Extravagance Unfolded – The Knife Pleat, Part 2

In the last post we saw the gradual development of knife-pleating as a decorative style through the 1860s. Simple at first, knife pleating became increasingly prominent and detailed towards the end of the decade and by the Mid-1870s, knife pleating had taken center stage as a design element. Below are a series of fashion plates that document the increasing prominence of knife pleating:

Le Mode Illustree, July 31, 1870

Le Mode Illustrée, July 31, 1870

Petersons Oct 1870

Peterson’s Magazine, October 1870

Godeys Dec 1870

Godey’s Lady’s Book, December 1870

Godeys May 1872

Godey’s Lady’s Book, May 1872

Godeys Nov 1872

Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1872

Godeys May 1874

Godey’s Lady’s Book, May 1874

Godey's Lady's Book, July 1875

Godey’s Lady’s Book, July 1875

Godey's Lady's Book, December 1875

Godey’s Lady’s Book, December 1875

Godeys May 1876

Godey’s Lady’s Book, May 1876

As one can see from the previous fashion plates, knife pleating was increasingly being utilized as a decorative style to the point where it was now one of the most prominent elements and especially on the train. As we move into the Mid-1870s, we see knife pleating transitioning neatly to the Mid-Bustle Era style characterized by the upright silhouette combined with a reduction in the bustle and a corresponding drop in bodice hemlines over the hips. Below, one can see two styles being combined harmoniously:

1876 fashions.161 dresses


1876 fashions.160 dresses


Godeys Feb 1877

Godeys Lady’s Book, February 1877

Fashion Plate 1878

Journal des Demoiselles, September 1878

Le Mode Illustreé, 1878

Let’s now look at some actual dresses:

Evening Dress 1878 1880_1

Evening Dress, American, c. 1878 – 1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.37.27.3a, b)

Evening Dress 1878 1880_3

Close-Up Of Front Panels

Evening Dress 1878 1880_4

Evening Dress 1878 1880_5

Just to be complete, I included the entire set of pictures that show off this dress. The fabric is a silk brocade and drapes nicely over a brown underskirt. However, what really makes this evening dress unique is the use of knife pleating on a large scale on the front panels. While the hem also has minimal knife pleating, it’s the front that takes center focus; everything else are merely supporting elements.

The above example is somewhat the exception, let’s now take a look at some more examples that fall more into the style norm. This one is from circa 1875 (unfortunately, this is from an  auction website so information as to the dresses’ provenance was missing):







The knife pleating has been arranged in two overlapping layers in complementary colors and it runs along the entire hem line, which is considerable since this dress has a train. To complement the pleating, we also see the use of rosettes, lace, and embroidery.  Even more interesting is the use of pleating and bows to delineate the train. It’s evident that this dress is all about the train.

It’s amazing what different light will do for a photograph; it’s hard to say if this is a sea green or more of an olive green. It’s almost like we are looking at two different dresses but they are the same (or so the auction site says). 🙂 Here we see the style moving towards the Mid-Bustle Era with the bodice extending to cover the hips. At the same time, we see the the silhouette of the train somewhat smoothed out (in comparison with the early 1870s). At the same time, the train is taking center focus with a combination of knife pleating.

We also see braid edge trim, bows, and swagged fabric. Interestingly enough, compared to the skirt, the bodice is relatively simple and unadorned- all efforts appear to have been directed towards making the skirt and train stand out. I was unable to find any frontal pictures of this dress; I would have liked to have seen what the front of the skirt looked like.

However, in full disclosure, here is a view from the front:


Compared to the skirt and the train, the bodice is relatively simple, the only decorative elements appear to be on each sleeve cuff. This further reinforces the idea that this dress is all about the knife pleating and supporting decorative elements that have been worked on the “canvas” of the skirt and train. At the same time, there are still some tantalizing questions in that we do not have a good view of the skirt front nor ones of the front of the bodice; this in no way detracts from our appreciation of the dress but it would have been nice to be able to make a more full assessment.

Below is another example from circa 1878 – 1881:


Day Dress, c. 1870 – 1880 (more likely 1878-1881); De Young Museum (52.12.1a-b)

According to the De Young Museum website, the color of the dress is an olive green but it’s hard to tell from the photography.

Here is another example from circa 1880:


Day Dress, c. 1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art (39.83.2a, b)




Knife pleating was employed as a decorative device on the front of the dress as well as on the train. As expected, we see knife pleating running along the hem lines of the both the under and overskirts. But in the front, we see five rows running up the front of the underskirt, covering roughly half of the surface of the front underskirt. In contrast to the other examples above, now the focus is on the flat front of the dress and it’s here we see the elaborate knife pleating.

The above examples are merely a small sample of knife pleating and its use as a decorative effect. It is clear that as the distinctive bustled train came into its own during the 1870s, knife pleating was not far behind and by the late 1870s and early 1880s, knife pleating had become a major decorative style. However, it was more than mere decoration: the 1870s or “Gilded Age” was an era of excess where people conspicuously displayed their wealth and clothing was one major area and especially when it came to women’s clothing. Pleating consumes large quantities of fabric, far in excess of what it takes to create a functional dress, and as such it screams “we do not care how much fabric we use, money is no object.” Bear in mind that this was a time when fabric was relatively expensive but labor was very cheap- the opposite of the situation today.

Conspicuous consumption is nothing new when it comes to clothing but during the 1870s, it was especially prevalent and knife pleating is one manifestation of this. From a decorative perspective, knife pleating added a new dimension to clothing aesthetics. The color and texture  of a fabric, as well as cut and fit, have always been primary means of expression with clothing but the use of knife pleating, combined with other design effects, served to create a three-dimensional effect, enhancing clothing’s aesthetics. The Gilded Age might have been an age of excess but it also was an age of elevated aesthetic beauty when it came to women’s clothing and its legacy lives on to this day.

In the next installment, we will deal with the nuts and bolts of creating knife pleating in your sewing projects. It’s not difficult nor does it involve esoteric materials and techniques. Stay tuned!


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