The 1890s Violet Dress Restoration Project, Part 1

In the course of building up our reference collection here at Lily Absinthe, one sometimes makes some amazing discoveries. Recently, we acquired a violet-colored day dress that we’ve dated to the late 1890s. Our attention was immediately drawn to the intricate decorative design on the bodice and we simply found it fascinating. Unfortunately, like many period dresses made of silk, this one has extensive silk shattering and we realized that it wouldn’t survive for many more years so we decided to replicate the dress by drafting a pattern from the original skirt and bodice. Interestingly enough though, the decorative design applique on the bodice was relatively well preserved and showed no evidence of shattering so we decided to incorporate it into the new dress. Below is a description of the process of bringing this dress back to life along with an accompanying hat…


One of my recent projects has been the restoration (perhaps “recreation” is a more proper term) of the a circa late 1890s violet day dress. What was most striking about the original was the style of the bodice and skirt and I was able to determine the provenance of this dress.  I got this bodice and skirt from an auction and upon receipt, I found a pinned note of provenance. It belonged to ‘Grace Jennings’ who apparently wore it to the wedding of a one Luisa Downing sometime in the late 1890s. This dress is not repairable, so I’m slowly patterning and re-making it. Thank you, Grace! Your dress has a loving home.

The label…Eliza M. Jermyn was a dressmaker in New York during the late 19th Century and on into the Early 20th Century.

So, to begin, let’s take a look at the original. I have also included an original hat that I also plan to restore for wear with the dress. First, here’s some views of the hat and the bodice:

The hat is pictured backwards just to show how perfectly the flowers harmonize! How sweet to think that two ladies’ Sunday Best will be re-used to make a new ensemble.
Yes, I’m a sentimental sap. And now for a closer view:

Soutache and Chenille Embroidery closeup. The lace false front will be lightened, it’s obvious it was white when it was made.

I’m inspired by all this handwork. The borders blend into the garment with a random series of french knots. For some reason, the embroidered part isn’t shattering. Maybe it’s because it’s backed with linen and a cotton batiste. The chenille ‘stamens’ are a mauve silk plush. So 3-D!

I still can’t believe that hat matches so well, I’ve had it for two years and never wear it. It needs a gentle steaming and cleaning.

Collar closes at center back.

The first place I started was with disassembling the bodice. Here’s a view of the interior before I got to work:

Time to remove the boning today, 36 stays in all. There are 31 bones present in the underbodice and bodice alone and another five in the collar. Each one is hand stitched into a silk tube, all seam allowances are finished with bias silk by hand. Saying a little prayer of appreciation to the designer’s details before I remake this bodice!

We’ll get back to the bodice later, in the meantime here’s what I did with the lace:

I removed all the lace from the front plastron so it can be cleaned. Look at her collar and how it dips in the center front…she had a short neck just like me but was still a slave to fashion!

After removing the lace from the bodice, the underwent an intense three-hour soak to lift out the rust without compromising the lace; basically, I took it from “toffee” to “oyster.” As for the skirt, unfortunately it wasn’t in as good condition as the bodice. Like many period garments, there was a lot of shattered silk:

Here’s the sad shattered skirt. I get one chance to draft a pattern from this and every time it’s moved, it throws old fabric dust particles in the air. Yes, I’m wearing a mask! Basically, the skirt was disintegrating as I measured it and began to draft the pattern.

This is an atypical hem for this era, it’s all self – fabric and completely hand-sewn. It’s also the only part of the skirt that has remained intact.

Turning to the hat, I proceeded to completely disassemble it…

I always cross my fingers and say a little prayer when I have to take apart an original chapeau to restore it. Going to give that lace a little soak before I sew it back on.

Sigh. See that tiny understiching? They hold a tiny wire and I get to undo each one individually. Too late to turn back.

I always cross my fingers and say a little prayer when I have to take apart an original chapeau to restore it. Going to give that lace a little soak before I sew it back on.

After a complete cleaning and basic overhaul, the lace is restored to oyster white, the shade it was in 1900. Turns out there were lace appliques that the milliner layered to create “pockets” that perfectly fit over the undulating wire curves. That’s the original label next to it.

Transitioning Into The Mid-Bustle Era…

Even as early as 1876, one can see the transition away from the full trained style characteristic of the First Bustle Era to the Mid Bustle or “Natural Form Era.” This transition was a gradual one, gathering steam until coming into full flower by 1878. One of the best sources for documenting fashion change is through mass media and especially fashion magazines. Of course, these do need to be used with a bit of caution in that often they were ahead of their audiences and not everyone would immediately adopt a new style (even if they had the financial means to do so).

To begin, let’s look at this fashion plate from January 1875 of Le Moniteur De La Mode:

Le Moniteur De La Mode, No. 3, January 1875

Here we see the full train and bustle style in full flower, especially with the one pictured on the right. And here’s a few more examples focusing on day wear:

Le Moniteur De La Mode, No. 4, January 1875

Some more seemingly transitional styles- note the bodice extends over the hips with the dress on the right. We’re unable to tell with the dress on the left due to the mantle but the mantle pretty much neatly covers the hips. With both dresses, the bustle and train are restrained, making for a smooth silhouette.

Le Moniteur De La Mode, No. 5, January 1875

The dress on the right maintains the earlier train/bustle style but it’s a bit tucked in towards the middle which acts to control the fullness. On the other hand, with the dress on the left, we see a hybrid of sorts that also maintains the earlier train/bustle style but then maintains a fairly large skirt volume all the way to the hem- to us, it almost seems that this style is trying to create a modified bell skirt style reminiscent of the 1860s. Not the most flattering style, to say the least.

Le Moniteur De La Mode, No. 46, November 1875

Finally, with this example, we see another attempt to tighten up the silhouette and place a greater emphasis on a low demi-train. It’s definitely a hint at what’s to come. The above plates, along with others from the 1875 issues of  Le Moniteur De La Mode show an interesting mix of dresses: some have the extensive trains and bustles characteristic of the First Bustle Era while others show a smoother, more restrained style although the bustle is still noticeable at hip level.

Moving forward into 1876, we see the near-total elimination of any sort of bustle at hip level and an extension of the bodice over the hips. Also, interestingly enough, we see a number of dresses constructed in a princess line style with no waistline whatsoever. At the same time, we see greater emphasis being placed on the lower skirt and the development of a more complex lower train. Below are some examples from the 1876 issues of Le Moniteur De La Mode:

Le Moniteur De La Mode, No. 33, August 1876

The above dress is especially compelling with its clean princess line that emphasizes a cylindrical silhouette, aided by the stripped fabric that further serves to emphasize the vertical line. At the bottom, there’s a very simple multi-pleated demi-train. The whole effect is drastically different than what was before.

Le Moniteur De La Mode, No. 40, September 1876

With the above two dresses we see the cuirass bodice in full flower, completely covering the hips. Both dresses also employ extensive pleating and swagged fabric which accentuates the cylindrical silhouette of the Mid-Bustle Era and it combined with extensive trains (well, we’re assuming for the dress on the right).

Le Moniteur De La Mode, No. 45, November 1876

And without the swagging and pleating except along the hem and train. The dress on the right have a very elaborate train that’s an extension of the over and under skirts and they provide an interesting contrast both in color and texture. On the right, we see a more simple princess line dress that employs a rust brown and blue patterned overskirt over a plain rust brown underskirt. Both examples have no train at hip level and the train has been pushed to the bottom of the dress. No matter if it’s a princess line or not, the emphasis is on a slender “natural” form that’s been sculpted through corsetry and the right underpinnings. 🙂

Le Moniteur De La Mode, No. 47, November 1876

Finally, this dress displays all the attributes of the Mid Bustle Era style with very precise, clean lines. With this dress, the strategically placed striped edging delivers the greatest impact and creates a look that definitely reads “18th Century revival”. Christian Lacroix would be proud. We’ll conclude this post by saying that the above commentary is based on a very small sample of fashion illustrations culled from two years of one fashion publication but it’s still compelling to see an evolutionary process happening right in front of us on its pages. We intend to delve into this a bit more and hopefully gain a better understanding about how fashions evolve and change.

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.

Paul Poiret & Resisting Change

Paul Poiret has always been fascinating to us and his designs and innovations never fail to amaze. At the same time, Poiret is also a cautionary tale on the dangers of not adapting to a changing zeitgeist (the spirit of a particular historical period). Poiret was a bit of showman and he utilized all manner of publicity in order to advance his innovations such as eliminating the corset-created silhouette as an essential design element (even though other couturiers were working on similar designs at the same time such as Jeanne Paquin) and the introduction of the jupe-culotte.

Paul Poiret, Jupe Culotte, 1911; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1983.8a, b)

Poiret was also instrumental in introducing a simpler, less structured silhouette starting with the Directoire style in 1906:

The First World War disrupted the French fashion industry and Poiret was no exception. Called up for military service, Poiret was assigned to work on simplifying the production of uniforms and while he was successful in this area, his fashion house barely kept itself afloat financially. After the war, Poiret tried to pick up where he’d left off in 1914 but the fashion world had moved on with an emphasis on more simple designs such as those created by Coco Chanel. Poiret’s designs failed to catch on and combined with financial mismanagement and a nasty divorce from his wife Denise, he was ultimately forced to close his fashion house in 1929. In future posts, we’ll delve into some of Poiret’s post-WWI designs and the overall decline of Poiret’s influence as a designer.