Butterflies, Ballgowns And Spring Fashions

The natural world has always been a source of inspiration for artists and fashion designers and the late 19th Century was no exception. Examples of natural inspiration in fashion abound but there were a few specific examples that caught our eye.

The first example is a ballgown created by the House of Worth in 1898 (Frederick Charles Worth himself has passed from the scene by this time) and it incorporates butterflies as a design motif:


Ballgown, Worth, 1898; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1324a, b)


Three-Quarter Front View


Rear View


Three-quarters view of skirt.

This dress has a relatively simple, clean silhouette characteristic of late 1890s design. The skirt itself is made from a pale blue silk satin and has a full train and an unadorned hemline. The bodice is constructed of the same pale blue silk satin trimmed in a taupe silk chiffon. All of this is fairly standard but what separates this dress from others is that it’s decorated with butterflies on the skirt and bodice, are arranged to give the appearance that they are fluttering away from the hem.

The butterfly decorations appear to be of champagne/gold with metallic highlights and black beading; most notably, they’re woven into the fashion fabric rather than appliqued. Even more remarkable is that the butterflies are scaled, shrinking in size moving away from the hem- the fabric was deliberately woven this way, and there’s little doubt that there were “up” and “down” sides of selvage; this fabric was specifically commissioned by Worth. Worth sourced most of its silks on a custom-production basis from various firms in Lyon, France and the results were amazing such as in this case.

As a sidelight, what is even more remarkable about the butterfly fabric is that its width would have had to have been wide, no doubt approaching the 54 or 60 inch wide. 54 to 60 inch widths for fabric are standard in the textile industry today but that was not the case in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Then, fabric widths tended to be narrow, ranging from 30 to 40 inches wide (or the metric equivalent thereof). In our collection of vintage bolts of fabric, none are wider than about 34 inches.

This “natural” theme can be also be found in this ball gown that was also designed by Worth in 1900, only this time incorporating wheat-like motif:


Ballgown, Worth, 1900; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.1250a, b)


Side Profile

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Skirt Detail

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More Skirt Detail

And here it is being “worn”:


The silhouette is identical to the first dress only the basic fashion fabric for skirt and bodice is now a pink-colored silk satin. The skirt is decorates with a series of wheat stalks flowing upwards from the hem both on the front and the back. It is difficult to tell from the pictures if the yellow/gold wheat stalks were integrated into the basic fashion fabric (we suspect it is) but combined with the beading, the effect is imaginative. The pink color of the dress is further enhanced by the taupe/gold chiffon and fabric flowers that trim the neck and shoulders of the bodice. Once again, we see the natural world as interpreted into fashion.

As a side note, the above two ballgowns illustrate one of Worth’s basic design methods in that each dress was based on a standard pattern block that was modified for the individual client. At root, the construction details for each type of garment remained fairly similar, only the fabrics, decoration, and trim varied. From a business perspective, it was efficient-no point reinventing the wheel, so to say, each time a client ordered a dress. It’s also easily overlooked with all the distraction caused by the exquisite fabrics and trim found in Worth’s designs (the goal of every designer of the time 🙂 ). We hope that you’ve enjoyed this little excursion to the House of Worth. 🙂


4 thoughts on “Butterflies, Ballgowns And Spring Fashions

  1. Pingback: Behind The Scenes At The Met | Lily Absinthe

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