Robes Noires Redux…

Today we continue the “Black- Not Just For Mourning” theme a bit more with this day dress/afternoon dress:

Afternoon Dress, c. 1898; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.56.16.2a, b)

Here’s a close-up view of the bodice. The beading and soutache bring a three-dimensional “live” effect to the dress while at the same time they give a luster that offsets what would a somewhat dull dress.

The rear of the bodice especially shows off the decorative effects of the beading on the collar combines with beading and soutache work on the bodice back and shoulders.

William Boeklage is relatively unknown today but was one of the many ladies’ tailors in Paris from the 1890s through 1920. Not much is known about the firm but that may change in the future. This is a beautiful dress and certainly demonstrates how far design effects can be used to show off the dress’s color to its greatest advantage.

And For A Little Portraiture…

And just for something different today, here’s a portrait from 1891 of Madame Albert Cahen d’Anvers. Portraiture from a particular historical period can often give us an idea of what was worn then, or at least an idealized version of that clothing. In this case, we see an elegant evening dress combined with a long opera cloak. The gold color of the cloak lining nicely contrasts with the silk ivory evening dress. It would be nice to have been able to actually view the dress itself but unfortunately it’s no longer in existence (as far as we can determine) so we’ll have to content ourselves with the portrait.

Léon Joseph Florentin Bonnat, Portrait de madame Albert Cahen d’Anvers, 1891; Bayonne, Musée Bonnat

Here’s a closer view:

Léon Joseph Florentin Bonnat, Portrait de madame Albert Cahen d’Anvers, 1891; Bayonne, Musée Bonnat

Black As A Fashion Color Revisited…

Our recent post on the subject of black as a dress color prompted me to do a little more digging into the role of black in styles of the 1880s and 90s so here we go… 🙂

In the course of researching the use of black dresses for other than mourning wear, we were struck that there aren’t many extant black dresses/gowns in pure black. On the other hand, one sees black frequently used in combination with another color or colors with black being predominant. The utility of black as a dress color is commented on in the June 1892 issue of Demorest’s Family Magazine which notes in its commentary on current fashions that:

Old-fashioned gauzy-looking stuffs are used for dresses as well as for the elaborate garnitures which are now so popular. There are all-wool and silk-and-wool crépons in black, which are very much liked by conservative ladies; and as all-black dresses are not only tolerated, but highly commended for evening wear, attention has been drawn to the preparation of many elegant and
appropriate fabrics for this purpose.

Black’s utility is also noted in the November 1891 issue of Demorest’s when commenting the use of black foundation skirts or petticoats:

…though not an individual part of each costume, the foundation skirt is by no means abandoned: made. of silk, most perfectly fitted, trimmed at the foot with narrow ruffles or one or two plaitings, and just escaping the ground, it replaces the conventional petticoat, and when one wears black dresses habitually, one petticoat, or foundation skirt will serve for several dresses. When colors are worn, it is usual to have this undershirt matching in color the material of the dress, and on the street only the dress skirt is raised.

And just to give an idea of what one of these foundation or under skirts might have looked like, here’s one example:

Underskirt, c. 1893 (Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.42.54.2)

Demorest’s also notes in its March 1892 fashion commentary that:

A NOTE of black runs through many of the fashions for spring. Black garnitures are used on almost all colors, in silks black forms a. background for brilliant or delicate blossoms or vines, all-black dresses trimmed with jet are considered very stylish, and when a touch of color is necessary for becomingness, the vest is the favorite point for introducing it. Vests in plain red, blue. yellow, or the favorite sage-green, when used in all-black dresses are either veiled with lace having a more or less decided pattern, or seeded with finely cut jet beads or the more conspicuous clone, or nail-heads.

Now, lest you think that the commentary in Demorest’s was only there to sell patterns, here’s a passage from the fashion commentary in the March 1892 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:

Black dresses are much too useful, especially when the wardrobe is a limited one, to be discarded. A black dress with change of vests, or ribbons or other trimmings, can be transformed into a great variety of costumes and is always lady-like. Black net is rather newer than black piece-lace, for dresses.

And, as for underskirts (aka foundation skirts), in the same issue, Peterson’s notes that:

Underskirts At Present: probably because the upper skirt must be held up, are richer than ever. They are even richer than the dress itself. Thus, under a woolen dress of the most modest description, you may see a rich silk skirt of the same. color as the over-dress, and trimmed with a deep lace flounce, beaded with rows of velvet. Then again, under a black dress you may see a shot silk skirt, trimmed with a black lace flounce or pinked-out frills of the same silk. There is a new silk made especially for these under-skirts and is called the frou-frou silk- the “rustling ”
silk. one might say in English.

To show just how black was worked with, let’s start with this evening gown made in 1895 from Maison Worth:

Worth, Evening Gown, c. 1897 – 1899; Galleria del Costume di Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy (00000113)

Three-Quarter Rear View

What’s interesting about this evening gown is that the black silk fashion fabric is given further pops of “color” in the form of beading that reflects any ambient light. It’s a very clever effect and definitely draws the eye. At the same time, the wearer’s face would have been lightened up by the ecru/ivory lace running along the neckline. To take this idea further, here’s a day dress from c. 1897-1899 where we see a similar color scheme:

Day Dress, c. 1897-1899; Galleria del Costume di Palazzo Pitti

And for one one example of manipulating black in dress styles, here’s this day dress from Maison Felix:

Maison Felix, Day Dress, c. 1893-1895; FIDM Museum (2008.5.51AB)

With this day dress, we see a lighter color used as an underskirt combined with shirring around the neckline of the bodice, both in an ivory color. The distribution of color is more vertical and the contrast is toned down by the use of a black lace overskirt in the front.

And there were instances where black was more of a background color as with this circa 1896 evening gown design from Worth:

Worth, Evening Dress, Worth, 1896; Palais Galliera, musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris (GAL1978.20.1)

Here we see the gold appliques take center stage while the white neckline trim plays the role of lightening up the wearer’s face.

This has only been a small sampling of what’s out there but we think it goes a long way towards establishing that black was very much part of the period fashion aesthetic and could be utilized in a number of different ways to achieve various style effect. In the future, we’ll be examining this topic in more depth so stay tuned! 🙂

Black- Not Just For Mourning…

One of the biggest misconceptions about late Nineteenth Century fashion is that the color black was only used for mourning wear. Nothing could be farther from the truth and in fact, black was freely used in a variety of styles ranging from simple house dresses to elegant evening gowns. To get an idea of how black dresses were regarded, here’s a few random quotes from the fashion press. First, from the December 1874 edition of Demorest’s Family Magazine, we learn that:

…All black dresses are more in vogue than ever for dinner wear, because jet is so much the rage; many of them seem to be a mass of jet, or of blue steel, which in contrast with black, is still more striking…

And in the February 1881 issue of Peterson’s Magazine, in a commentary on current fashions:

Black dresses are very fashionable, even for quite full dress, but, strange to say, black silk is less worn than formerly. Not so long ago, and for years previously, a black silk was regarded as an essential item In a lady’s wardrobe; it was the one safe investment, about which there could be no mistake when the fear of being over-dressed, or not sufficiently “got up ” was the question of the moment.

The reason of Its temporary disappearance, we believe, is that silk lacks that lustre or sheen which Fashion now affects in satin, and neither does it possess the dull finish of the fine woolen materials, which are likewise in vogue. But it must not be supposed that, because black silk is suffering from a partial eclipse, black costumes are not in favor; on the contrary, black camel’s hair, black cashmere, and black cloth costumes are all worn, and black lustrous Bengaline, satin de Lyon, velvet (in all varieties) brightened by iridescent beads of gay-colored plush or shawl patterned silks, are regarded as stylish dresses.

While the specific idea of whether or not black should only be worn for mourning seems to not have a definite answer in the fashion literature we’ve reviewed, it’s interesting to note that in a discussion of current fashions in the August 1881 issue of Peterson’s, it’s noted that:

Black lace, as well as jet and steel, are profusely used, especially on black dresses, and these arc no longer considered as belonging to mourning costumes.

And later in the October 1886 of Peterson’s it’s stated that black dresses are a popular item and that if one’s wardrobe is limited, a black dress is the most useful dress to have:

Black dresses, especially black lace dresses for house-wear, retain all their well-deserved popularity. These black gowns are by no means intended for mourning, and are usually elaborately trimmed with jet, and are worn by old and young. Where the wardrobe is limited, a black dress is the most useful one that can be worn.

And from the October 1889 issue of Demorest’s, it would seem that black dresses are somewhat of a constant:

All-black dresses have renewed their lease of popular favor, and black dresses with colored trimmings, especially the Escurial passementeries and those with Oriental colorings, are very stylish. Black silks are handsomely trimmed with passementerie of gold, silver, or steel beads or cords, and even these have their outlining of jet beads.

While the above passages make up an admittedly narrow sampling, it does seem to point towards the idea that a black dress was a fashion staple, whether in pure black or trimmed in other colors and one could never go wrong wearing one- better to be restrained than showy, especially in new social situations.

So, with the above in mind, let’s take a look at some dresses… 🙂 First up is this afternoon dress that was designed in 1873 by a one A. Cobray of Paris:

A. Cobay, Afternoon Dress, 1873; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.68.53.4a, b)

Side Profile

Rear View

While this dress is not pure black with it’s insets of gold, the black does dominate, especially with the pure black bodice. The dress and bodice are constructed from Bengaline which have a dull luster. However, the bodice is trimmed in lace and bead appliques. Here’s a close-up of the buttons and the bead appliques:

Detail of Button

Detail of Button

Trim Detail

Next is this late 1870s dinner dress by Pingat:

Pingat, Dinner Dress, c. 1877-1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art C.I.60.6.9)

And for a close up of the beading:

The dress has a late 1870s silhouette with a more restrained bustle effect- things haven’t moved to the Middle Bustle/Natural Form style yet but the demi-train suggests that things are headed in that direction. The beading patterns are in black but they provide contrast to the luster of the black silk fashion fabric.

Next up is this princess line day dress from 1880:

Day Dress, c. 1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.54.64)

With this dress, we’ve arrived in the Mid-Bustle/Natural Form Era. There is less of a train and the excess yardage is mostly concentrated at the bottom in the form of an extensive demi-train. The dress is made of a flat black silk fabric and trimmed with black velvet. In the front there is some ribbon trim with pops of crimson (Crimson Peak, anyone?). One notable element is the use of black velvet trim running in two vertical stripes along the length of the dress emphasizing the princess line.

And from circa 1880-1882, there’s this example of a black dress that utilizes extensive beading:

Day Dress, c. 1880-1882; From the exhibition “A Century of Style: Costume & Colour 1800-1899” at the Kelvingrove Art Museum, Glasgow

And here’s a closer look at the exquisite beading:

What’s interesting about this dress is it’s not really a pure black but more of a dark shade of gray (or maybe it’s the lighting for the picture) that offsets the black underskirt and sleeves. With it’s irregular surfaces, the beading picks up the light and gives the dress a three-dimensional luster that brings the dress to life, especially when compared to the previous example. In terms of silhouette, while this is also Mid-Bustle/Natural Form, there’s no train and it’s obvious that this was meant for more formal daytime wear (although it wouldn’t have been out of place for an evening event).

We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief excursion through the world of black dresses and it should be pretty obvious that black was not viewed as being something exclusively for mourning. 🙂


The Fashion Insight Of Maison Worth: An Interview With Jean-Philippe Worth

During his lifetime, Charles Worth revealed very little of his design philosophy or how he approached the design process. From a business perspective, Worth was prudent given the rampant fashion piracy of the period. However, for posterity, it’s sheer frustration. In the case of Maison Worth, Charles Worth for the most part revealed little and granted few interviews with journalists. Moreover, he took great pains to ensure that journalists had no access to his atelier whatsoever for fear that they’d gather information that would ultimately be used to pirate his designs (a very real threat).

Fortunately for posterity, Charles Worth’s son Jean-Philippe Worth was more forthcoming. In an interview by a Marie A. Belloc for the 1896 edition of Lady’s Realm, Worth provided some insight into Maison Worth’s design process. When asked where he looked for inspiration, Worth replied:

I am always on the look-out for new and old ideas and new schemes of colouring. Colouring, as you are aware, plays an important part in modern dress. I even yet remember with what difficulties my father met when he tried to impose the slightest modifications in the hard, metallic tints which were for so long literally the only colours introduced into dress. An attempt at anything artistic was looked at with terror and suspicion…

To quote but one instance: every woman in Paris possesses some garment in which a combination of blue and green plays a
subtle part. For years my father tried to introduce this eminently becoming harmony of colour. Some of the most beautiful brocades ever made to our own order were tinted in this fashion. But it was not till an accident- in other words, the courage and audacity of one of our handsomest clients- brought the beautifying qualities of this combination before the public that we were ever able to make the experiment on a large scale; and the same may also be said of yellow and pink, pale blue and
violet, and many others of the symphonies of colour now universally adopted. Of course, it is only fair to add that nothing can be more horrible than these violent contrasts, unless combined and imagined by a really artistic eye. But that is more or less true with anything connected with colour and form; for what looks well on a red haired woman makes a brunette look sallow, and so on.

Worth’s comments is revealing in that while it’s possible to come up with new fashion ideas, it’s far more difficult to get people to adopt them. In the example he gives, basically it wasn’t until one of Worth’s more influential clients adopted the idea of a harmonizing color scheme of blue and green that it was adopted by others. In short, it took a “fashion influencer.”

Illustration from the article.

Worth further discusses fashion inspiration, noting:

As to where I get my ideas: sometimes from a piece of old Church embroidery or a scrap of Louis Quinze brocade, picked up in an old curiosity shop. Often I have reconstituted a whole piece of material from a small breadth taken out of a Court costume or vestment. When I am satisfied, or as satisfied as I am ever likely to be, with a design, it is reproduced to my order in different schemes of colouring, and even of material. I very much enjoy designing picture-costumes. Often an artist will come with his future sitter, and together we will discuss what kind of material and what genre of colouring will suit the lady in question…

I am as ready to take an idea from a primitif [primitive] of a martyred saint as from a Lely or a Gainsborough. There is no greater mistake than to decide too long beforehand on the models of the coming winter or summer, for it is really impossible to tell at any given moment what the coming season will bring forth…for instance, a very bitter winter will to a certainty mean the prevalence of fur on every kind of gown, while an exceptionally mild season brings out light cloths, and even lace.

In this somewhat rambling statement, Worth indicates that inspiration can come from just about anywhere- pretty much something that just about any designer will say. What’s interesting is his observation that one can’t wait for too long in selecting the fashions for the next season and that the weather of a particular season affects the succeeding season- that pretty much sums up the fashion cycle today.

As for changing fashion, Worth notes that :

As for me, I naturally do not concern myself with the popular modes. The moment a fashion becomes exaggerated- in other words, universal—we have to begin to think of something to replace it. I am often asked by English clients whether the big sleeve has come to stay. All I can say is, that exaggeration will kill any model, however becoming. Not only does it make the fashion common, but a woman rarely looks well or artistic in an outré garment.

In the above, Worth gives an abbreviated version of the fashion cycle: fashions are introduced, become exaggerated, and then are replaced by new fashions. The fashion cycle is a constant that’s been present throughout history in one form or another.

Ultimately, while Jean-Philippe Worth’s comments really don’t offer any unique insights in regard to Maison Worth, they do demonstrate that many of fundamental ideas underlying modern fashion design were also present back in the 1890s. In future posts, we hope to unearth more about fashion theory as it applied to the couture of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.