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Fancy Dress in the Victorian Era
An OverviewThe custom of wearing a costume or disguise of some sort to celebrate special occasions has long been a part of cultures throughout the world. In 17th century Italy, the tradition of wearing masks and elaborate costumes during carnival was a direct influence upon the 18th century European craze for masquerades. The licentious behavior so often a part of the masquerade caused them to fall out of favor by the beginning of the 19th century. Masks were discarded, and the emphasis upon costume of an 'elevated' nature developed into the Fancy Dress balls of the Victorian age. During the 1820s and 1830s, costumes depicting popular characters of romantic poetry and fiction were all the rage. Fanciful representations of 'foreign peoples' were also popular, and few were the Fancy Dress parties that didn't have their Circassian slave or Great Turk.
Queen Victoria herself was quite fond of fancy dress and her personal interest in British history and desire for authenticity resulted in the popularity of historical characters and historical themes for Fancy Dress balls during much of the 19th century. By the mid nineteenth century, fancy dress parties were held for almost any occasion, both private and public. The opening of a new bridge; a civic holiday; a daughter's coming out - Fancy Dress was the theme of choice.
The majority of costumes continued to be based upon historical styles, which were thought to be in better taste than exotic or humorous ones. The period now most favored was the eighteenth century, although costumes taken from literature such as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet or characters from Dickens novels or Tennyson's poems made their appearance. Many young ladies chose to go dressed as peasant girls 'from countries where the poor dress picturesquely', as such costumes could be colorful and piquant, offering excellent opportunities for displaying their charms.
Another popular choice for ladies at the fancy dress ball, and a type that had appeared only rarely before, was the emblematic or allegorical costume. At one event no less than twenty-two ladies chose to go dressed as Night, and in addition, 'Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring, Snow, The Last Rose of Summer, Morning, Undine, Harvest, Ceres - the possibilities were only limited by the imagination of the designer. Ladies were probably encouraged to choose costumes like these by their dressmakers, as they could be based upon the most fashionable evening dress and the resulting creation could easily be altered once the ball was over for the wearer's regular wardrobe.
Ideas for costumes for the fancy dress balls of the 1860s seem to have been gleaned from a wide variety of sources and any book or collection of prints was eagerly utilized. Women's magazines such as Godeys Ladies Book regularly published illustrations of fancy costumes, with descriptions of materials and accessories. Prints of actors and actresses in 'period' or peasant costume from popular plays or ballets were another source of inspiration, as were illustrations of native costumes. The epithet 'very correct' was used as a term of high praise in descriptions of fancy dress of this period, and complete authenticity was aimed at by people wearing various types of native dress, which began to return to fashion for fancy dress balls n the 1870s.
Ideas for Fancy DressOne of the most popular and enduring items of clothing for Fancy Dress was the Italian domino, a voluminous cloak. When fastened, a domino completely covered the wearer to the ankles, obscuring whatever might be worn underneath. While most ladies preferred to wear a costume of some sorts, men would often choose to wear their regular evening clothes, simply covering them with a domino as a gesture towards fancy dress. Dominos were usually made of silk and often hooded. The most common colors were red or black for men, white, red, or blue for ladies. Ladies would often have their dominos made to match the costume underneath, although by the mid nineteenth century, the domino was beginning to fall out of favor.
Allegorical costumes, which enjoyed quite a vogue during the 1860s were often nothing more than a few stars or flowers sprinkled upon an evening dress and given an exalted name. Some allegorical costumes, like the one pictured below, were extremely elaborate and made specifically for that one occasion. As you can see from the illustration, costume was also often used as an excuse to expose more than merely a lady's cleverness and many were the ankles that saw the light of day during a fancy dress ball. The majority of ladies, however, chose to base their costumes upon gowns which could be worn again at other occasions with little alteration beyond the removal or addition of different trimmings and decorations.
Historical or literary costumes continued in popularity throughout the entire nineteenth century. Although the desire was always for authenticity, historic costume invariably reflected the fashionable line of the day, as seen in the sketch done by Queen Victoria of a trio of costumes worn by herself, Prince Albert and Prince Charles for a Restoration ball they hosted. A gentleman from the court of Louis XIV would not be wearing a mustache, nor would a lady of the time have on a dome-shaped skirt!
Peasant dress, especially when exaggerating the picturesque, was also popular, so long as the depiction of foreign costume was presented within a 19th century format. From an engraved fashion plate from 1861, we see three children dressed in a Victorian version of the Russian sarafan, as Harlequinette, and as a Bulgarian native. Despite claims of authenticity, these children are wearing clothing far more in keeping with the standard styles of the times than those of the countries that they depict.
The fascination with the lifestyles of the lower classes also was a source of inspiration. In the1840 illustration here, we see two guests at a fancy dress ball giving alms to a poor woman. The man on the left is supposedly dressed as a stevedore - complete with flowers in his hat and a wide ribbon sash at his waist! The young woman is wearing a costume that most likely represents some abstract concept, but witness the display of calf and ankle! Even more daring is the lady seen through the doorway wearing a woman's fancy dress version of a longshoreman's costume, while the gentleman she is dancing with apparently is dressed as a native - complete with tailcoat and tomahawk.
For Our Own 'Autumn Antics'Those of you who are planning to attend our Fancy Dress party would be wise to let your inventiveness be your guide instead of your pocketbook. Although the St. Paul of 1860 was a prosperous town with a population in excess of 10,000, its society was (for the most part) less affluent than those of many major cities in the East. Because of this, it would have been unlikely that the ladies and gentlemen attending such an event would have an elaborate costume made specifically for that party.
Allegorical costume can be easily done by carefully assessing your evening clothes and deciding what embellishments would be needed to alter them to fit the chosen theme. For example, a lady with a deep blue gown could, by the attachment of some silver paper stars, declare herself 'The Evening Sky'. Or, if she prefers the piscine, could fashion a tiara of seashells and declare herself 'A Sea Nymph'.
For the more historically minded, a wreath of laurel in the hair and a drape of cloth over one shoulder could be the beginnings of a new Ceasar. Or perhaps someone more recent, such as Ben Franklin, complete with kite and key? Then again, there was a reason that the domino continued to be a dominant fashion for Fancy Dress - there's something so simple about throwing on a light cloak to conceal one's regular clothes and claim to be what one is not.
Whatever your interpretation of 'fancy dress', we ask nothing more than that you make a gesture of compliance - everyone's participation will heighten everyone's enjoyment of the event!
"Images and text courtesy of A. Jarvis, P. Raine 'Fancy Dress', Shire Publications."
Copyright 2002 Living History Society of Minnesota. All rights reserved.