Dating a Dress – Is It 1860s or 1870s?

Afew years ago, we created this post in reaction to the sometimes imprecise dating of garments in museum collections. While our opinion remains largely unchanged, in subsequent experience we’ve become a bit more humbled in our judgements and if it’s one thing we’ve learned from the experience: Never say never. With that said, enjoy! 😎


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, we came across the following dress on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website:

Purple Dress1

Visiting Dress, French, 1867; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979.93a, b)

Purple Dress2

Rear View

View3

Side Profile View

1979.93a_d

Maker’s Label; Gathering more information about the maker would go a long way towards precisely dating the dress.

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. More 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?

19830010129 ac

Day Dress, c. 1860 – 1870; Kent State University Museum (1983.001.0129 a-c)

19830010129 ac-2

Side Profile View

19830010129 ac-3

Rear View

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:

19830010107 ab-2

Day Dress, c. 1865 – 1870 (Although it is noted that the original catalog card notes the year 1865); Kent State University Museum (1983.001.0107 ab)

19830010107 ab-3

Side Profile View

19830010107 ab-4

Rear View

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:

Godey's Ladysbook, January 1866

Godey’s Lady’s Book, January 1866

For 1866, one sees very little difference between these and dresses from the early 1860s.

1867-03 world of fashion 4

The World of Fashion, 1867

Godeys September

Godey’s Lady’s Book, September 1867

Peterson's, July 1868

Peterson’s, July 1868

For the above two plates, one can see the beginnings of the train as the skirt starts to shift towards the rear…

Victoria, 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. Finally, we reach the 1870s:

Godey's Lady's Book , March 1870

Godey’s Lady’s Book , March 1870

Godey's Lady's Book, May 1870

Godey’s Lady’s Book, May 1870

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.

Godey's Lady's Book, November 1872

Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1872

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.



The Bustle Dress- A Brief Overview, Part 1

The terms “Bustle Era” and “Bustle Dress” are often tossed around indiscriminately with the vague idea that it describes a dress from 1870 through 1890 or thereabouts. Well, this is true to a degree but it falls short in that there is a lot more depth and subtlety to it and more precision is needed if one is to be able to intelligently discuss women’s fashion during the late 19th Century. It’s as if one were to refer to the period from 1960 through 2000 as the “Blue Jeans Era”- yes, blue jeans existed and were worn but in no way does it describe the fashions of the era.

To begin, the “Bustle Era” could be said to cover the years 1870 through 1890 with a bit of overlap in either direction (fashion rarely puts itself in neat date categories ;-)) and it could be broken down into three phases:

1) Early Bustle, 1870 – 1878

2) Mid Bustle or “Natural Form”, 1878 – 1882

3) Late Bustle, 1882 – 1890

Now, just to reiterate, the dates that I give are not meant to be precise start and stop dates, but rather rough “fuzzy” parameters and I don’t profess to have the last word in this. With that, let’s proceed.

Bustle Silhouettes - 1870-1890

This illustration gives a rough guide to the changing profile or silhouette of the bustle dress. Of course, as the skirt changes, so does the bodice.

A somewhat simplified chart depicting the three styles.

A somewhat simplified chart depicting the three styles.

In the beginning, the bustle evolved from the earlier crinoline of the 1860s and as the decade progressed, one could see the skirt gradually being gathered in the rear as opposed to the earlier look of it being evenly distributed.

Below is an example of a day dress from circa 1867:

Day Dress, c. 1867; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.40.164.1a–c)

This dress is constructed of a medium-blue silk taffeta, all in one solid color. There’s no trim except for some white piping running along the edge of the bodice hem and some lace sticking above the collar. Silhouette-wise, we see the elliptical skirt shape that had been slowly developing from the mid-late 1860 with most of the skirt’s fullness pushed towards the rear. Below is a good side profile:

As can be seen from the above pictures, the train is simple, just consisting of the dress being shaped to hang more towards the rear and flattening out on the front. But as with fashion in general, further developments would be happening as can be seen with this circa 1870 day dress where we see the bustle look begin to take a more definied shape:

Dress, c. 1870; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1980.409.1a–c)

The fashion fabric is a green silk taffeta with a black floral pattern. The bodice is short, cut with a v-neck that’s filled in with an insert of the same fabric. The overskirt and underskirts are also of the same fashion fabric with a relative short outer skirt taking on more of an apron-like appearance in the front and  lengthening out in the back.  Finally, the underskirt is full, being completely visible both in the front and back and providing the train.

The silhouette has clean lines one can definitely make out elliptical style that marked late 1860s styles and carried over into the early 1870s.

Below are some close-ups of the dress fabric and buttons:

Here is another example from 1870 that gives a similar profile view:

Day Dress, c. 1870; Kent State University Museum, KSUM (1983.1.127 ab)

Here we see an overskirt that both acts as a train in the rear and a short apron in the front. The underskirt is still prominent on the sides and front and extends full length to the ground. Finally, here’s another example from circa 1872-1875:

Day Dress, c. 1872 – 1875; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1986.304a, b)

Side Profile

In the above pictures we see the continuation of earlier trends in that the outer skirt is relatively short and mostly gathered directly to the rear in a well-defined pouf. At the same time, The inner skirt pretty much acts as the dress front and rear with some added decorative panels. Compared with earlier styles, it appears that the emphasis is on the skirts and train while the bodice is somewhat minimal. The fashion fabric is a silk lavender-colored taffeta with decorative stripes. The edges of the various skirts, hems, bodice, and sleeves are trimmed with wide gold-colored silk satin stripes with red piping.  Below is a close-up of the side panels:

Below is a picture of the inner skirt top. The waistband is simple and one can see buttons that were used to hold up sections of the upper skirt so as to create poufs which further enhance the trained effect around the hips and rear.

Detail of upper skirt/waistband.

And here’s a close-up of the fashion fabric itself:

Detail of the fashion fabric.

The above examples only hint at the variety of dress styles that were available during the early 1870s. Trim and decoration could vary, some had trains of varying lengths, and contrasting colors and patterns were also often used. When it came to evening wear (i.e. ball gowns and evening dresses), trains were longer and more fancy fabrics were used. However, no matter what specific style was selected, they all shared the key element that they had the bustle silhouette, a silhouette that was achieved by a combination of artful draping and a defined understructure that served as a skeleton in much the same way a modern skyscraper’s structure is defined by steel girders, no matter what sort of decorative exterior there is. Below are a few examples of what went on underneath:

US Patent No. 131840, c. 1872

Early on, the Crinolette was developed and as such it was a half-way point between the earlier cage crinoline and the bustle. This example is from circa 1870.

The first stage was the Crinolette, which was a half-way point between the earlier cage crinoline and the bustle. Victoria & Albert Museum (T.775C-1913)

Crinolette, c. 1870; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.775C-1913)

Next, we see an example from 1871 that is more defined as a bustle:

Bustle, c. 1871; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1985.27.4)

Bustles came in a variety of styles and made from various materials. This example is utilizes full padding:

Bustle, 1873; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2002.251)

Bustle pads were also used which tended to give a more softer look to the skirts. Bustle pads came in a variety of fabrics. Here is one example of a circa 1875 bustle pad made from linen and horsehair:

Bustle Pad, made from linen and stuffed with horse hair. Victoria & Albert Museum (T.57-1980)

Bustle Pad, made from linen and stuffed with horse hair. Victoria & Albert Museum (T.57-1980)

And here’s another one from 1873:

Bustle Pad, 1873

Bustle Pad, 1873

The above has been somewhat brief and as with all historical costume, there were exceptions but this should give a general idea. Finally, just a cultural note: during the Bustle Era, there were those that considered the word “bustle” to be vulgar and thus, alternative names were used to include the “tournure” or “dress improver”. 🙂

(To be continued…)



A Look At Fans…

Fans were a key fashion accessory during the late 19th Century and ranged from the purely functional to something far more decorative than functional and were art pieces in their own right. Below is an account of our visit to a small exhibit of fans at the FIDM Museum a few years back.


During the late 19th Century and early 20th Centuries,   were considered an essential fashion accessory and especially for any woman who wanted to present herself in the best possible light. Recently, we had an opportunity to take a look at some as part of the A Graceful Gift: Fans from the Mona Lee Nesseth Collection Exhibition at the FIDM Museum in Downtown Los Angeles. Introduced into Europe during the 17th Century from the Far East, the folding fan evolved from a functional item designed to keep the user cool to something that was more decorative than practical.

Folding fans came in a variety of materials ranging from the very simple and utilitarian to the ornate and materials ranged from wood to brass and ivory. The fan itself was usually made from a treated parchment (although other materials such as silk were used) which often featured painted or printed scenes. Below are two fans from 18th Century France and the variation in style is readily apparent, from the practical…

To the ornate…

Now, from the FIDM Museum exhibit:

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Fan, Spanish, c. 1850 – 1865

20160325_110802.jpg

Close-Up Of Fan.

The frame appears to be made of mother of pearl. All manner of scenes were painted on the fan leaves, many focusing on Oriental themes, a reflection of the then-current fascination for Chinoiserie. Painting scenes on the fan leaves were also popular as an at-home pastime and blank leaves were readily available.

Below is another example:

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Fan, French

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Close-Up Detail

Finally, here is a fan that is attributed to having once belonged to Phoebe Apperson Hearst:

FAN_FIDM Museum1

Fan, Félix Alexandre, artist Dumoret, jeweler France, c. 1875–85; Constructed of Mother-of-pearl, point de gaze lace, gilded silver & diamonds; FIDM Museum (2013.975.2AB)

Overall, it was a small but interesting exhibit. Fans are an easily overlooked fashion accessory but were considered an essential element in any respectable woman’s wardrobe. As applied to recreating period fashions today, vintage fans are readily available at a variety of price points but it must be noted that many of these are fragile with age and are not able to withstand any sort of prolonged use. There are also reproductions and restored originals but it’s been our experience that the reproductions are for the most part, substandard and a faint echo of the originals. We hope you all have enjoyed this brief overview of fans and in the future we’ll be posting more in regard fashion accessories. 🙂



Japonisme Redux

Throughout the ages, Western fashion has incorporated foreign influences and the late 19th Century was no exception, most notably with the advent of Japonisme. Originally coined in 1872 by Philippe Burty, a French art critic, “Japonisme”  was used a term used to encompass the idea of the popularity and influence of Japanese art and design on Western European (and later by extension, American) culture.1Philippe Burty, Renaissance Littéraire et Artistique, May 1872-February 1873

James Tissot, Young Ladies Looking at Japanese Objects, 1869

Originating as an artistic movement, interest in Japonisme stemmed from the re-opening of Japan to the world, a process that began in 1854 with the forced re-opening of trade with the West. One of the foundations of Japan’s participation in the world economy was the export of textiles, both in the form of raw fabric and finished goods designed expressly for the Western market. Along with this, there also a flood of Oriental bric-a-brac that was exported in the form of fans, kimonos, lacquers, bronzes, and of course, silks, which began to attract much interest by Westerners, especially in Great Britain and France.

During this time, Japanese designs began to attract the interest of various artists who began to incorporate them into their work. One area of special interest were woodblock prints in the Ukiyo-e Style (“Floating World”) and these designs influenced artists such as Tissot, Monet, Degas, and Whistler, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Below are some examples of these woodblock prints:

Otani Oniji II, dated 1794 Toshusai Sharaku (Japanese, active 1794–95) Polychrome woodcut print on paper; 15 x 9 7/8 in. (38.1 x 22.9 cm) Henry L. Phillips Collection, Bequest of Henry L. Phillips, 1939 (JP2822)

Otani Oniji II, dated 1794; Toshusai Sharaku (Japanese, active 1794–95)
Polychrome woodcut print on paper; 15 x 9 7/8 in. (38.1 x 22.9 cm)
Henry L. Phillips Collection, Bequest of Henry L. Phillips, 1939 (JP2822)

The Great Wave at Kanagawa (from a Series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji), Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1831–33 Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849); Published by Eijudo Polychrome ink and color on paper; 10 1/8 x 14 15/16 in. (25.7 x 37.9 cm) (Oban size) H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (JP1847)

The Great Wave at Kanagawa (from a Series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji), Edo period (1615–1868), c. 1831–33; Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849); H. O. Havemeyer Collection (JP1847)

Along with woodblock prints and other Japanese artwork, interest in the Japanese design aesthetic also included fabrics which incorporated motifs such as plants, flowers, insects, birds, and geometric patterns. Below are a few examples of textile designs from the 1880s:

Birds1

Textile1

Kimono1

Textile2

We can see further examples depicted by various notable Western artists themselves:

Claude Monet, Camille Monet in Japanese Costume, 1876; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

James Tissot, The Japanese Bath (La Japonaise au bain,), 1864

James Tissot, The Japanese Bath (La Japonaise au bain,), 1864.

James McNeill Whistler, La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine

James McNeill Whistler, La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine, 1863 – 1865.

So how does this translate into fashion? Well, garments of the period began to use traditional Japanese fabrics, largely in the form of kimono fabric. In many instances, the garments themselves were made from re-worked kimonos which were largely made from silk. Below are some examples:

1870 Court Dress

Day Dress, c. 1870s; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC8938 93-28-1AB)

1870 Tea Gown

Tea Gown, American, c. 1870; Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (80.1.4)

Side profile

Side profile

Close-up of the front.

Close-up of the front.

The above pictures are interesting in that they illustrate typical Japanese design motifs that would normally be found in Kimonos. Also, interestingly enough, the two above dresses were made from re-worked Kimono fabric which suggests that new markets were being found for kimonos that normally would be worn by a small class of upper class Japanese, primarily the wives of Samurai. Below is another interesting dress that utilizes a quilted habutai silk fabric:

House Dress,, Japanese c. 1875; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC989 78-30-3AB)

Moving forward into the 1880s, Japanese design influences still remained strong as can be seen in these examples:

Day Dress/Reception Dress, c. 1880s, belonging to Marquise Nabeshima Nagako; Jingu Chokokan Museum

Side Profile

Three-Quarter Rear Profile

 

 

Close-up of the train.

What is interesting about the above dress is that this one appears to have been made for the Japanese market. In this case, the dress reflects Japan’s increasing westernization and is a mix of traditional fabric design with western dress style. Note that the line of the cuirass bodice has fringe running along the bottom, creating a visual effect of elongating the bodice’s lines, covering the hips completely.

Dressing Gown/Wrapper, c. 1885; FIDM (80.40.1)

Three-Quarter Rear View

The use of kimonos as dressing gowns and even tea gowns was popular in the West and it allowed women to be able to wear something that did not not require the use of the corset, or at least having to lace up the corset to the degree normally required when wearing a dress. As the bustle disappeared from use in the 1890s and the lines of women’s dresses became more upright, kimonos began to be incorporated into designs for evening wear and some day wear and this is especially evident during the years from 1900 – 1913. Here’s one example from 1894-1896:

1890s Dress

Day Dress, c. 1894 – 1896; Indianapolis Museum of Art (74.351A-B)

The above example is a day dress typical of the mid 1890s with the characteristic leg-o-mutton sleeves, thin waist, and open bodice designed to appear to be a coat with an exposed shirtwaist (which was often a fake one that was actually part of the bodice itself). What is interesting in terms of Japonisme is the geometric pattern of the fabric which follows a fairly standard Japanese design motif. The provenance of the fabric is unknown but it’s clear that it’s not material from a reworked kimono.

Image result for japonisme definition philippe burty

Finally, we end this series with a wonderful example of Japonisme in the form of a Visite from Paris, circa 1890:

Cape/Visite, c. 1890; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC5367 86-17-7)

The above illustrations and descriptions barely touch the range of Japanese influences that were found in Western fashion during the late 19th Century but even from this limited sample, it can be seen that they served to create some stunning effects that only served to enhance the aesthetics and sheer beauty of the period styles. This is an area that has been largely neglected by those striving to recreate the fashions of the period and it merits further consideration.



Dating a Dress – You Be The Judge

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:

Purple Dress1

Visiting Dress, French, 1867; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979.93a, b)

Purple Dress2

Rear View

View3

Side Profile View

1979.93a_d

Maker’s Label; Gathering more information about the maker would go a long way towards precisely dating the dress.

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?

19830010129 ac

Day Dress, c. 1860 – 1870; Kent State University Museum (1983.001.0129 a-c)

19830010129 ac-2

Side Profile View

19830010129 ac-3

Rear View

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:

19830010107 ab-2

Day Dress, c. 1865 – 1870 (Although it is noted that the original catalog card notes the year 1865); Kent State University Museum (1983.001.0107 ab)

19830010107 ab-3

Side Profile View

19830010107 ab-4

Rear View

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:

Godey's Ladysbook, January 1866

Godey’s Lady’s Book, January 1866

For 1866, one sees very little difference between these and dresses from the early 1860s.

1867-03 world of fashion 4

The World of Fashion, 1867

Godeys September

Godey’s Lady’s Book, September 1867

Peterson's, July 1868

Peterson’s, July 1868

For the above two plates, one can see the beginnings of the train as the skirt starts to shift towards the rear…

Victoria, 1869

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:

Godey's Lady's Book , March 1870

Godey’s Lady’s Book , March 1870

Godey's Lady's Book, May 1870

Godey’s Lady’s Book, May 1870

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.

Godey's Lady's Book, November 1872

Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1872

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. 🙂