This afternoon dress, though not extravagant compared to some of the elaborately decorated gowns of 1874, proves to still be en vogue due to its bustled silhouette, tight-fitting bodice with an elongated waist, and decorated high neckline.
About the Look
This 1874 afternoon dress of a vibrant midnight blue silk showcases a full skirt that falls straight in the front and comes out at a right angle in the bustled back (Fig. 1). The fitted basque or cuirass-like bodice remains figure-hugging past the natural waist until hip level and is concluded with narrow yellow piping. From underneath the bodice’s small lapels, yellow pleated panels, stretching from center front to the princess seams, reach until bust level. Hanging tassels and fringe–both bullion braided and traditional–finish off the buttermilk-colored panels, mixing in an array of pale yellow, baby blue, and midnight blue (Fig. 2). The garment’s proper high neck features a layer of ruffled cream-colored tulle, which peeks out in an elegant fashion. Beneath the ruffle, the same piping used at the lapels, base of the sleeves, and base of the bodice lines the neckline, which is closed up to the throat by buttons in baby blue and midnight blue (Fig. 2). The bodice is tied off with a yellow and blue fringed neck scarf tied in an elaborate, slightly off-center knot. The dress’s tight-fitting sleeves are treated in an equally elaborate fashion, decorated with baby blue buttons, yellow bows, fringe, and tassels (Fig. 3). The sleeves are concluded with ruffles piped in yellow, and a layer of the same cream tulle peeks out from underneath (Fig. 3). The back of the bodice is flared out almost horizontally due to the dress’s large bustle (Fig. 1), and pointed pockets on the back princess seams composed of accent yellow silk add interest to the otherwise plain rear view (Figs. 4-5). The dress showcases a relatively unadorned skirt, except for the interesting detail of the blue and yellow diagonal tucks bordering the base of the garment (Fig. 6).
Afternoon Dress, 1874. Silk. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978.477.4a, b. Gift of Jessie Leonard Hill, Charles R. Leonard, Jr., and Laura Leonard Ault, 1978. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
About the context
In accordance with the transition from frilly, crinoline gowns to simpler adornments and bustled silhouettes, this brilliant blue afternoon dress would have been fairly fashionable in its day. Like the woman who once wore this dress, Renoir was enthralled by the vibrant colors that were fashionable in womenswear at the time, as he portrays a beautiful, if conservative, Parisienne (Fig. 9) wearing a gown in a matching shade to the afternoon dress. Looking further than the common color of the dresses, an 1874 silk dress in the Met’s collection (Fig. 10) shares a similar silhouette to the dress in discussion, as both garments have tailored bodices, decorative high necklines, and skirts drawn to lay flat in the front and bustled in the back. In these similarities, one can glean that the wearer of the afternoon dress was a woman of respectable character who kept up well with the trends of the time and was as elegantly modest as Renoir’s Parisienne.
In like manner, figure 10 showcases the back view of a dress nearly identical to the one being discussed, as both garments are dyed to achieve an eye-catching blue and are fitted in cuirass fashion using princess seams. The long, slightly trained, and relatively unadorned skirts of figure 10 and the afternoon dress are remarkably similar, yet each wearer could show off her individual style through the use of trimmings. According to Godey’s Lady’s Book from 1874, dresses that were en vogue were:
“made with a skirt perfectly flat in front and at the sides… the back part of the skirt, trained and very ample, is all gathered or plaited within a space of eight inches. The front of the dress is fully trimmed, but the back remains quite plain, and flowing naturally” (102).
Thus, it seems evident that the wearer of the afternoon dress would have been quite stylish and tasteful in her relative abstinence from excessive adornment on the rear of her skirt. Proving equally fashionable, an 1874 fashion plate in Le Monde elegant (Fig. 11) features a brown and blue dress that has the same plain skirt as the afternoon dress. Both garments have little detail in their skirts, allowing the slight trains to make a statement as opposed to flounces and frills. Moreover, the dress depicted in figure 11 possesses paneling details in the same bold shade as the afternoon dress, further exhibiting the popularity of this color during 1874.
In regards to silhouette, the bodice of the garment is fitted past the natural waist, nearly coming to the hips in cuirass fashion. Figure 12 showcases a silk and cotton afternoon dress that is identical in its armor-like, extremely fitted bodice and straight sleeves with tulle peeking out from the cuffs. Additionally, one can easily compare the afternoon dress and figure 12 in their elaborate treatment of the center front and use of tassel trim. This style of silhouette was fashionable for the time, as attested to in a statement from Godey’s Lady’s Book from 1874:
“The bodice, which is cut in princess fashion at the back, forms a small peaked gilet in front, fastened with nacre buttons. The demi wide sleeves have frills to match, and the bodice is finished around the throat with a ruche” (102).
The afternoon dress fulfills all these requirements of what was considered fashionable, proving it to be the epitome of style for the respectable Parisienne of 1874. Though relatively plain, the garment does feature some adornments, such as fringe and piping. Figure 13 displays the use of piping in the same way as the afternoon dress to border the hem of the bodice, neckline, and sleeves.
Additionally, both garments feature a uniquely pleated ribbon or strip of fabric that circles the entire hemline of the skirt. This detail seems a bit unusual, though that would have added to the respectability of the wearer as a true Parisienne, as she adhered to the popular fashions in her afternoon dress but incorporated her own creative tastes in the decoration. Also regarding trimmings, the afternoon dress features dramatic bullion braided fringe on the center front section of the bodice, similar to the adornments used on the gown in figure 14, which was created by the very popular Parisian designer, Emile Pingat. The similarities between the two dresses in regards to color, silhouette, and trimming lead one to believe that the afternoon dress was fashionable, especially if a designer like Pingat used such details in his own designs.
Peterson’s Magazine from 1874 discussed tasteful decorations for garments, writing that “trimmings are fringe, ribbon, and lace. Handsome buttons are also introduced and narrow pipings are laid” (223). The afternoon dress features blue buttons running down the center front as well as fringe and pale yellow piping, proving the garment’s fashionableness once again. Figure 15 utilizes these elements in a strikingly similar way to the afternoon dress, as an examination of the treatment of the sleeves seems nearly identical to the triangular decorative pockets on the back of the afternoon dress. Similarly, figure 15 and the afternoon dress both have lengthened back bodice panels, which stick out over the bustles, enlarging the fashionable silhouette even more so. Both garments have narrow piping in contrasting colors as well. Altogether, the afternoon dress at hand was most likely very fashionable for the time, but not so much as to arouse suspicion of the wearer’s moral character. Despite possessing some unique decorative elements, a garment like this afternoon dress would have been suitably stylish as long as the general silhouette was en vogue. According to Peterson’s Magazine of 1874:
“Fashion is lenient; almost any style of costume may be adopted that suits the style of the wearer, if only a few rules are observed: one is that the dress must fall flat, close in front; another, that a ruffle in the same shape must be worn at the neck, and that the waist is worn longer than last year and generally square at the back…” (307)
The afternoon dress fulfills these basic requirements, thus this garment is clearly appropriate for the fashionable lady of 1874.