1880s Evening Dress Style

Recently we came across an exquisite circa 1885 evening dress on the Augusta Auction website.

Evening Dress, c. 1885; August Auctions

The fashion fabric consists of a Prussian blue colored silk Ottoman fabric combined with a floral patterned gold on blue silk jacquard; the blue appears to be a shade different than the solid Ottoman. Silhouette-wise, it’s firmly in the mid-1880s and has a train, suggestive of a more formal dress.

The bodice is primarily made from the solid Ottoman fabric with a yolk made from the jacquard and all combined with a Medici collar trimmed in ivory (probably yellowed with age). The sleeves are three-quarter and trimmed with lace similar to the collar. This bodice is definitely reminiscent of Renaissance Era styles.

As with many dresses of the era, it’s got an overskirt that essentially is a train, combined with an apron that wraps around the waist area, below the bodice. Also, the jacquard underskirt has inset panels in the Ottoman. The side profile picture below gives an excellent view of this:

And with this rear view, one can definitely see that there’s a high back…

Below are close-ups of the upper front and back bodice:

And here are two views of the jacquard fabric:

And here’s a close-up of part of the bodice that gives a better view of the Prussian Blue fashion fabric as well as the corded trim. Note the horizontal weave pattern characteristic of an Ottoman fabric:

This is a really exquisite example of 1880s evening dress style and especially with the use of an Ottoman fabric- the Prussian blue Ottoman fabric provides a rich background for the floral pattern jacquard fabric which attracts the eye, leading it upwards to the wearer’s face (helped along with the yoke made from the same fabric). Overall, an exquisite example and perhaps a good style for recreating some day.  😄

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1880s Style – It Wasn’t All Parisian Couturiers

When looking at historical fashions, it’s quite easy to be attracted to the more elaborate and flashy styles of Worth, Pingat, Felix, or Doucet. However, there was a lot more than that and one often finds interesting designs from lesser known (or completely unknown) designers and especially here in the United States. Also, while the Parisian couturiers were acknowledged as fashion leaders, their designs were aimed at a limited market and far too costly for most. But, as always, the market attempted to fill in the gap in a variety of ways to include sewing patterns based on Parisian designs (licensed or not) as well as local dressmakers creating knock-offs. Department stores also created designs for customers of more modest means (comparatively speaking to the clientele that frequented Worth et al.). Below is an evening dress that was made for Wechsler & Abraham of Brooklyn, New York sometime during the 1880s (more on the date later):

Evening Dress, c. 1880s; Metropolitan Museum of Art ( 2009.300.654)

This is an interesting design in that it combines bodice and train in a gold silk brocade with, what appears to be, a pink blush taffeta. The color combination is an interesting one and not one that we’d readily expect, they’re definitely not complementary colors as defined in color theory but nevertheless, the pink blush does provide a neutral background for the bodice and train and it leads the eye  to follow the dress upward from train to bodice to the wearer’s face. Now what’s even more interesting is that the train wraps around the upper part of the pink blush skirt and is swagged.

With the side profile picture above and the rear picture below, one can also better see the designer’s use of draping to create a visual flow that leads the eye. It would seem that there was definitely some thought put into this design.

Here we get a better view of the gold brocade silk fabric with its floral design. The bustle/train has been artfully shaped (or maybe it’s just the museum staging… 😁). Now, in terms of dating, we would venture that this is from the 1883-1886 time frame- we’ve definitely moved beyond the “natural form” era with the train and to be honest, this could probably work all the way towards the end of the 1880s although the look might be looked a little dated by then. Finally, one other detail in that the majority of evening dresses/gowns of the period either had no sleeves or three-quarter sleeves. In all honesty, this dress is more suggestive of a dinner or reception dress but it could have easily done double duty. Ultimately, this is somewhat subjective but we’re just putting it out there. 😁

Mme.Ludinart, 129 Boul. St.-Honoré, Paris, Reception Dress, c. 1889; Kent State University Museum (1983.001.0202 ab)

And just for comparision, above is a similar design made by a Parisian dressmaker dating from about 1889. The color combination is very similar although the bodices are different and this one has no sleeves. Now here’s a dinner dress from the early 1880s- well, perhaps 1882-84 or so, judging from the train:

Dinner Dress, c. 1880-1882; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.63.23.2)

In terms of general style, this is almost identical to our gold brocade & blush pink dress shown above and it only shows that the dividing line between “evening dress” and “dinner dress” or “reception dress” is pretty thin. Of course, the dress could have simply been mis-labeled (it happens more than one would think) but still…in the end, it can be pretty subjective and we by no means profess to have the answers, it is though-provoking.

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Patterns From Maison Worth

One fascinating aspect about Charles Worth was that although he positioned himself as an exclusive couturier, he also licensed printed paper patterns of some of his designs. Worth himself didn’t publicize this to any great extent and you have look hard for the evidence but it’s true. One example of this is this Redingote style was offered for sale for as a printed pattern in the 1882 edition of The Ladies Treasury:

And here’s the accompanying commentary:

Redingcotes are most popular in Paris. M. Worth makes them for summer dresses instead of polonaises. They are made in grenadines, over contrasting colours, for evening dresses. A mauve grenadine, on which are moons of black satin, two inches in diameter is made plain, over a lining of maize yellow satin. The grenadine is turned off in the front, to the sides, and is outlined in jet embroidery, black. A full frill of thread lace goes round the neck, and continues down the centre of the bodice. The petticoat of black satin has a pleated flounce of satin, and a front breadth of yellow satin, which is nearly hidden in jet embroidery, and bows of moire ribbons.

This style is M. Worth’s protest against the bunched-up paniers at the back, which it is said he detests.

Worth’s licensing of patterns is an interesting aspect of his business and is an area that’s not well documented. Of course, it would be interesting to locate the actual pattern but so far, our efforts to do so haven’t been successful. What’s also interesting is that even though Maison Worth was doing very well financially, it’s interesting that he would even bother with such pattern licensing- the revenue from pattern licensing could not have been much when compared to sales of his haute couture. Unfortunately, details about business side of Maison Worth are thin and we may never know the precise answer but it’s interesting to speculate on. As we find out more, we’ll be posting it here. Enjoy!

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