It’s generally accepted that the princess dress style began to gain traction around 1876-1878. However, as with most fashion trends, the princess dress didn’t just spontaneously appear but rather it was a product of an evolutionary process that we’ve managed to trace back to at least 1874. One of the more logical places for the princess style to develop was with house dresses because of their simple, relatively loose construction. Below are two designs that were offered for sale as patterns in the October 1874 issue of Demorest’s Family Magazine:
The Griselda Polonaise is described as:
The recent styles, however furnish a concession to the rage for jackets, and by a clever addition of a “basque,” or “jacket ” back, give the effect of two separate parts to the costume. A stylish example of this is illustrated in the “Griselda” polonaise, one of the prettiest, and at the same time, one of the most practical designs of the season. It is long, straight around, with just enough fullness to make it graceful, and is fitted with a slashed basque, which comes far enough forward to furnish the jacket effect. The revers collar extends into square tabs at the back—tho ends of which are finished with woolen ball, or tasseled fringe to match the basque. Plaitings may be employed if the design is used in the making of an alpaca suit, but the whole amount of fringe required, will not be over a yard and a-half.
What is interesting about the “Griselda Polonaise” is that it’s not referred to at all as a princess dress but rather focuses on the faux jacket style that serves to create an illusion that there are two separate parts the dress. Of course, one look at the dress front illustration makes it clear that this is a one-piece garment.
The Camilla Gabrielle as:
A new style of the princess dress will be found in the “camilla” gabrielle, a very dressy design, easily arranged however, and adapted to a wide class of materials…it forms a ladylike indoor dress for either city or country, requires a comparatively small amount of material, and but little trimming to make a stylish dress.
Both of the above styles are very elegant versions of the indoor house dress while at the same time emphasizing that they don’t require a lot of expensive materials. Here’s an extant example of a house dress from circa 1875:
This dress has a princess silhouette and is constructed from a combination of lavender and dark purple/eggplant silk taffeta. This style is very similar to the above engravings from Demorest’s with a few variations on decorative treatments. What’s striking about this dress is the use of contrasting dark and light panels, a feature that would become common into the late 1870s. Also, we can see that with this style, it wasn’t too far of a leap to migrate into a full-blown day dress suitable for wear outside the house as can be seen with this example:
Another interesting feature about the earlier princess style dresses is that we can also see an evolution from a long polonaise into a more proper dress and this is evident with the these two dress styles that appeared in the June 4, 1876 and August 2, 1876 issues of Le Moniteur de la Mode:
In the above two fashion plates, one can see very visible underskirts that are more than simple hems but rather suggest that the style started with a two-piece skirt and polonaise with the polonaise becoming longer to the point where an underskirt was either no longer needed or remained in a vestigial form with an elaborate hem and train. Now, just to throw some other elements into the princess dress style, there’s this plate, also from an 1876 issue of Le Moniteur de la Mode:
Here we see the princess line combined with an outer redingote combined with the suggestion of an underskirt and waist/vest (we believe that much of this would have actually been of a one-piece construction. The redingote, combined with the wide lapels and elaborate tails, definitely reads Directoire; whether this was solely a concept piece only depicted in a fashion plate or actually makes for interesting speculation. In the end, the only major takeaway from all of this is that fashion evolves while at the same time combining other style elements in a seemingly endless variety of combinations and it can be said that there’s definitely a lot to consider in designing a recreation of the princess style dress, whether it’s a house dress, tea gown, or full-blown day/afternoon dress.