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1870s Gray and Pink Bustle

Imagine yourself walking on a crisp, breezy day, with a modest dolman to protect you from the weather. You’re on your way to a social event, and when you enter, you shed the outerwear to reveal an elegant matching ensemble. This is a high-status event, and you refuse to be underdressed. The elegant silk ensemble above was intended for exactly this purpose.  Likely to have been a wealthy woman’s outfit in the mid to late 1870s, the ensemble consists of a bodice, a skirt, and a matching dolman. The dress itself, with elbow-length sleeves, a lower square neckline, and intricate adornments, was likely an evening dress or dinner dress, but the matching dolman transforms the outfit to possibly a more modest day dress or walking suit. 

The ensemble is consistent with the opulence and extravagance of the Gilded Age; however, it more specifically dates from the 1873-1878 recession, a time of great economic stress. Considering the precarious financial status of the country at the time, this outfit is especially high in value. The high quality of the silk fabric, the elaborate ornamentation, and the presence of a matching dolman reveal its expensive nature. The small details are another indicator of the garment's high value. Notice the precision of the pleating on the skirt, cuffs, and collar, the intricately crocheted buttons, and the matching tassels and ribbons adorning the gown. Overall, this ensemble is an elegant, and sophisticated status symbol, showcasing wealth and stability in an uncertain time.

Upon close inspection, this dress is rather traditional and conservative, displaying modesty and respectability. The colors are soft and muted, probably a conservative reaction to the prevalence of ostentatious synthetic aniline dyes, which were increasingly common in the 1860s and 1870s. Subtle colors were thought to indicate “the ideal of propriety or ‘harmony’ in female dress” (Nicklas 218), whereas bright colors were “repugnant to those tastemakers that valued colour harmony of subtle hues” (Nicklas 225). The fabric is a silk twill weave, stiff in its movement, mirroring the firm silhouette of the dress. All of this emphasizes modesty, moderation, and above all, feminine respectability. However, despite its conservative elements, it is still very much a dress of its time. Notice the asymmetrical draping in the front of the skirt, a fashionable design element in the 1870s. The straight silhouette and square neckline were also in vogue at the time. This garment is a collection of oppositions: trendy but conservative, extravagant yet modest, rigid yet demure, a perfect encapsulation of the complex and contradictory world of Victorian fashion.

- Camilla Meeker '22