This intricate 1855 day dress includes many fashionable elements of the time period, including beautiful silk fringe trimming and stripe designs. 

About the Look

This 1855 American day dress features a full bell-shaped skirt with a rose and white striped design creating a border on all four flounces of the black taffeta (Fig. 1). Each of the flounces are edged with rose, black, and white silk fringe. The long-sleeved, high-waisted bodice is buttoned down the front using fourteen rose and black silk buttons; the jacket front is split at the bottom and is finished with a small peplum. The bodice also features a high neck and lace collar; rose and white stripe ribbons edged with fringe create an exaggerated hour-glass silhouette from the upper arm to the center front.

Both sleeves have four ruffles and are decorated with the same rose and white stripe border and silk trimming as the skirt. The sleeves get wider toward the wrist, in the popular pagoda sleeve style. This allows for the white undersleeves to peek out, which end in puffs at the wrists.  The dress is made from taffeta with weft-float patterning (à la disposition). Jan Glier Reeder, author of High Style: Masterworks from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writes that:

“Fabrics for tiers were woven à la disposition, meaning that the design was configured specifically to the shape of the pattern piece for which it was intended.” (22)

Woman's Day dress

Fig. 1 - Designer unknown (American). Woman's Day dress, 1855. Silk plain weave (taffeta) with weft-float patterning (à la disposition); overall (bodice): 56 cm length (skirt): 110 cm (overall (bodice): 22 1/16 in length (skirt): 43 5/16 in). Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 51.322a-b. Gift in memory of Mrs. Horatio Appleton Lamb. Source: MFA Boston

Woman’s Day Dress, 1855. Silk plain weave (taffeta) with weft-float patterning (à la disposition). Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 51.322a-b Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

About the context

ASeptember 1854 Le Bon Ton fashion plate depicts a very similarly decorated blue and white dress (Fig. 2). The fringe is used in conjunction with the stripes bordering the flounces, creating a tiered look, which was a common style during the 1850s. In fact, fashion editor Genio C. Scott emphasizes in the December 1855 issue of Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature, Art, and Fashion:

“Taffeta is still in favor for dresses. They are frequently made with several skirts… with the fringes now so fashionable.” (566)

Silk fringe, in addition to other sorts of trimmings, became an extremely stylish way to decorate garments during this time period. An 1850s day dress from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fig. 3), features similar fringe placement along the bodice and around the sleeve cuffs. Fringe was not exclusively used for the bodice. For instance, in the 1850-1859 overview on the Fashion History Timeline (2020), fashion historian Harper Franklin writes that:

“passementerie trims such as fringe, tassels, ribbons, braids, and cords were very much in vogue during the 1850s for use on both the bodice and skirt.”

In both our dress and the fashion plate in figure 2, we can see examples of fringe adorning both the bodice and skirt.

In addition to fringe, striped designs were also very fashionable. It was common for dresses with multiple flounces to have stripes bordering each tier, along with matching stripes on the sleeves, bust, and edge of the bodice. We can see a clear abundance of stripes on the dress in figure 3, with striping on each tier of the skirt. An 1855 photograph (Fig. 4) shows a woman wearing a dress with similarly placed stripes. Although stripes could be utilized for evening dresses, thin stripes bordering flounces and accentuating bodices were mostly used as decoration for day dresses. The Met has in its collection a slightly later  evening dress with stripes (Fig. 5). An April 1856 fashion plate from Le Bon Ton (Fig. 6), illustrates a blue and white dress with similar stripe placement, once again bordering the flounces and wrapping around the sleeves, which similarly reveal a white, puffy under-sleeve peeking through.

Most day dresses during this time were buttoned down the front of the bodice (Figs. 2-4). Furthermore, popular bodice detailing for day dresses also included a very high neck and a white lace collar, as illustrated in figure 4. Of these popular bodice features, fashion editor Genio C. Scott explains in the December issue of Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature, Art, and Fashion (1855):

“There are numerous varieties of the style of dress for street wear, but they are all worn high in the neck… and closed up the front with a row of buttons.” (565-566)

In addition, another very fashionable bodice element of the time period was the split-bodice look. Right underneath the vertical row of buttons closing up the bodice, it was very common for the bodice to split into two sections, with both sections ending in a point. This created an upside-down v-shaped look that appeared on many day dresses. Figures 2-4 all feature the popular split design in the bodice.

All of these elements, including the fringe trimming, striping, and bodice detailing would create a dress that is highly fashionable for the time. An 1857 portrait painted by Aristides Oeconomos (Fig. 7) features a woman wearing a light pink dress that similarly shares many of these elements.

Le Bon Ton

Fig. 2 - Artist unknown (French). Le Bon Ton, September 1854. Hand-colored engraving. Los Angeles: Digital Collections of the LA Public Library, rbc4317. Source: LAPL


Fig. 3 - Designer unknown (British). Dress, 1854-1856. Silk. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987.190.2a, b. Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1987. Source: Met

Unknown Woman

Fig. 4 - Maull and Polyblank (British, active 1854-1865). Unknown Woman, 1855. Albumen print; (7 7/8 in x 5 3/4 in). London: National Portrait Gallery, NPG P106(20). Purchased, 1978. Source: National Portrait Gallery

Evening dress

Fig. 5 - Designer unknown (American). Evening dress, 1858-59. Brown and white silk compound weave. New York: Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.922. Gift of the Jason and Peggy Westerfield Collection, 1969. Source: Met

Le Bon Ton

Fig. 6 - Artist unknown (French). Le Bon Ton, April 1856. Hand-colored engraving. Los Angeles: Digital Collections of the LA Public Library, rbc4466. Source: LAPL

Portrait of a young woman, seated, wearing a pink dress

Fig. 7 - Aristides Oeconomos (Greek, 1821-1887). Portrait of a young woman, seated, wearing a pink dress, 1857. Oil on canvas; 90.96 x 70cm (35 13/16 x 27 9/16in). Source: Mutual Art

With both intricate trimming and stripes, the black and rose dress would be considered very fashionable for the time period. It has all the elements of a proper day dress during this time such as a high neck and long sleeves. Its very decorated, almost layer-cake style sums up the type of day dress that was popular in the mid-1850s.