Color Selection For Dresses- 1870s Style

One of the central tenets of choosing colors for a particular dress is that one must choose colors that are appropriate for when and where a particular dress or gown is going to be worn. A dress that looks fabulous in the noonday sun may look absolutely horrible when viewed in a gas-lit ballroom at night. In short, context is everything when selecting a suitable color or color combination for a particular dress and it’s one of the fundamental principles that drives our designs. However, this is not simply us reciting a fashion truism- From the January 1875 edition of Le Follet, Journal Du Grand Monde:

It is necessary to be very careful in the selection of shades for evening-dress, as they are so very different by day and gaslight. Many of the best shades for day wear have quite a faded or dull appearance by night. Thus, the peacock-green, so beautiful in the sunlight, takes a yellowish tinge by gaslight. Those greens with the most yellow in them are the best for evening toilette. Yellows of different shades- buttercup, sulphur, and, above all, maize- are all good for this purpose. Reds gain in brightness; rubies also become more brilliant; nacarat [a shade of pale red-orange] appears lighter; cerise changes to ponceau  {a red poppy color]. A rather yellow white is preferable to the purer white, and silver-grey looks well; but the bluish-grey is not a good shade for night.

Here’s an example of nacarat:

And cerise:

Image result for cerise color

And finally ponceau:

This is just one example but it makes an important point in that one must always be mindful of context when recreating historical fashions.

And For A Little More Victorian Style Color…

As a follow-up to our previous post on harmonizing colors, we offer some more thoughts on the subject of color and Victorian style. Generally speaking, dresses could take one of two basic forms when it came to color: all one solid color (i.e. monochromatic) or combinations of two or more colors. The concept of the one-color dresses is pretty straight-forward:

Day Dress, 1877; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.2432a, b)

Day Dress, European or American, circa 1885; Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum

Liberty & Co. (attributed), Ballgown, c. 1880s; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1985.155)

Maison Truffert, San Francisco, Evening Dress/Ball Gown, c. 1894 – 1896; Augusta Auctions

Worth, Ball Gown, c. 1896; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1982.299a, b)

But the use of a single color could also take the form of a patterned fabric:

Day Dress, 1885; V&A Museum (T.7&A-1926)

Day Dress, c. 1880; The Museum at FIT (P92.21.1)

Day dresses were more likely to be found in one color than ball gowns and evening dresses but in either case, using one color tended to give a somewhat flat look to the the dress so often lace trim, patterned material such as embroidery, or some other decorative effect was utilized to counter this. Below are several examples of this:

Worth, Ballgown, 1889; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.68.53.11a, b)

Worth, Ballgown, c. 1894; Kyoto Costume Institute (AC4799 84-9-2AB)

Day Dress, c. 1880s; Fashion History Museum Ontario

Lace was often employed to add dimension and depth:

Day Dress, c. 1894 – 1896; FIDM Museum (S2006.870.22AB)

In some cases, dresses employed a combination of plain and patterned fabrics, all in the same basic color such as with this dress:

Day Dress, c. 1885; Walsall Museums (WASMG : 1976.0832)

More common in dresses was the use of a combination of colors which usually took the form of different colored fabrics for the under and over skirts or the bodice and hem:

Worth, Ensemble-/Reception Dress/Evening Bodice, c. 1877 – 1878; Cincinnati Art Museum (1986.1200a-c)

Day Dress, Mid 1890s; Augusta Auctions, Museum of the City of New York Deaccession.

Bourdereau Veron & Cie, Place de la Bourse, Paris, Day Dress, c. 1893; Kent State University Museum (1983.1.207 ab)

Often, stripes and/or patterns were also employed in the color combination:

Day Dress, Emile Pingat, French, c. 1874; Philadelphia Museum of Art (1938-18-12a,b)

Here’s a couple examples of more complex use of color combinations. In the dress on the left, solid light and dark blue are combined with a patterned fabric that’s also predominantly blue. On the right, red with floral embroidery is combined with solid colored white/ivory lace.

In this example below, a solid black underskirt is combined with a bodice/overskirt of dark green striped black silk with floral appliques. Black beading and feathers further accentuate the color combination:

Reception Dress, c. 1890; Goldstein Museum of Design (2013.004.012)

Outer garments could also provide an added element to the color combination as with the figure on the left with a wine/burgundy-colored mantle with celadon trim that matched the solid celadon-colored dress. The figure on the right demonstrates  a combination of ivory-colored lace and solid pink:

Color combinations could even take the forms of stripes and patterns:

Day Dress, c. 1875; Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum

And probably one of the most dramatic uses of two colors can be found with this ball gown that utilizes just stripes:

Doucet, Ball Gown, c. 1890; Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina (1998.13A-B)

Pops of color could also be used as part of a color combination. In the example below, an ivory-colored front under bodice and center underskirt grabs the eye:

Worth, Day Dress, c. 1890 – 1893; Kerry Taylor Auctions

And on a larger scale, the use of the red as a color pop goes a long way towards making this evening dress an eye-catcher:

Worth, Evening Ensemble Dress, 1893; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.622a–c)

The above illustrations gives only a small hint at the combinations and methods that were employed in utilizing color and it’s clear that while pure colors (e.g., one colored fabric with another) could be employed in combination, the combination could also take the form of striped or patterned fabrics, lace, and/or other trims in various colors. More importantly, it’s not just about layer colors, but it’s about layering colors in varying textures and luster to create a garment that projects depth and ultimately a life of its own.

Harmonizing Color- Victorian Style

One common element in fashion is the matching and harmonizing of colors in an outfit. This can take the form of arranging complementary and analogous colors or the arrangement of one color in various hues and tints. One of the most common methods of harmonizing color in an outfit is to simply use the same color for all the elements- skirt, bodice, hat, parasol, et al. While both methods were utilized during the late 19th Century, the absolute matching of colors was less prevalent than what is the case today and this can be seen in many of the various extant dresses and fashion plates of the period. Below is a plate from the July 1888 edition of Der Bazar that illustrates this with the middle figure:

With the middle figure, we see the use of a French blue as the predominant color for both bodice and skirts with yellow as an accent color for the sleeve cuffs, collar, bodice front and amscyes. Also, most notably, the same color blue is depicted with the parasol and hat with matching yellow accent color. Here we see a harmonious whole created with the two colors to include even the hat and parasol.

However, we need to make a few qualifications here: the color choices could have simply been the work of the illustrator operating under the mandate of “make something pretty looking” or it may actually reflect a conscious desire to push matching accessories. We’ll probably never know the full story on this but what we do know is that color harmonization to Victorians was more broadly interpreted that what is the case today. Here’s an example of a color scheme that’s seemingly not so harmonious with the left figure from the October 1887 edition of Der Bazar:

To the modern eye, brown and violet are not the most seemingly harmonious colors, yet they’re technically complementary or split complementary colors going by the standard color wheel.  Of course, we’re looking at a model wearing a mantle over the dress and color-wise, outerwear tends to be neutral but it still gives the idea.

Going further, here’s another color combination that’s not a seemingly logical choice as seen with the left figure in this plate from the January 1887 edition of Godey’s Ladysbook:

With the left dress, we see a combination of old gold/mustard yellow and pink,  a combination that’s not a first choice in today’s fashion. Of course, this is somewhat of a subjective thing and no doubt there are examples that will contradict but it still illustrates the idea that there are a number of ways to harmonize color in an outfit, whether it’s just a dress or an ensemble to include accessories.

OK, enough fashion plates, let’s look at an actual dress with this 1880s visiting dress:

Three-quarter frontal view

Side Profile

Here we see an explosion of warms colors from underneath a cool celadon/sea foam green outer layer. With the striped underlayer, we see a series of analogous colors which in turn somewhat complementary to the celadon/seafoam green. It’s an interesting illustration of the use of color for the era and it’s quite imaginative. When it comes to color preference, there are not many hard and fast rules and in the end,  it’s a matter of personal preference. In this post, we have attempted to point out some of the nuances of color choices in the fashions of the era. 🙂

Dyeing…The Saga Continues

And the saga continues as I work on my ball gown for the upcoming trip to Bath. Constructing a ball gown is not always an easy, straight-forward process as the following post reveals.  🙂


Dyeing and color theory is a crazy science, of course I want dyed to match silk satin ribbon to edge flounces with, and the gown’s main fabric is a changeable duchess silk satin…which means ribbon dyeing has to be done in pale rinses, each shade at a time, with lots of time checks, and it still might not work. FUN 🤪

Check out the pretty coral pink pile of ribbon in the sink..too dark, I was too aggressive with the orange, It can’t be color stripped, so some lucky future client will get loads of silk ribbon work! The blush pink (in the sink, looks tan) is dead on perfect and I hesitate to add…that was just good luck!

Trying to match that piece of silk in my hand, third batch (in the sink) is a charm…the other pink ribbon is now too dark, so that has to wait for another project. No loss…just not for this dress.

Hallelujah!! That was harder than it looks, that blush rose silk has a lot of green undertones…but I did it!

Finally, the same for the narrow ribbon. That wasn’t an easy match. *WHEW*

Sapphire…

Image result for sapphire color

Fall colors traditionally focus on earth tones but for us here at Lily Absinthe, we take a broader view… Recently, jewel tones have caught our eye and especially in Sapphire as with this circa 1880s evening dress from Maison Worth: 🙂

Whittaker Auctions1 Evening Gown c. 1880s

Front Three-Quarter View

Whittaker Auctions1 Evening Gown c. 1880s

Rear View

The dress appears to be constructed from a sapphire-colored silk satin trimmed with metallic beading and black lace. This is very similar to a Worth evening dress in our collection and as such, the metal trim gives the dress significant weight. Here’s a close-up of the hem detail:

Whittaker Auctions1 Evening Gown c. 1880s

Unfortunately, there’s not much information on this dress since the pictures were derived from Pinterest and it was not possible to find the original website that they came from except for a note that this dress was originally on an auction website. Also, the staging is poor so without a physical examination, there’s no real way to tell narrow down the date. However, that said, judging from the dress silhouette, the odds are good that it’s from the early to mid 1880s.

Just for interest, below are pictures of some of the bodice interior:

Whittaker Auctions1 Evening Gown c. 1880sWhittaker Auctions1 Evening Gown c. 1880s

As with most evening dress bodices from the era, it was boned (although some of the bones are now missing) and lined with what appears to be a white silk satin. The finishing work is amazing, even with the wear and tear and shattered silk. Inspiration comes to us from many sources and this one will definitely be at the top of our list. 🙂