Halloween and costume were on my mind for research this month as I stumbled upon this book, Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls, from 1880, by Adern Holt. “Fancy dress” was another name for costume or masquerade dress, and same for “fancy balls” as another phrase for costume balls. Fancy balls were an important part of society life in the 1880s as it was an opportunity for the well-to-do to enjoy their wealth in a playful manner and allowed some bending of the inherent fashion guidelines (while never straying too far into impropriety). Granted, these are certainly not specific to Halloween, and were more likely than not worn at other times of the year for the pure pleasure of costume dress at a social event unrelated to a specific holiday. All the same, I thought it would be fun to highlight some costumes from 1880 in contrast to the modern costumes in mind for those celebrating Halloween tonight!
Fashion history lovers will also appreciate the irony of the opening text where the author laments incorrect displays of historical dress. Too often popular media, films, etc. will produce a version of historical dress that viewers expect versus the historical reality — a modernized version that is more appealing. This author from 1880 aims to dispel any misguided ideas about “favourite” historical costumes, as well as costumes that are most suitable for “fair women,” “elderly ladies,” and “sisters,” among other categories (he is nothing if not specific). Undoubtedly though, these costumes were still designed through the lens of someone living in in the late 19th century and the influence of the 1880s can still be seen in those designs.
Anyone dressing up up as a witch or a ghost tonight? You might consider these options:
This month I read Balloonmania Belles by Sharon Wright and am happy to say this was a great read! Much of the book falls within the FFF timeline of 1880-1930, although the book begins in 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers unleashed the first balloon carrying living beings (animals) into the air successfully in France.
The book follows the lives of Balloonmania’s earliest and most notable flying females. Each chapter is devoted to one or two main belles and their stories are interspersed within a broader historical context. I appreciated that this book was able to provide a lot of information on these ladies that is otherwise very difficult to procure, as there is no comprehensive guide that concentrates on female aeronautical pioneers. I wish the book included even more images of the women it describes, but in doing my own search, I know these are difficult to find if they exist at all.
This month is the US Open, and in celebration of the powerful females on the court today, I’d like to take a look back at the women who were playing at the turn of the century. We may look to Serena Williams now for fashionable inspiration as well as her incredible abilities on the court, but 100 years ago female players would typically wear a practical version of their usual day wear clothing.
The women below in this photo stylishly pose in their tennis gear, except that there is no discernible difference between how they dress themselves for the court and how they would dress themselves for day’s activities. The large leg-of-mutton sleeves are typical of the 1890’s silhouettes. The straw boater hats perched on top of their hair (which has been swept up into a top knot) was also a popular choice at this time and into the 1900s for any activity in the sun. Their long dark skirts that contrast the large, light-colored shirtwaists was a preferred look in the 1890s for any woman. The woman on the left wears a necktie and the woman on the right appears to have a bow tie with a starched shirt front. This would have been a slightly more masculine accessory choice, but one that was also very typical for that period. These women emulate what would have been called the New Woman at that time, meaning the kind of woman who was breaking away from a more traditional, home-bound role and was more independent and active – both in a physical and political sense. Still, this represented a large group of women at the time and this look would have been relatively common sight. In short, these women were able to wear their normal day wear clothing to also engage in physical activities like tennis. They are both stylish and mobile enough to play in their wide skirts.
When did nurses start wearing a uniform? What inspired their look? Have you ever wondered how the uniform for nurses developed? Okay, not many people have — but hopefully this post will pique your curiosity now!
Before nurses starting wearing scrubs in the 1980s, the uniform that began in the mid-1860s was relatively unchanged until about the 1940s.
Duyckinick, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America. New York: Johnson, Wilson & Company, 1873. [Public Domain]
Modern nursing is largely attributed to Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). She is credited for creating “modern” techniques and developing a certain look for the job. Her name sounds like something from a historic romance novel and her biography is equally worthy of a 19th century TV drama (there actually is a movie based on her life made in 1985). She was born into wealth and could have easily accepted a life of leisure, but decided to pursue an unlikely career as a nurse.
Annette Kellerman was ahead of her time for her physical abilities in the water, her belief in the need for women to maintain a healthy body, and importantly in fashion by her swimwear. She seemed to live in a different era, undeterred by the formalities and restrictions, (whether real or self-imposed) that prevented most women from doing the same. In fact, many of things she did would never have occurred to most women of the early 20th century.
Originally from Australia, Annette took her talents worldwide, breaking swimming and diving records, traveling to various theater stages in Europe and the United States, and eventually made Hollywood silent films that showcased her talents. Hollywood later revisited her incredibly life story, and Ester Williams would channel Annette in The Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).