Thursday, October 9, 2014

One Shot - Antebellum

    This is possibly the quintessential mid 19th century dress. In form, fabric, and decorative details it follows every dictum of its time to the letter.  And it manages to do so with great grace, which is why this style, though out of fashion for over 150 years now, can still resonate, and contribute to the conversation we call Attire.
    Coming from the Metropolitan Museum's vast collection, this dress, made in roughly 1860, is of shot silk taffeta in a combination of peach and pale gold.  It's surface decorations are almost entirely of the same textile, with only small amounts of hand worked blonde lace at the bodice, cuffs, and the bows on the skirt.
    The shape of the skirt is at the precise point where the dome shape we attribute to this period was its widest.  As its shown here, the under-structure used is not large enough to show the skirt to its fullest; which is why it falls in such deep folds to the floor.  In real use, the hoops under it would have expanded the skirt considerably farther.
    The bodice is exactly au courant for 1860, with its pointed waist, round neckline, short full sleeves and round bertha collar.  All of this broad, low, shaping was intended to soften the shoulder line and create a sense of graceful fragility.  That sense of fragility was always, in my view, very much at odds with the enormous mass of the skirts in vogue.  But, by diminishing the relative size of the upper half of the body, a woman was symbolically diminished both intellectually and emotionally.
    The use of box pleated trimmings was very commonplace during this time, and the repeating swags of them a common device.  One of the reasons such self fabric trimmings were so popular was that it allowed the lady making it to use up all the scrap pieces from the dress cutting, lessening waste, and keeping the cost down a bit.
    The relevance of a dress of this sort to us today is owing to the continued repeat of this silhouette in design.  There have been many times that elements of this look have been brought to runways in the contemporary world.  And they doubtless will again.  The reasons are simple.  First, we have moved far enough away from this period to be able to look at it with a romanticized fondness. Second, the shape is one that is extremely graceful looking, and has an inescapable grandeur. And lastly, it is a profoundly feminine look in a stereotypical sense.  All these factors contribute to its continuing re-emergence in the general mind.

Wait for it, it'll be back.


  1. I love how the shape and drape of the bodice basically manage to balance out the entire skirt. Quite a trick when you think about it.

    1. Quite true. Its one of the reasons that that shape of bodice was so prominent. They also used large scale sleeves for day, and huge shawls to balance things out.

  2. A perfect example of its type - love it!