1850s Fan Front Dress in Orange Printed Cotton Voile

People are fond of thinking that only drab colors were worn in the 19th century – I am sure this is unconsciously perpetuated by the fact that only black and white photos of the time period exists. If you examine the examples of surviving clothing, there are more than a few examples of brightly colored dresses. I modeled this dress partially on a dress in the First Ladies of The Smithsonian collection in the early 1980’s. The exhibit has since been updated the dress in question is not part of the current exhibit, but it belonged to Betty Bliss, daughter of President Zachary Taylor, who presided as hostess during his administration. I was able to find a photo of the display:

Betty Bliss's dress is the third from the right, light green with ruffles.

Betty Bliss’s dress is the third from the right, light green with ruffles.

I still have the booklet we purchased when we visited the exhibit. It was one of those AH HA! moment

s in life when I found something I was really passionate about.

The dress is made of orange voile (a very thin cotton) and coordinating voile print. The three tired skirt has border print ruffles. The bodice is made in the “fan front” style that was common at the time – the bodice is gathered tightly at the bottom and “fans” out toward the shoulders. It has pagoda sleeves – white undersleeves were worn under these wide sleeves.

This dress acquired the nickname “The Dress From Hell” because it was on of those projects where everything seemed to go wrong! I found the fabric at a local fabric store and bought every bit of it they had, but still came up short on the ruffles. So I kept having to subtract fabric from one ruffle to add to one of the others.