake of tiers. something about the two combined pushes the dress over my floof tolerance. i’ve seen the still from “a sporting chance” before, and made a similar evaluation of the combination of her tiered frock with very ruffly parasol…apparently excess floof is my waterloo in dress. perhaps my personality is simply not effervescent enough to appreciate it, lol.

    rating: 5/10

  3. Elaine says

    When I first read your list of all the embellishments, it sounded like a horrifying mishmash to me. But the photo shows a lovely dress. I really like the pleating on the back bodice, although I don’t care for the melon-colored blobs – is it embroidered flowers? At any rate, this is a wedding dress so I like the elegant details. I probably wouldn’t like it quite as much if the dress were for some more every-day purpose. 8.5/10

  4. How lovely! It’s great to see the dress in the photo, among its ruffled pastel sisters. I don’t care for the orange and I think I could do without the feathers around the neck, but overall I think it’s actually fairly restrained, and I like the proportions.

  5. Anne M says

    Somewhat over the top, but fine for a special occasion dress. I thought the embroidery band could have been better – some sort of smaller flower motif would be more in scale and motif with the the leafy vine than the large circles. The “tail” in the back was strange because it didn’t belong to any sash. The feathers worked very well, not too overpowering, and gave a nice soft edge to the dress. What I really liked was the use of overlapping tiers in the skirt as opposed to ruffled bands as in the movie picture shown. The tiers would have likely made a nice, soft, swishing sound as the wearer moved. (The orange flowers seemed to be on some sort of necklace worn under the dress, perhaps as part of the wedding, so I didn’t include them in my rating.) Conclusion: Very nice, but not absolute perfection.

    • Anne M says

      Reading the comment below, and then looking at the dress description on the website, I see that the flowers are part of the dress. A bit weird, but perhaps related to this being a wedding dress. My rating still stands.

  6. I predict a rash of early 20s dresses of this nature. It’s so nice to see the higher waistline. The sleeves are nice…especially as rendered in the film still.

    Along with other readers, I am puzzled by the melon elements, and I might have gone for a more understated lace at the midriff. Then too, I prefer the bands of ruffles used in the A Sporting Chance. And the feathers at the neckline might or might not do well on a modern costume version. Still, it’s a pretty, pretty dress and could be a joy to wear on the right occasion.

    Lovely to see a New Zealand dress with an original photo, too!

    Very best,

    Natalie in KY across the world

  7. Sweet and dainty! I actually quite like the tails with the little bit of embellishment at the ends, though I can’t put my finger on why.
    However, like many others, I am deeply dubious of the pink lumps under the sheer back.
    (And though this isn’t included in the judging, I really don’t care for the veil style that seemed all the rage back then – looks rather too much like a hairnet.)

  8. Lynne says

    I think it’s an enchanting wedding dress!
    The lace is interesting – so much more ‘out there’ than the rest of the dress which is so like a cloud. The way the lace is high on the raised waist, and that it is upside down, makes it look like a calyx from which the flower of the bride’s head and shoulder blooms.

    10 out of 10

  9. Violet says

    As a 20’s dress, this is very chic with a dreamy fluffiness that is sweetly demure. The trim is exquisite and looks soft. For me, there is a bit of an imbalance in the way the ruffles aren’t mimicked on the sleeves and/or the feathers aren’t mimicked on the skirt.

    10 out of 10

  10. I don’t love 1920’s fashion personally, but I am oddly charmed by this dress. It looks so fae-like. The one thing I think it could do without is the ruffle around the neckline.


  11. It’s lovely and in the photo it definitely looks of its time, though the fabulous and enormous bouquets of the time make is hard to see any dress!
    I love the delicate gold ferns and think the fringe trim is a great combo with them.
    LOVE the sash ends at the back, very reminiscent of the velvet sash ends on the “Laurel Dress,” albeit it over a decade earlier.
    I love that this is a NZ dress. The term costumier though in the context of the Dunedin shop would be wardrobe building and suits more than for theatre or dance costuming. I do love the idea though. I wonder who made it, what her name was and where she worked – at home or in the workroom? What would it have been like? Did the bride choose the style, did they advise her or was it a team effort? Did she see a photo of a society wedding and get an inspired copy made? Did she see A Sporting Chance? I love thinking about this!

  12. I think this is charming! I was wondering about those orange flowers too. The description on the museum website says they are pink silk fabric flowers decorating the lining. I think I like them on the front, where they appear subtly behind the feather fringe, but on the back where they dip down they look maybe a little lumpy/extraneous. I love the matching ruffles on the little flower girls in the photo too! 9/10

  13. Silver says

    After some consideration, I realise that there is everything to adore about this glimmering peak resultant from the mellifluous collision of the Edwardian era’s outgoing tide with flapperdom’s shoreward surge. The more I look at the dress, the more it captivates me. And truly, thank you, New Zealand – I can think of no other culture which could have melded these elements with such charming success.
    9/10, only because of the ‘melon blobs’ that others have mentioned.

  14. Penny says

    I don’t love it. It’s a very in-between periods kind of dress. Actually it’s surprisingly modern. I could see someone wearing this today. It reminds me a lot of the tiered pink dress Emma Watson wore in the winter ball scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. For some that could be a good thing. But it’s not to my personal taste. For me it’s too fluffy and froofy without the elegance and ethereal-ness that 1910s and 1920s dresses usually have. It’s weird. I like a lot of the individual elements, but they just aren’t coming together for me. 6/10

  15. Emma Louise says

    It looks jellyfish like to me, all delicate and ethereal. I like it, though I agree with other reviewers about the pink flowers, I don’t think the dress needs them. I always associate the 20s with dropped hems so it was intresting to learn about the variety.

  16. Very pretty, and I especially appreciate the contemporary picture of the wedding party. My grandparents got married in the ’20s and everyone had those weird pudding bowl veil holders, although their dresses were more every day looking, and not all the same like these.


  17. The dress makes me think of flightless birds, sorry. I like the metallic trim across the bodice, and the fringe. But I’ve never liked tiers of ruffles on anything, and I don’t like them here. And what’s going on with the orange flowers on the bodice in the back, masked by a layer of silk?

    It was neat having the chance to see a picture of the bride in the dress. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to see the bride, behind that huge bouquet and long veil, so it’s hard to tell whether she looked pretty in the dress.

    4 out of 10.

      • Sorry, I did not mean to be rude about flightless birds. I rather like them; they are fascinating animals! But I don’t want to look like one myself, and I don’t fancy dresses that I think would make a woman look like one.

        • No apology needed! I didn’t take it as rudeness at all – just thought it was particularly amusing because we are very much the country of flightless birds 🙂

          I’m not sure about looking like a kakapo, but I’ve no objection to looking like a takahe or kiwi. They have the most fabulously delicate proto-feathers.

  18. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    It could have been worse. The metallic lace is the most awkward element – too stiff and dark for the fluffy feathers and delicate ruffles.

    “Edwardian era’s outgoing tide with flapperdom’s shoreward surge” yes, pretty much that. But it lacks the flowing effect of the earlier dresses and is just a befeathered beruffled column awkwardly straddling the gap.


  19. Sara McDermott says

    I really adore everything except the feather trim and the bows on the lining. Those give the effect of underwear unintentionally showing through a sheer dress.


  20. Katie says

    Fantastic to see a kiwi example, and fab to see a photo of it being worn. What a special dress with beautiful details 10/10

  21. Marie Curious says

    It’s a gorgeous dress, and it’s so great that we can actually see a photo from the wedding day! My main quibble is the trim at the neck is a bit much – I actually like that feather trim at the waist and sleeves, but something about the neckline just isn’t working for me. 8.5/10

  22. AnnaKareninaHerself says

    To me it looks like the type of vintage dress (preferably Chanel), that was randomly put on waify period-movie-actresses like Mia Wasikowska or Keira Knightley for…let’s say…the Cannes Festival ca. 2010.
    Oh dear, I‘m getting sentimental, because, clearly we are living in a different era now. Anyways: So for me, it looks a bit like a „hip“ vintage dress, but „hip“ in a dated way….if that makes any sense. And really, if I imagine this as a little gem, found in a vintage shop: how lovely would it look with a shorter hemline: as a mini-dress. I‘d say: the three lower flounces could be easily cut off…or, for the likes of Kendall Jenner: Make it ultra short and loose four of‘em. Actually I really think, that a short hemline would give the whole dress a more balanced proportion. The details and quality of the dress are super cute by the way. 7/10

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