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


Side Profile View


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.

A Brief View Of Men’s Clothing- The Sack Coat

Over the years we have been asked about making men’s clothing. While we are naturally flattered by the prospect of creating more period clothing designs from the late 19th Century, we have had to politely refuse on the grounds that it’s not our main business focus. More importantly, men’s clothing calls for a skill set- primarily tailoring- that is different from those used for women’s clothing. While there is some overlap (Redfern and especially with tailor-mades for women), it’s very much a separate speciality and we would argue that it’s an art form with a rich set of traditions that are not easily mastered. Well-tailored clothes are a joy to behold and just the words “Savile Row” sets our hearts racing.

All hyperbole aside, we have chosen to restrict ourselves to the female side of historic clothing simply because if we made both types of clothing, we could not do justice to either. With that said, we would still like to present our views on the men’s side of clothing so from time to time we will be posting articles here covering various topics of men’s clothing and accessories.  🙂

So, where to begin? Probably the best place to begin is with the sack coat/sack suit which gradually developed into the dominant style for men’s daywear during the late 19th Century, supplanting the earlier frock coat and the derivative morning coat. The sack coat/suit and the frock coat. The sack coat was meant for informal day wear while the frock coat/morning coat were reserved for more formal occasions (although there was often a lot of overlap between the two).


The sack suit, or lounge suit as it was termed in Great Britain, originated in France as the sacque coat during the 1840s and took its name from the way it was cut (contrary to popular belief, the sack coat did NOT get its name from its loose fit “like a sack”). In contrast to the more elaborate frock coat whose back was constructed from four basic pieces, the sacque coat was simplified, consisting of two basic pieces. Moreover, the sack coat was designed to fit loosely.

EPSON scanner image

Sack coats usually had three or four button holes and often it was worn buttoned only at the top. In terms of colors and fabrics, wool of various weights was the predominant fabric although linen was often used for lighter weight coats intended for wear in more warmer climates. In terms of colors, they could range from solids to plaids, stripes, and checks. However, towards the end of the 19th Century, the dominant style increasingly were darker, sober colors such as charcoal gray, black, brown, and navy blue. Often they were accompanied by a matching pair of trousers and waistcoat, thus creating the three-piece suit. At the same time, the sack coat and trousers could be in different colors and fabrics. Below are some examples:

To start, here’s an image of an early sack coat from c. 1863 – 1864:

Sack Suit - Early

Sack Suit, c. 1863 – 1864


Three men wearing sack coats, c. 1860s; Image from Joan L. Severa, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900, 1995

The second image really shows up just how loose-fitting sack coats were in the 1860s, especially with the coat worn by the man with his back to the camera. This is in contrast to the 1880s, 90s, and early 1900s where the coats (and accompanying trousers) become increasingly more narrowly-fitted and cut closer to the body.

In the next image, we have one from 1870:


The West End Gazette, August 1870

The coat still hangs relatively loose but the trousers are gradually becoming cut more narrow.


Sack Suit

Sack Suit, British, c. 1875 – 1880

A bit on the loud side, the use of loud fabrics steadily diminished during the late 19th Century. Sack suits could be made from linen as well as wool as with this suit that was intended for wear in warmer weather:

Sack Suit4

Sack Suit, c. 1885 – 1900; McCord Museum (M973.137.4.2)



Sack Suit2


Sack Suit, c. 1895

Sack Suit3

Sack Suit, c. 1911; Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The above picture depicts the ultimate development of the sack suit and it’s easy to see that the modern business suit was not far off in the future.

During the late 19th Century, the sack suit became the standard “uniform” for anyone aspiring to a degree of respectability and especially those involved in business and the professions. In fact, it could be argued that the sack suit was instrumental in democratizing clothing in that it allowed any man to look like someone substantial and respectable. The sack suit was relatively cheap which had been made possible by industrialization and the development of the ready-made garment industry in America and Great Britain.

In conclusion, we would argue that if you are looking for that “one” outfit that accurately symbolizes the 19th Century man, it would have to be the sack suit. While fashion choices were often dictated by social and economic factors, it would be safe to say that the sack suit was the “default” outfit to be worn wherever possible- the sack suit symbolized respectability and social status. Even the laborer, miner, cowboy, and farmer wore sack suits when the occasion demanded and they had the means. In contrast with today’s emphasis on casual wear, dressing up was considered essential to showing one’s better side and more importantly, securing respect from one’s peers. Naturally, the above is a broad generalization but it does go a long way towards capturing the zeitgeist or spirit of the time.

Tea Gowns & No. 11

Were slowly recovering from the drive back from Arizona…tubs and bags everywhere…Labor Day Weekend at No. 11 is always hectic and this one was a bit more since we were struggling to finish installation of the new curtains in the parlor as well as completing the final touches on the tea gown. It was close but we finally got it all done and managed to get some nice pictures before we had to head back to LA.  😎

Overall, the tea gown project was a great success and it actually went smoother than I initially expected- it was still a lot of work but there weren’t any issues that needed to be resolved along the way. The best part about this project is that it’s patterned off of several originals in our collection, utilizing unique fabrics that we’ve found on our various journeys through Europe that replicate those found during the 1880s and 90s. We’re definitely pleased with the result and we’re looking forward to working up further tea gown designs in the future. 😎

Tea & Nonsense At No. 11

A little tea and nonsense at No. 11…because not everything in Tombstone happens in a saloon…


Last Minute Unveiling- The Tea Gown

Last minute drapery hanging and a quick shoot- yes, I finally got it finished! Currently packing the truck to get back to LA, let’s hear it for last minute successes, I’ll be chatting and posting from the road. 😎

And yes, a quick interior view… 😎