Baffled by a Dress

flapper reading a bookWhen looking through photos or fashion plates of antique clothing, it usually only takes a few seconds for me to decide whether I like something or not. There is, however, a dress that has had me sitting on the fence for a long time…a late bustle era dress that confounds my eye.

I don’t know what to make of it.

For me it’s kinda like the proverbial horrible accident with lots of badly wounded casualties and you want to respect their privacy and/or avoid the gruesomeness of it all and you don’t want to look…but you can’t help yourself and then you wish you’d kept your eyes closed and you swear to yourself that you won’t look the next time, but you know you will.

“Two piece day ensemble in beige, pale green, and purple, ca. 1882-1885, This day outfit, from the late bustle era, was worn by Kate Morris Cone, a student in the first graduating class of Smith College in 1879. The fawn wool bodice is cut in a ‘tailor-made’ style, tightly fitted with an obvious CF [center front] button closure, long cuffed sleeves and an elaborate tail, all to suggest a man’s tail coat.”

Two-piece day ensemble in beige, pale green, & purple, North American, ca. 1882-85. Cotton, wool, silk.

Two piece day ensemble in beige, pale green, and purple, ca. 1882-1885 3

First off – it’s not displayed on a correct late era (i.e., humongous) bustle, so it’s impossible to see the actual shape and drape. Another part of it is the color: the green and purple are fine, but I do not like it with the beige – that beige kills the colors…yellow-toned beige versus blue-toned colors.

I’m normally pretty big-bow phobic, but the three on the side are oddly compelling – I don’t think I like them, but I’m drawn to them nonetheless.

The other thing I find odd are the two bits of gathered purple fabric as the end of the “elaborate tail.” The side bows are big and puffy, while these look flat and smashed…as if they’d been sat upon, popped like a balloon and deflated.

But, by far, the worst of it all is I can see “potential” (the word that will kill me one day, I swear). The overall design has some merit. It’s certainly unusual, and I like unusual.

So I look at it and my brain starts revving its creativity cells:

If I ditch the beige and use a nice color instead, keep the diagonal plaid thing going in a color that works with the bodice, get rid of the piping at the bodice front and use a flat inlay instead, and get rid of the dead balloon at the back…well…it could be a pretty dress.

And in the end, this is what happens:

I see a nice winter dress for our Victorian Holidays up here. Done in a light-weight wool. The bodice in a deep blue, red, green or brown. A tartan-like plaid on the bias instead of the floral green. And a second solid (for the bows and bottom ruffle) that picks up a color in the tartan. Maybe change the bows to a flatter style, but maybe not.

See what I mean? Potential = Pandora’s Box.

Fortunately for me, while I do have the pattern necessary to re-create the look I don’t have the skills. Yet. Thank heavens for that.


  • The 18th century pockets are done and I’ll be picking up more twill tape (I’d used it all) tomorrow so another “action shot” is coming soon.
  • Still messing around with the sleeve cap re-do…having trouble deciding which way to go and am vacillating between two variations. Sewing circle is on Saturday, so they just might end up being subjected to a group vote.

6 thoughts on “Baffled by a Dress

  1. Most brown and beige Victorian clothes of this era were once bright colors. Lavender is one of the most common fugitive dyes and fades to a variety of drab shades that give no clue to its former glory. I truly think it was all a soft, airy lavender color all over at one time. There are TONS of blah brown dresses with oddly bright purple accents that were once lavender all over. Also, someone upped the saturation levels in these pics which might be why the colors don’t harmonize very well. It looks a bit better in this post by the Dreamstress (though the comments prove that we are not alone in thinking the color combo is odd):
    I think your idea for a tartan version is fabulous! It would look so cute in a jewel tone to wear on a sleigh ride!

    • Wow – it does look better on her site! (I love her “rate the dress” posts.) I can see it as a soft lavender. That would make more sense to my eye. Thanks for pointing it out. 🙂

  2. I totally agree with you on this dress. If I imagine it in a deep lovely purple instead of the beige, then I could love it. I’m pretty sure I’ve pinned it anyway (as you do 🙂 ) but in my mind it’s in the category of ‘nice idea if you change x, y and z’. Maybe you’ll have the skill set soon, then I look forward to seeing your progress photos on the blog!

    • Whew – I’m not the only one (although I’d feel the same if I was). Love the thought of deep purple – it’s one of my favorite colors. And I know my skill set will grow, especially since I have two bustle dresses (im)patiently waiting for me to finish them. 😉

  3. I rather do like it. I suspect the beige or the green fabrics have aged until they don’t match, but with better colors I think this would make a lovely dress. It’s off-beat, and has tons of potential. (Yes, a very dangerous word. 🙂 )

    A good dress to add to your To-Do list.

    • I think you’re right about the colors. The beiges seem especially prone to yellowing with age. We’ll never know the true colors and that’s a shame. As for the ever-growing To-So list…yup, it’s on there. BTW – I recently updated my Dream Dress/Dream Wardrobe page and it looks like I’m gonna have to live another 100 years or so.

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