This light pinky peach dress covered in ruched bows and with full crinoline-supported skirt epitomizes the early 1860s ball gown. With delicate detailing and a simple color palette this garment is sophisticated yet effortless–perfectly in line with the fashions of the day.
About the Look
This 1860 evening dress is made in a delicate pink silk. There are details in a brighter shade of pink–perhaps suggesting there has been some fading overall. The bodice of this dress with its wide bertha collar sits off the shoulders and covers the top half of the arm (Fig. 1). The boned bodice forms a deep V extending down the front and overlaying on the separate skirt. Simple pink bows are strung together in 3 rows along the bust area as well as on the skirt in swags to give the dress some texture (Fig. 2). The bow lines are also accented with larger silk bows that are edged in lace (Fig. 3). The skirt shape is round and widens on the sides, giving the hips some volume, but the crinoline cage is slightly fuller in the back (Fig. 4), foreshadowing the flat-fronted crinolines later in the decade and making this dress rather fashion-forward in its silhouette.
About the context
As mentioned above, the shape of the skirt here begins to anticipate the flat-fronted crinolines of the later 1860s, compared to the very round bell-shaped skirts then typically worn (Fig. 5). In The History of Modern Fashion (2015), Daniel Cole and Nancy Deihl explain that:
“By the mid-1860s some fashionable women gave up the crinoline, possibly because it was now mass-produced and no longer the latest word in fashion. Other women wore new shapes of crinoline, as it moved toward the back and became smaller, and some examples arched a bit over the buttocks.” (26)
Although the dress still uses a crinoline, it is not the bell shape that was being mass-produced and sold in department stores (and seen in American fashion magazines like Peterson’s). It resembles the smaller silhouette seen in leading French fashion magazines like Le Follet in 1861 (Fig. 6).
Evening dresses of the day can be identified by the low neckline and the short sleeves (Fig. 7). Fashion historian Harper Franklin discusses 1860s eveningwear fashions on the Fashion History Timeline, writing that:
“In the evening, the neckline of dresses dropped off-the-shoulder and could be straight or en coeur (dipped in the center). The neckline was often trimmed with a bertha, a folded band of fabric, usually pleated silk or a fine lace. Sleeves were very short, sometimes mere straps across the shoulders.” (Franklin cites Tortora, 365)
As we see in the bodice of the evening dress, the off-the-shoulder neckline exposes the collarbone and shoulders while covering just the top part of the arms. There are many details including bows across the neckline as well as some lace accents on the bottom of the sleeves, as was commonly seen at the time.
In fashion magazines, evening dress fashion was a popular topic. There were many ways that designers interpreted the trends but silk, lace, detailing, off-the-shoulder necklines, and short sleeves were highlighted. In Godey’s Lady’s Book, February 1860, the pink dress (Fig. 8), second from the left, is described:
“Evening-dress of sore-colored silk; the lower skirt trimmed with four straight flounces, or single folds of the silk, edged by a shell rouche of the same; the upper skirt has corresponding volantes arranged as a tunic to the right; low pointed corsage, with Grecian folds, trimmed by a flounce and heading of lace, the fall is crossed at the bouquet de corsage, and is continued in graceful lapels.” (123).
While they share the same low pointed bodice shape, the dresses feature plain ruching and floral detailing rather than bows as accents. In fact the peachy pink evening gown most resembles a dress in an 1855 La Moniteur de la mode fashion plate (Fig. 9). Like our dress, there is a monochromatic bow motif throughout. Larger bows are seen draped across the skirt while smaller bows accent the off-the-shoulder collar. However, the added bows, lace and ruching aren’t overpowering due to the same fabric that is used. It’s possible the designer or the client who commissioned the peachy pink dress had conservative taste and continued to like bow-accented swags that had been popular several years earlier.
France was seen as the fashion mecca at the time, which made it the capital for trend setting. A comparable evening dress from England (Fig. 10), although the color was different, shows the influence of France on other countries. The French dress used a light pink color, while the British dress employed a taupe silk; however, they are similar in the sleeve style, skirt shape, and pointed bodice style.
French evening gowns often featured quite elaborate decorations, making our dress and the British example appear rather plain in comparison. The extensive detailing on a pink evening dress from the Petit Courrier des dames (Fig. 11), for example, represents a jaw-dropping amount of work, with applied lace, artificial flowers and what appears to be floral quilting down the front of the skirt. The societal standards for these dresses nonetheless seem to be similar and very luxurious, as ball gowns like these were only worn by the wealthy.
It’s a testament to how little evening dress styles changed in the early 1860s that an 1865 La Mode illustrée fashion drawing features a similar pointed bodice and swags of floral decoration across the lower half of the skirt similar to that seen in our evening dress.
- Cole, Daniel James and Nancy Deihl. “1850-1890: The Dawn of Modern Clothing.” In The History of Modern Fashion from 1850, 13–53. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2015. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/935213653
- “Dress”. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed March 28, 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/107767
- “Fashions for February 1860”. Godey’s Lady’s Book, Accessed March 28, 2020. http://www.vintagevictorian.com/costume_1860_det.html#plate7
- Franklin, Harper. “1860-1869.” Fashion History Timeline, December 27, 2019. https://fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu/1860-1869/. Franklin cites Tortora, Phyllis G. and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume, 5th ed. New York: Fairchild Books, 2010. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/865480300