Dating a Dress – You Be The Judge

One of the key elements of working with historical costume is the ability to properly date items, or at least fix an approximate time frame. Although we tend to accept how museums date their collections, sometimes there are items that just do not seem right for the period that is being attributed to the item.

Recently, I came across the following dress on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website:

Purple Dress1

Visiting Dress, French, 1867; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979.93a, b)

Purple Dress2

Rear View

View3

Side Profile View

1979.93a_d

Maker’s Label; Gathering more information about the maker would go a long way towards precisely dating the dress.

According to the description on the Met website, the dress dates from 1867. However, in looking at the silhouette of the dress, it just reads Early Bustle Era, sometime between 1870 and 1874 or thereabouts.

Specifically, in looking at the skirt, it is evident that it was expressly designed to flow towards the rear, thus creating a defined train. But this train is not some haphazard arrangement of fabric but rather it is constructed of several separate panels joined together separated by rows of ruffles. The overall effect is that skirt naturally flows and the eye is drawn from front to rear. It is clear that the skirt and train were deliberately constructed to give this flowing effect. Finally, the rows of ruffled trim also help to accentuate the effect and the striped fabric also plays a role in this.

Now before going any further, we need to consider that there could be a number of different reasons why the date of the dress may be incorrect. It is always possible that perhaps it was not displayed correctly or that it’s missing key components underneath. Perhaps it was reconstructed and as a result the silhouette has changed. Like people, museums can make mistakes. With that said, let’s proceed.

So what do some later 1860s dresses look like?

19830010129 ac

Day Dress, c. 1860 – 1870; Kent State University Museum (1983.001.0129 a-c)

19830010129 ac-2

Side Profile View

19830010129 ac-3

Rear View

According to the Kent State University Museum website, the date is attributed to the entire decade of the 1860s (perhaps they are hedging their bets). However, knowing that the crinoline silhouette was characteristic of dresses of the early 1860s, it is fairly safe to say that this one is from the mid to late 1860s.

That said, let’s look at the skirt in some detail. first, like the first dress, it also flows in a rearward manner and the hem is also elliptical rather than circular (which also helps place this in the med to late 1860s).  The thin stripes and the trim help to give a flowing effect but it is nowhere as refined as that in the first example.

Let’s look at another example:

19830010107 ab-2

Day Dress, c. 1865 – 1870 (Although it is noted that the original catalog card notes the year 1865); Kent State University Museum (1983.001.0107 ab)

19830010107 ab-3

Side Profile View

19830010107 ab-4

Rear View

Once again, we have an elliptical skirt that is drawn towards the rear in a somewhat minimalist train. The effect here is a bit more confused than the previous example but in both cases, we have dresses that can be that can be placed in the mid to late 1860s and one can see the beginning of the evolution towards the elaborately trains characteristic of the later Bustle Era.

Just to round things out, below are some fashion plates representative of the period:

Godey's Ladysbook, January 1866

Godey’s Lady’s Book, January 1866

For 1866, one sees very little difference between these and dresses from the early 1860s.

1867-03 world of fashion 4

The World of Fashion, 1867

Godeys September

Godey’s Lady’s Book, September 1867

Peterson's, July 1868

Peterson’s, July 1868

For the above two plates, one can see the beginnings of the train as the skirt starts to shift towards the rear…

Victoria, 1869

Victoria, April 1869

For 1869, we finally are able to see a more completely defined train but it’s still fairly rudimentary compared to what was to come later.

And finally, we reach the 1870s:

Godey's Lady's Book , March 1870

Godey’s Lady’s Book , March 1870

Godey's Lady's Book, May 1870

Godey’s Lady’s Book, May 1870

Here we see a more complete transition. In the above plate, the dress third from the right is especially striking in the use of a striped front panel to create a flat, vertical look to the front of the dress while at the same there’s a well-defined train in the rear.

Godey's Lady's Book, November 1872

Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1872

In the above illustrations, we have traced the transition from the crinoline to the bustle, or at least a good part of the process. One can seen not just a transition to an elliptical hemline and the development of the train, but a more sophisticated version of this style. This is not a process of gathering up some fabric and creating a crude trailing effect but rather, it’s precisely engineered to achieve a specific effect, an effect more characteristic of the early 1870s.

Naturally, much of the evaluation process is subjective and open to varied interpretation and that is all right. In the absence of hard data such as information about the dressmaker, we can only speculate but we definitely can narrow down the date.

Thanks for bearing with us through this somewhat academic exercise and we welcome your comments. Let us know what you think. 🙂

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