When designing an 1870s dress, one is often faced with an overwhelming number of choices. While the basic 1870s style was characterized by the all-encompassing bustle silhouette, all of the other details were far from uniform and there were a bewildering variety of choices available in selecting the fabrics and trims. Moreover, there were many available choices in bodice, skirt, sleeve, and train design to include the princess line that came into vogue in the late 1870s. Finally, compared to earlier eras, there is also a variety of color choices, all made possible by the development of aniline dyes.
With all these choices, where does one begin? One of the most effective methods that we have successfully employed throughout the years is through the use of contrasting colors. Below are some examples of the possibilities:
The Englishwomen’s Domestic Magazine, June 1876
The color contrast could come in the form of a striped fashion fabric with one basic color and the stripes with the other color as shown on the above left figure. On the right, the contrast comes from the trim, in this case large bows and ribbons.
With the above plate, the contrast comes from the fabrics themselves. The dress on each figure consists of two sets of fashion fabric and in some instances, one of the fabrics could be patterned. Below is another example of this:
In the above plate, we see a base fashion fabric combined with a second fabric that’s been draped over the first. The large scale use of fringe enhances the contrast and in the case of the left figure, the second fabric looks like it’s ready for slide off. Of course this is fashion plate and a bit of artistic licence is to be expected. 😉
Fashion Plate c. 1876
Wide stripes could also be used for a more dramatic effect as demonstrated with the above two figures. The cuirass bodice offered a wider “canvas” for these effects because of its larger continuous surface era. The princess line dress offered even greater scope for dramatic effect as seen below:
Le Moniteur de la Mode, 1876
In the above plate, the dress on the left uses contrast to its fullest extent by unifying the contrasting colors in a continuous flow of fabric and especially with the train. The dress on the right is a little different in that contract color is limited to stripes and edge trimming and with the embroidered back panel on the bodice enhancing the overall effect.
The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, July 1877
In the above plate, the contrast effect is achieved through the use of striped trims to “outline” the dress in key areas. Once again, the princess line allows for this technique to be used to its greatest effect. Now let’s look at some examples of extant garments:
Day Dress, American, 1876; Philadelphia Museum of Art (1969-147-1a,b). This dress is constructed from steel grey silk taffeta and pale pink silk plain and striped satin; grey silk knotted fringe and pink satin cording.
A color contrast can be achieved through a variety of methods. One of the easiest, as shown above, is to utilize two solid colors with one color acting as the base fashion fabric that covers the largest expanse while the other plays a secondary role with the contrast color. Note that the backside of the fashion fabric that has been turned out as shown along the bottom of the skirt while on the bodice there are revers and a faux waist coat. Below is another example of the solid color method:
With the above example, the secondary contrast fabric has been used to create a series of stripes running in a up the skirt on a diagonal angle to create a spiral effect. On the front of the bodice is a large panel in the same color along with two large sleeve cuffs. Another creative way to approach contrast colors are to use two different colors in two different fabrics as with the silk velvet combined with a silk faille in the dress below:
Day Dress, French, 1875; Philadelphia Museum of Art (1976-120-1a–c). Constructed of silk faille and silk velvet with tatted lace.
But why stop there? 😉 Contrast can be also achieved by having one of the fabrics be a stripe or other type of pattern as with the dress below:
Day Dress, Emile Pingat, French, c. 1874; Philadelphia Museum of Art (1938-18-12a,b)
In the above example, the two contrast fabrics are nearly equal in volume with the striped fabric being employed as an overskirt on the bottom and as trim on the bodice. Plaids and checks were also employed as with this dress:
Day Dress, c. 1873; McCord Museum (M20277.1-2)
Note how the striped fabric is dominant in the above dress, comprising most of the bodice, overskirt, and train. The solid color fabric shows up in the sleeves and underskirt and it’s the same color as the stripes in the patterned fabric with the ecru providing the contrast. This is just one possibility of many.
The princess line dress also offers many possibilities. While is maintains the bustle silhouette, the fact that there is no separate bodice and skirt creates a unified whole that runs smooth and uninterrupted as with this dress:
Day Dress, 1870s; National Museum, Prague (H2-193316)
All right, so we went a bit overboard with the last dress but it’s an interesting color combination of light pink and steel grey (although it’s hard to detect with the lighting- it shows up best on the rear). In the front is a wide panel of light pink that’s offset by the steel grey on the remainder of the dress (with the exception of some detail on the rear). The above examples are just a small sampling of the color possibilities that are available. Combinations could simply be a matter of varying color shades such as dark and light blue or they could involve a combination of two different colors.
In choosing an effective color combination, keep in mind that while Victorians loved combining different colors, they also sought to have those colors harmonize at the same time, acting as complementary colors. Below is an illustration of a Victorian era color wheel developed in 1867 by Charles Blanc:
In the above illustration, the complementary colors are directly opposite of each other (e.g., yellow-purple, green-red, blue-orange). Naturally there are various shades in between and the complementary pairs will shift. The above is admittedly an over-simplification but it does give an idea of what designers were aiming for during the late 19th Century. And just to complicate matters further is the idea of saturation. Saturation refers to the intensity/vividness of a color. Colors that are highly saturated are bold and rich, while those that are desaturated lack in vibrancy.
An effective color combination could employ the principle of using two colors that are the same except for the difference in saturation. This is somewhat related to juxtaposing fabrics of two fabrics of different color shades as mentioned above:
The above is by no means a comprehensive overview and admittedly a lot of this is subjective. The best suggestion we can give is to look and pictures of original fashion plates and extant garments, making allowances for fading and deterioration. Certain combinations are going to look “right”, others not so much (and some could be downright ghastly- no different than today). We hope that this has provided some ideas to help you get started. 😎