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pages 18-19 pages 22-23 

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English or American, mid-1880s

Dress played a key role in the highly codified social etiquette that governed middle- and upper-class women's lives in the nineteenth century. Fashion periodicals illustrate and describe in detail the wide range of ensembles appropriate to a specific season, time and place. Depictions of morning, afternoon, visiting, promenade, reception, carriage, sea-side, dinner, and ball dress convey the frequent changes of clothing demanded by an adherence to proper sartorial strictures for women of leisure as well as the complex nuances of fashionable display.

From the mid-century, the rise in tourism and women's growing participation in outdoor physical activities required yet more specialized toilettes. However, clothes worn for walking, skating, yachting, and tennis, among other pursuits, all followed the fashionable silhouette, limiting overly strenuous—and by definition—unladylike exertion. Perhaps worn for a gentle round of croquet or simply strolling in the grounds of one of the increasingly popular “watering places,” this dynamically patterned summer day dress surely made an eye-catching appearance.

In the late nineteenth century, women had access on a seasonal basis to an enormous variety of mass-produced printed dress cottons. Characteristic of the mid-1880s is this bold and somewhat whimsical design. Tiny white irregular shapes, graduated in size, fill the upper part of the black polka dots, set against a sheer white self-striped ground. Presented in vertical lines, they suggest rows of bubbles streaming upward. Seen through the transparent layer of the overskirt, the dots on the underskirt give the impression of shadows.

Uncomplicated in its overall construction, the three-piece dress shows off the graphic pattern to advantage. The front and back of the jacket bodice are lightly pleated from shoulder to hem, bringing the rows of dots close together—in contrast to their wide spacing on the sleeves and skirts. The overskirt reveals the judicious use of fabric often seen during the period. Probably cut from the same length, the right side gore is placed upside down while the left side gore is turned to the reverse side. Due to the regularity of the design and the sheerness of the cotton, this clever economy is not readily apparent. Small black faceted glass buttons that form the center front closure and scallop-edged lace trimming add dainty finishing touches.

According to The New York Fashion Bazar of July 1883, “printed mulls are among the latest novelties.” This soft, flowing dress with its airy pattern would have made a perfect ensemble for “the month of…intense heat, and diaphanous fashion.”


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