Extravagance Unfolded – The Knife Pleat, Part 1

One of the most extravagant effects in Bustle Era dresses was the use of knife pleating to create complex decorative designs. Knife pleating was typically utilized in long, wide stripes running along the hem of the dress and were constructed separately and attached. What makes knife pleating so extravagant is that it utilizes a large amount of fabric of which a good portion is actually folded under, hidden from view and often the fabric was different than that of the rest of the dress. In an era where fabric was far more expensive than labor, this was a form of conspicuous consumption.


Simplified Diagram Of Knife Pleats

Knife pleating as a style element began to develop during the mid 1860s and it was relatively simple, mostly restricted to the hem line (although it could show up elsewhere). Below are some examples from fashion plates of the period:

Godey's Ladies Book, 1863

Godey’s Ladies Book, 1863

Godey's Ladies Book, May 1865

Godey’s Ladies Book, May 1865

As can be seen in the above fashion plates, the knife pleating is minimal, when it’s actually used, and it just one of many style elements in the dress.

Godeys Oct 1867

Godey’s Ladies Book, October 1867

Godeys Sept 1868

Godey’s Ladies Book, September 1868

Godeys January 1869

Godey’s Ladies Book, January 1869

As the years progress through the 1860s, one begins to see more and more knife pleating used to the point where it dominates the hem when used.

Godeys Dec 1870

Godey’s Ladies Book, December 1870

By 1870, we see an explosion in knife pleating; it’s not just one strip but rather, it’s composed of multiple layers of varying widths. Also, one can see the knife pleating creeping up the front of the dress which is a logical result of the flattening of the dress front- it provides the perfect flat canvas. Finally, you see knife pleating being used in areas other than the hem.

Before going any further, let’s take a look at an original dress from Worth (naturally). This is an ensemble dress that had two bodices, one for day and one for evening wear; pictured is the evening bodice. The dress dates from circa 1864 – 1867 and it could be considered to be a precursor to the knife pleating style trend to come. Note that knife pleating is used on the hem, then another band running around the skirt, and finally on the sleeves and top of the bodice. Compared to his later designs, this is somewhat restrained and the pleating is every delicate and does not dominate the dress.

Charles Frederick Worth, Evening Bodice/Ensemble Dress, c. 1864 - 1866; Museum of the City of New York (35.365.3A-D)

Charles Frederick Worth, Evening Bodice/Ensemble Dress, c. 1864 – 1867; Museum of the City of New York (35.365.3A-D)

Bodice Detail


Hem Detail

And I’ll leave you with one final example, an ensemble dress from France made in 1869:


Ensemble Dress, French, 1869; Metropolitan Museum of Art ( C.I.40.76.1a–d); this is the day bodice.


The Evening Bodice


Day Bodice – Front Profile


Sleeve Detail


Day Bodice – Side Profile

Evening Bodice

Evening Bodice

Evening Bodice Close-Up

Evening Bodice Close-Up

By the late 1860s, we see a greater sophistication in the way knife pleating is used. Here we see a wide strip running along the skirt hem and then another wide strip above. They are bold and definitely take focus, especially since the pleats themselves are relatively small and delicate. Also, we seen pleating on the sleeve cuffs of both the day and evening bodices. Interestingly enough, for the evening bodice we see that the tulle netting on the sleeves and collar have also been knife pleated.

Now the stage is set for the explosion of knife pleating that will follow in the 1870s…

To Be Continued…

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