Woman's Dress, 1872

Woman's Dress, 1872

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This eye-popping printed cotton sateen overdress, which was made in an eighteenth-century revival “Polonaise” style with a skirt that was swagged up into three poufs, was called a “Dolly Varden” in the spring of 1872 when it was all the rage. The gown was worn by an unidentified relative of Walter Rupert Tuckerman and Edith Abercrombie-Miller Tuckerman. Walter’s mother Florence Harding Fenno (1848-1887), the daughter of a Boston wool importer, was a member of an early Massachusetts family. Edith’s mother Alice Townsend (1854-1921) was the daughter of a prosperous dry-goods merchant and civic leader in Brooklyn, New York. Either of these young women would have been just the right age to have worn such a dress in the early 1870s.
The colorful history of the Dolly Varden style offers an unrivalled example of the relationship between fashion creation, popular culture, and consumerism. In the early 1870s, the stylish silhouette required an hour-glass figure with the skirt fullness draped over the sides and back of the hips to form a bustle. The resulting shape bore an unmistakable resemblance to the looped-up Polonaise skirts of the 1770s and 1780s. Upon noticing this, dressmakers drew inspiration from eighteenth-century fashion for other details of fabric, sleeve length, and neck treatments. The French made their rococo-revival overdresses of flowered silk and dubbed them “Pompadour” after Louis XV’s court favorite. Instead, the English chose to call their version of the style after a home-grown heroine named Dolly Varden. The flirtatious Dolly was a central character in Charles Dickens’s 1841 historical novel Barnaby Rudge, which was set between 1775 and 1780.
Dickens himself didn’t offer an elaborate description of Dolly’s clothing, mentioning only her little cherry-colored mantle, beribboned hat, muff, and "heartrending" shoes.
It was Dickens's illustrator Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne) who filled in the details when the book first appeared, most famously in Chapter XXI when he drew her wearing a flowered gown with its skirt pulled up in puffs over a quilted petticoat. British women cut their Dolly Varden dresses accordingly, from fabrics that were printed with oversized flowers. Possibly in honor of Dolly's humble origins (her father was a locksmith), they chose relatively inexpensive cottons such as cretonne, sateen, chintz, and calico. These cotton textiles were a popular fashion choice because they made the style widely affordable. In fact, one of the selling points for the style was that it could be worn over the skirt of an older, less stylish dress, thus making it more economical.
On this side of the Atlantic, consumers followed the new style for the spring of 1872 avidly, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the fabric at a store near them. American journalists described Dolly Varden and her namesake dress. Harper’s Bazar linked the fashion to the impending American Centennial, reminding readers that their Founding Mothers had dressed in just the same way. A spate of Dolly Varden sheet music appeared with up-to-date portraits of Dolly on the covers. Dolly was, in the words the prolific American song-writer Sep Winner, "an example for most any one." Dolly was the rage.
But Dolly didn't remain the rage for long. In the minds of status-conscious urban nineteenth-century trend-setters, any style that depended on inexpensive goods was inevitably cheap, common, and doomed. One critic of the Dolly Varden dress announced that it appeared "as if the bed-room curtains had been made to do double duty" and even the love-interest in a song confessed, “Sir it’s out of Ma’s bed quilt I’ve made a Dolly Varden." By the middle of the summer of 1872, general embarrassment had given the Dolly Varden dress the dubious distinction of being one of the shortest fads in American clothing history.
This fitted overdress with flowing drapery down the back is made of heavy, off-white cotton sateen printed with red, pink, purple and brown flowers and green, turquoise, and gray foliage. It is shown here with the skirt from another dress of about the same date. The deep V-neck of the dress is surrounded by ruffles. Three-quarter length sleeves of two-part construction are trimmed at the elbow with a self ruffle and machine-made net edged with wide machine-made lace. Six self-covered buttons on the left side and six worked buttonholes on the right side extend from the base of the neckline to a point just below the waist. The center front edges curve outward below the waist to expose the skirt. The dress back appears to hang loosely from the shoulders, but its lining is actually fitted closely to the body. A triple box-pleat at the center back of the dress is stitched down inside from the neck to the waist, where the pleats are released. The back skirt is caught up at intervals and tacked to the dress to form a polonaise effect.
The dress is made from three panels of fabric that extend from the shoulders to the hem of the skirt. There is no waist seam. Each of the two front panels includes sections for the bodice front, underarm, and side back portions that have been shaped above the skirt by means of double-ended darts and upper body seams. The third panel makes up the box-pleated drapery of the bodice back and skirt. The sleeves are fully lined and the bodice is lined to the hips with brown twilled cotton. The bodice lining is cut in eight pieces and has eleven long baleen bones sewn along every dart and vertical seam of the torso. The skirt is unlined. An inside belt made of the lining fabric fastens at center front with hook and eye. This belt holds the dress in place on the body but because it is attached under the bodice, it cannot be seen. The buttons are flat discs which are self-covered and sewn on without shanks.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Dress, 1-Piece
Object Type
Main Dress
Entire Body
Other Terms
Dress, 1-Piece; Entire Body; Main Dress; Female
Date made
1880 - 1884
date made
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Mrs. E. Tuckerman Biays, Mrs. Draper L. Kauffman, Mrs. Robert G. Metters, Mrs. Willard Triest, and Mrs. Robert H. Williams
See more items in
Cultural and Community Life: Costume
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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