1880s Style – It Wasn’t All Parisian Couturiers

When looking at historical fashions, it’s quite easy to be attracted to the more elaborate and flashy styles of Worth, Pingat, Felix, or Doucet. However, there was a lot more than that and one often finds interesting designs from lesser known (or completely unknown) designers and especially here in the United States. Also, while the Parisian couturiers were acknowledged as fashion leaders, their designs were aimed at a limited market and far too costly for most. But, as always, the market attempted to fill in the gap in a variety of ways to include sewing patterns based on Parisian designs (licensed or not) as well as local dressmakers creating knock-offs. Department stores also created designs for customers of more modest means (comparatively speaking to the clientele that frequented Worth et al.). Below is an evening dress that was made for Wechsler & Abraham of Brooklyn, New York sometime during the 1880s (more on the date later):

Evening Dress, c. 1880s; Metropolitan Museum of Art ( 2009.300.654)

This is an interesting design in that it combines bodice and train in a gold silk brocade with, what appears to be, a pink blush taffeta. The color combination is an interesting one and not one that we’d readily expect, they’re definitely not complementary colors as defined in color theory but nevertheless, the pink blush does provide a neutral background for the bodice and train and it leads the eye  to follow the dress upward from train to bodice to the wearer’s face. Now what’s even more interesting is that the train wraps around the upper part of the pink blush skirt and is swagged.

With the side profile picture above and the rear picture below, one can also better see the designer’s use of draping to create a visual flow that leads the eye. It would seem that there was definitely some thought put into this design.

Here we get a better view of the gold brocade silk fabric with its floral design. The bustle/train has been artfully shaped (or maybe it’s just the museum staging… 😁). Now, in terms of dating, we would venture that this is from the 1883-1886 time frame- we’ve definitely moved beyond the “natural form” era with the train and to be honest, this could probably work all the way towards the end of the 1880s although the look might be looked a little dated by then. Finally, one other detail in that the majority of evening dresses/gowns of the period either had no sleeves or three-quarter sleeves. In all honesty, this dress is more suggestive of a dinner or reception dress but it could have easily done double duty. Ultimately, this is somewhat subjective but we’re just putting it out there. 😁

Mme.Ludinart, 129 Boul. St.-Honoré, Paris, Reception Dress, c. 1889; Kent State University Museum (1983.001.0202 ab)

And just for comparision, above is a similar design made by a Parisian dressmaker dating from about 1889. The color combination is very similar although the bodices are different and this one has no sleeves. Now here’s a dinner dress from the early 1880s- well, perhaps 1882-84 or so, judging from the train:

Dinner Dress, c. 1880-1882; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.63.23.2)

In terms of general style, this is almost identical to our gold brocade & blush pink dress shown above and it only shows that the dividing line between “evening dress” and “dinner dress” or “reception dress” is pretty thin. Of course, the dress could have simply been mis-labeled (it happens more than one would think) but still…in the end, it can be pretty subjective and we by no means profess to have the answers, it is though-provoking.


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