Rate the dress
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Rate the Dress: 1890s bright purple body-con

Day Dress, 1890s, silk foulard with lace and velvet trim, sold by Augusta Auctions May 2017

Last week:  A 1920s tea gown in silk velvet

Things people loved about last week’s dress: the relaxed silhouette, the lush velvet, the gold printing, the striking colours, the dramatic sleeves, and the little buttons on the shoulders.

Things people hated about last week’s dress: the ‘matronly’ silhouette, the bulky velvet, the not-centred printing, the colour combination, the cumbersome sleeves, and the disproportionate buttons on the shoulders.

So…a mixed bag for sure!  With ratings varying from perfect 10s, all the way down to devastating 1s.

My favourite comment: “I like it so much, but for the mildly embarrassing reason that the points along the shoulders and arms make me think of dinosaurs.”  That is not an embarrassing reason!  That’s the best reason ever!  I too love any dress that makes me feel like a dinosaur!

The Total: 8 out of 10

One of the most common ratings, and very impressive for a dress that got a 10.

This week: An 1890s dress with a sexy silhouette and an eye-catching colour.

One of the main things that people disliked about the last Rate the Dress was the shape.  I’m a huge fan of the sack shape as it looks great on me (despite the fact that I’m not a slender little wisp with no bust or hips), but I can definitely see that it’s not for everyone.  Because so many people disliked the body-hiding tube shape, I decided that this week’s Rate the Dress needed to be very form fitting.  Historical fashion wise that immediately brings to mind the early 1880s or the 1930s.

But then I found this dress…

It’s 1890s does Hawai’i!

Or, more accurately, this is the style of 1890s dress that inspired the holokū worn by every Lei Day queen and princess, every pa’u rider, and at every hula ‘auana at the Merrie Monarch festival my entire childhood.

All the elements are there. The long, slim sleeves.  The fitted bodice, waist and hips, flowing out to a fuller skirt.  The ruffle at the hem and slight train.  Both a high yoked neckline and the lower square neckline are popular in modern holokū.

The vivid silk is, admittedly, a bit bright even for most modern Aloha wear, but the fabric would have fit in perfectly in the 1960s and 70s.  I can easily imagine a watteau-backed holomu’u in it.

Day Dress, 1890s, silk foulard with lace and velvet trim, sold by Augusta Auctions May 2017

Day Dress, 1890s, silk foulard with lace and velvet trim, sold by Augusta Auctions May 2017

While this isn’t a common element in holokū, there is something decidedly tropical and sarong-y about the drape and wrap effect of the bodice.

Day Dress, 1890s, silk foulard with lace and velvet trim, sold by Augusta Auctions May 2017

Day Dress, 1890s, silk foulard with lace and velvet trim, sold by Augusta Auctions May 2017

While it’s well known that 1890’s fashion influenced Aloha wear, it may not be as well known that Hawai’i was all the rage in the 1890s.  Hālau hula and ‘hula’ troupes toured America and Europe in the wake of Kalākaua’s 1881 world tour.    The royal cousins Kawananakoa, Kuhio and Keliʻiahonui were educated abroad as part of the Education of Hawai’ian Youths Abroad programme. They pioneered surfing in California in 1885 and were the first male surfers in Britain in 1890, starting the worldwide craze for the sport (Ka’iulani may have beaten them by a few years).  The strikingly beautiful Princess Ka’iulani enchanted both dignitaries and the public as she travelled across Europe and America campaigning for the reinstatement of the Hawai’ian monarchy after the illegal 1893 overthrow.   The Wilder cousins and other descendants of the Big Five missionary families were social leaders at Harvard in the mid 1890s, where they played ukulele in glee clubs and introduced other elements of Hawai’ian culture.  Europe and America were in to Hawai’i!

I can imagine a dress like this being worn by an American socialite hosting one of the royal cousins, or a Wilder or Judd, during school holidays.

Day Dress, 1890s, silk foulard with lace and velvet trim, sold by Augusta Auctions May 2017

Day Dress, 1890s, silk foulard with lace and velvet trim, sold by Augusta Auctions May 2017

What do you think?  Are you a fan of this sexy-but-covered-up, sure-to-stand-out in any crowd frock?

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. Veronica says

    I love this one! The color is so fun, I love how it’s both form fitted and has enough fabric in the skirt that it wouldn’t be constricting. I’m not sure I agree with such a dark velvet trim, I think I would have gone for more of the lime green of the narrower trim all around but I don’t hate it. I would wear this dress today!
    All in all, 9/10

  2. Christina Kinsey says

    I didn’t know a lot of this background information about the impact of Hawai’an culture in.Europe and the US , thanks for this . Beautiful dress , very simple and restrained , and looking forward to the fashions of c1908 in a way
    I think it could lose the lace ? I give it a 9

  3. Carmen Beaudry says

    This is wonderful! I love just about everything about it. I would wear this.

  4. Beth says

    9/10 This one is fun. I can see the evolution of 1960s Aloha dresses from this point. I was a Disneyland Attractions Hostess, and one of my locations was the Enchanted Tiki Room when we still wore muumuus. They were comfortable, but not really as voluminous as the stereotype. I can imagine a Hawaiian woman in this dress both during an Island winter or visiting the mainland. I do like the late Victorian silhouette, the print is fun, and I’m only taking one point off for the saturated colour. This does remind me a little bit of the Hawaiian inspired wedding dresses of the 1970s that you would see in the Polynesian Patterns catalog.

  5. I’m bothered by the green velvet trim. To me, it takes it from “over the top yet still somehow restrained” to “colour explosion with overtones of cartoon villains”. 😀 And the fact it’s just kind of there, almost invisible in some views, does not help… and was the black really supposed to be missing along the front neckline?
    I want to love it, I don’t.

  6. Ron Murphy says

    Thank you for taking the time to put this dress into a historical context. Not only was the information fascinating, but it also helped make sense of this garment.

    The color and pattern of the fabric give a much more modern vibe to the dress and were it not for the history you supplied, I would have thought this some 1970’s retro knockoff.

    I think the dress is wonderful. I love the lace and the green velvet trim at the neck. It’s hard to tell, but it looks like a portion of this trim is missing from the front. I’m not sure about the way the bodice drapes. It could easily appear to be just badly draped or ill-fitted. However, the shape of the skirt is very graceful as are the sleeves.

    I give it an easy 9

  7. This looks oddly modern to my eye! Like others have said, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see someone wearing the purple part of this today.

    I have to admit that I don’t like the narrow cut. Even with the fullness at the back of the skirt, it looks like it would feel restrictive to wear. I also don’t like the lace filling in the neckline (I know it’s the 1890s; it just looks wrong with this specific dress) or either of the trims.


  8. Enid says

    Not a big fan. I know it’s cute and fun, but it’s not something I’d wear if I had a choice of something more…normal? I didn’t notice the lace collar until a few pictures down, so it’s very subtle. The fabric, however is not. Anything but. I love the 1890s, but this dress doesn’t really make my list of nice dresses. So:


  9. Well, hello! I finally found a blog reader so I’m hoping to comment and follow properly again!

    I’m not sure if this is my *favorite ever* but I do bet that silk feels so lovely on.
    I love the shaped high collar. I love the splash of green ribbon. But the overall dress is a miss for me. On someone else, with an exceptional hat with purple and green embellishment, a high rating. But for me… 5/10

  10. Thank-you for filling us in on the history of this piece, without that commentary I would have been confused by the style of this dress.
    It’s definitely not something I would ever wear or be drawn too, and yet I do like it’s vibrancy, and the fact that it is from the 1890’s, but looks like it’s from the 1970’s.

  11. Johanna says

    I love it. The shape, the colour, the pattern. I would love to wear a modern version of this, quite not so long and corseted but with all the other elements. The only small distraction is the yellowed lace, but when it was white bright it would have been stunning.


  12. hisui says

    Thank you for putting this dress in context, it was avery interesting read!
    Sadly, I second everything Hana said about the green trim. I just don’t get it, black would’ve looked so nice … So

  13. MOM says

    I ADORE the fabric – the colour and the striking pattern – lovely.
    But…maybe a bit much if you insist on wearing it from head to foot, even though the pattern and crafts(wo)manship are impeccable?
    Hence, 8.5

  14. Stephanie says

    I love this shade of purple!

    I hadn’t noticed the green trim until I read the comments, so I cannot deduct points for that, and I love everything else.

    Any chance the green trim was a nod to suffragists’ colours?

    Or maybe the owner wore her emeralds with it!

    Thankyou for the Hawaiian perspective, fascinating!


  15. It’s gorgeous and so modern! Clean the lace and put the dress in different lighting so that the asymmetric bodice ruching and draping catches light and shadow, and it takes on even more life.

    It looks like the typical bodice+skirt combination, with an asymmetric front opening in the bodice.

    Very much enjoyed your descriptions of the dress style’s history in Hawaii…need to go back and follow more of the links. I always love when you put garments into cultural-historical context.

    Yes, you could mistake it for an early 1970s formal dress or very fitted hostess gown, but the fabric pattern would have been unusual and there’d have been a big old zipper down the back 🙂

    The saturated purple and the main fabric pattern are yummy, like a ripe plum on the tree, and that pop of green is super. Velvet ribbon trim is oh-so-1890s and early 1900s; fashionable wear used it lavishly and I have some amusing quotes about the proclivity of teen girls to trimming everything with it till they were positively fluttering.

    10 of 10, of course,

  16. India says

    Are the lace and velvet trim later additions – perhaps for modesty or as a replacement or even to add to the suffragette colouring? They look inexpertly attached, clunky and very out of keeping with the style of the rest of the dress. For me they spoil what is otherwise an elegant and dramatic dress, hence my rating is much lower than it would otherwise be.


  17. Cirina says

    Well, this is a first I don’t like anything about a dress. I don’t like the color or fabric pattern, the execution seems sloppy, the yoke does not go with anything and I don’t find it quirky enough for it to be interesting.
    I had fun with the Hawaiian info, but it does not make the dress itself better.
    hmm, the original owner had a great figure? Maybe?

  18. Ruth H says

    I’m putting this here as the contact form seems like it might not be working (clicked send and the waiting thing is still going round and round and round 20 mins later). So sorry if you have got it twice and for cluttering up your blog.

    My favourite cardigan is dying and I need to replace it! Some time ago you (I think) held a cardigan-making class at Made Marion which is exactly what I need. I have been sewing for many years but am not confident with knits. I have made several pairs of leggings and a few t-shirts but nothing as fancy as a cardigan.

    So my questions are:
    – are you running a cardigan-making class anywhere in Wellington any time soon or another class one could make a cardigan at?
    – is your Mackenzie cardigan pattern available?

    Warm regards,


    • Hi Ruth,

      Unfortunately I’m not teaching classes anymore – it was just too much on top of teaching at Toi Whakaari and running Scroop Patterns. Made Marion Craft still offers classes, and the teachers are excellent. You could ask them about running a Cardigan class.

      My cardigan pattern is not available. I’ll move it up in the patternmaking queue and see if I can get it out soon.

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