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:
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?
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:
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:
For 1866, one sees very little difference between these and dresses from the early 1860s.
For the above two plates, one can see the beginnings of the train as the skirt starts to shift towards the rear…
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:
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.
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. 🙂
4 thoughts on “Dating a Dress – You Be The Judge”
I haven’t seen the Met’s listing so don’t know if they had additional provenance or information about Mme Marguerite to help with their dating. However, looking at the white with blue trim traveling dress in the Petersen’ July 1868 fashion plate (which indicates it was La mode Parisienne) and that this dress label is from Paris, the Met’s dating may not be that far off after all. Mme Marguerite may well have been an advante garde designer whose work pushed the shift in silhouette that didn’t become the adopted standard until 1870-72–as such it would seem to be mis-dated when in actuality, it could simply have been a dress ahead of the times.
Compare with Poiret’s 1908 designs evocative of 1800-1810 columnar style dress. Very drastic shift in silhouette that didn’t become mainstream until 1910-1912.
So, without more evidence one way or the other, one can’t really say the date is incorrect so much as surprising because it is outside the norm of the times.
Thank you for an intriguing examination of the era’s silhouette.
I tend to be a bit cautious when it comes to dating, I’ve come across to many places where dates of dresses are way off, sometimes by ten years or more. Auction websites are especially notorious and I tend to take those with a grain of salt.
My friend has a antique picture of Godey’ fashion for 1872 in a old frame I was wondering if your interested?
Hi- It depends on price and condition. Please send me details at: firstname.lastname@example.org