Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: Sportswear, 1870s style

The last Rate the Dress was rather frilly and, well…pink.  To balance it, this week’s Rate the Dress is significantly more restrained, both in colour and silhouette.  However, it still has lots of interesting details for you to consider.

A warning in advance.  I have absolutely zero brainpower this week.  It’s all been diverted to the final push of preparation for Costume Showcase – the biggest event of the year for the Toi Whakaari Costume Construction course.  I’ve solved last minute fitting and construction problems until all I do is come home and gibber in the bath until bedtime.

So please excuse any wild misidentifications of techniques.  My brain has been doing marathons and is liable to trip over invisible stairs!

Last week:  a pinked, pink, embroidered 1840s dress

Positive comments for last week’s dress, but not brilliant.  Quite a few of you felt that the two halves of the dress didn’t quite match: the bodice was lovely, but needed an equally ruffly berthe to match the skirt.

The Total: 8.3 out of 10

Sweet and nice and perfectly acceptable.

This week: a braid trimmed 1870s sports dress.

This 1870s sports dress reflects the growing interest in athletic endeavours for women in the second half of the 19th century.

One-piece sports dress, c.1873 – 1880, linen Chertsey Museum

Sports like tennis, golf, and croquet all became increasingly popular in the later Victorian era.  They required simpler, more practical garments: the beginnings of modern sportswear.

Simpler, is, of course, relative.  Only very wealthy women could afford dresses designed for such specific activities.  A sports dress was thus a status item in the same way a tea gown was.  It showed that you had the money to spend on expensive garments that could be worn only as informal attire.

This unbleached linen of this sports dress is appropriately relaxed.  The elaborate soutache (or braid) trim, and tiny pleating, which would have been quite a chore for the maid who had to press it, both speak of affluence.

The single triangular pocket is sometimes called a ‘parasol pocket’, and is a point of contention in the historical costuming world.  Some historical costumers vehemently object to the name, and insist that the pockets are much too small for parasols.  I’m not 100% pro parasol, but I’m not entirely convinced that they aren’t.  I’ve worked with a couple of small folding parasols from the 1870s (the Katherine Mansfield House Museum has one), and they would be exactly the right size to fit into these pockets.  If I ever find one at a reasonable price I’m going to have to test the idea out…

Pocket conundrums aside, what do you think of this dress?  Would an 1870s lady have been perfectly tasteful and attractive in it whilst swinging a mallet or bowling towards the jack?

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. I’m having trouble rating this dress because the word “sports” raises all kinds of fit and function questions in my mind. Were the sleeves and armscyes cut for maximum range of arm motion? Did the garment as a whole allow the freedom of movement necessary to swing a racket or bowl a cricket ball? Could the wearer run tolerably comfortably? (Comfort being relative to the accepted constraints of the clothing of the day.) Could the dress withstand the stresses of exercise and consequent necessary cleaning? Or was it designed for looks only? To me these are the paramount considerations, just as they would be if I were buying exercise clothes for myself.
    Going with what we do know about the dress: linen seems like a great fabric choice; it’s cool, strong, and breathable. The buttoned front makes the dress look easy to get into. The pleated flounce may have added a bit of freedom of movement at the hem. The pocket is cute and adds a touch of playfulness. And the braid trimming is, to my eye, elegant, balanced, and tasteful, showing that a garment designed for sport can still be beautiful.

    So, based on appearance and fabric choice:


  2. nofixedstars says

    i cannot say how much i love this dress…this is my idea of sportswear! 🙂

    it’s a very pretty frock in its own right, and i have a big soft spot for natural linen. combine that with black embroidery—perfection. materials, style, embellishment, all perfect.

    also, i love it so much more than the regular attire of its period. it must have felt lovely to wear something like this for croquet in the gardens, or perhaps a spot of archery.

    rating: 10/10

  3. I truly love sports dresses from this era, and this one looks quite comfy! However, I think the linen would be high-upkeep considering how much it tends to wrinkle. Those cuffs alone bump up the rating for me, though – they’re just fabulous!


  4. Elaine says

    It seems practical and is attractive. I especially like the trimming. 9/10

  5. The shape of the dress is beautiful, and the placement of the trim is exquisitely done. For me the contrast of the trim to the unbleached linen is just right (and linen would make it last forever.

    I want one.

    10 of 10

  6. Frances Dorrestein says

    I absolutely adore it. Everything about it. Stylish, smart and comfy.

  7. I am not a dress historian or costumer but I love reading about it. When it comes to vintage sportswear, one of my must reads is the vintage traveler blog https://thevintagetraveler.wordpress.com/
    The pocket on the dress is most likely designed for tennis balls…and of course, at that time women played complete with corset and bustle…and probably played tennis better with those constraints than I do now…
    Aside from functionality in period, I can’t help but noting how contemporary the trimwork is…I recently pinned a few pictures from current Fashion Weeks that have similar detailing (and then I went out and bought some fabric and trim to make a jacket and skirt)
    For timelessness



    • It’s unlikely that the pocket was designed for tennis balls, because the dress almost certainly pre-dates the widespread popularity of lawn tennis! It much more likely it was worn for croquet.

  8. Kathy Hanyok says

    I love the embroidery and I have that exact color unbleached linen (it was drapes). For those reasons alone it hovers around 8. But the collar makes me choke. Imagine trying to exercise with that high neckline! Then the teeny tiny pleats at the hem give me shivers of joy. 8.5

  9. Anne M says

    Very, very nice. I especially like the unbleached linen. The pocket would be very useful for a folding fan and a handkerchief or two. (Sun shading done, perhaps, with a broad-brimmed natural straw hat with a black ribbon, rather than with a parasol). The pleated trim at the bottom is interesting. Adding it as an additional layer, as here, probably kept it in better shape than if it had been added freely to the bottom of the skirt. The skirt itself is rather full on the sides (perhaps the back as well) and the dress might have been able to be used as a riding habit in a pinch. About the only thing I wasn’t sure of is the inch or so offset between the placket opening in the top and the one on the skirt. I would like to see if there is any sort off inner ties keeping the skirt placket closed. All told, I want to wear this now, for a lovely croquet match.

  10. Christina Kinsey says

    Now this is my idea of sports clothing too. The linen would be cool and comfortable , for a start , plus the braid adds a lovely decorative touch. The sleeves seem a bit close fitting for me , but that’s a personal thing .
    I could see myself playing bowls in that …..
    A definite 9.5 , only because of the sleeves

  11. Kelley Gaston says

    I agree that I want one of these outfits! It’s simple and elegant. I can see where this would be for a fairly well-to-do woman. I like this one a lot. 10 out of 10

  12. This is an absolutely beautiful dress. The soutache is especially striking. I would love to add this one to my closet- and wear it for more than just sports!

  13. Imagine playing tennis in this! I love it, I think it’s beautiful, but just imagine. 10/10 for me, I love the style and the detailing.

  14. AnnaKareninaHerself says

    This type of dress (white-ish + black embroidery + summer-ish) was a thing in the 1860s and 1870s and it immediately reminds me on the 1866 painting „women in the garden“ by Manet. The problem about this: strong, very strong competition. If it looks worse than the Manet Version in the painting, it can‘t be a 10 for me. And for my eyes, well, this one just does. I appreciate the whole feminism aspect of performing active sports for women back in the 1870s, but doesn’t doesn’t make me love the dress. In a way I find it generic. It’s Fashion forward for it‘s time. It almost reminds me one the kind of outfits Coco Chanel designed way later, around the year 1916 using jersey instead of linen. Does that make me love it? No, because I‘m not mad about that moment in Chanel‘s body of work. I love a what she did from the 1920s onwards though. So, yeah, this ensemble leaves me cold. I don’t know why. It gives me about the same sensations I‘m gettIng from watching a well-off, middle-aged woman wearing a white Ralph-Lauren-Poloshirt and a pastel Ralph-Lauren-Sweater wrapped around her shoulders playing golf. Signs and symbols and blah. So I give this a 6/10.

  15. I love the cut, the silhouette, the fact that it has pockets!
    I’m torn on the frilling – on the one hand, it’s beautifully done; on the other hand, the ironing! As much as most or all of us would like to imagine ourselves as the wearers of such lovely garments, the fact remains that most of us would be more likely to be in the ironing class.
    Is this garment as practical for active pursuits as something skintight in nylon and elastane? Probably not. Is it more beautiful! In my eyes, absolutely.

  16. Dandy T. says

    I wonder at the long sleeves but one has to remember that “sports” was a relative term back then. Ladies sports were never exactly vigorous. I feel skeptical about the parasol pocket idea but, until someone comes up with a plausible alternative idea of what you put in a weird triangular pocket on a dress, I’ll accept it. But then I find myself wondering how you even play croquet, much less lawn tennis, with a parasol in your pocket?! Why does a lady ever need to put her parasol in a pocket at all?! Never mind. I’m over thinking. It’s pretty. It looks comfortable. The technical details in all of that soutache trim and those tiny pleats are deceptively understated. It’s not stunning but sportswear never is so I say 9.5

  17. Lucy says

    Beautiful, comfortable looking, and flattering on most people.
    One point taken off because… call me narrow-minded, but I can’t get past the idea that sportswear should be easy to wash and should *not* take an hour to iron.

  18. Emma says

    10/10 I feel like I would actually wear this! I especially love the soutache.

  19. I got curious about the possibly parasol pocket. There are just a handful of search hits in period sources. In “Publisher’s Weekly”, page 900 (1876) there’s a list cut paper patterns from Harper’s Bazaar, including Vol IX, No. 18 described as “Corset Basque, Burnous Over-skirt with Parasol Pocket and Walking Skirt.”

    I also came across a smaller type of pocket, the chatelaine pocket (there are many more search hits for it, ranging from at least 1868 to 1892, but mostly 1870s and on). One is depicted in Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine, Volume 42 (1874) – pattern No 3395 – “Ladies’ Greek Over-Skirt, with Chatelaine Pocket”:

    (No dress rating, sorry!)

    • Thanks! I know of one other period reference to ‘parasol pockets’. Those in the ‘they definitely aren’t for parasols’ club claim that the name only refers to the shape.

  20. This dress does not excite me. Its profile is utilitarian, though nicely tailored. The color scheme is bland. The embroidery, though nicely executed, seems to me to be out of place with the dress’s sporty mission. And I’ve never liked parasol pockets so I really hope they were functional!

    6.5 out of 10.

  21. Cirina says

    Its well executed, but, well, it does not take my breath away. At all.

Comments are closed.