Costume and Fancy Dress in the 1880s

Costume and Fancy Dress in the 1880s

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 Ballsfrom 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:

Plate XVI, Figs. 53 and 54

Interestingly, a witch is given the same costume as the following: Mother Hubbard, Mother Bunch, Mother Shipton, Nance Redfern, Dame Trot, Enchantress, and a Fairy Godmother. Apparently these are all very similar costumes. They wear:

“a quilted petticoat touching the ground; a chintz tunic open in front, bunched up; muslin apron; low velvet bodice with deep point, laced across the front; sleeves to the elbow with ruffles; muslin kerchief, close ruff; spectacles, mittens, and a stick; a lace cap, and a high-pointed velvet sugar-loaf hat with peacock’s feather over it; high-heeled shoes with rosettes; a small white dog; the hair powdered or not.” p 44

More specifically in a witchy direction:

“Dame Trot wears pointed hat[sic] not so high. Nance Redfern and Mother Shipton, being witches, carry a broom, and on the skirt are toads, cats, serpents, curlews, frogs, bats, and lizards in black velvet; a serpent twisted round the crown of hat, an owl in front, a black cat on shoulder. Sometimes a scarlet cloak is attached to the shoulders, and the velvet bodice is high with pendant sleeves.” p44

Sounds like a glamorous take on a witch considering all the velvet involved! This would have been a suitable way for a lady of some means to present a luxurious version of an otherwise unattractive form.

The “White Lady,” in Figure 64 above, refers to the “White Lady of Avanel.” Not sure how to dress quite like that? The author recommends:

“a long dress of some soft white material, crêpe, tarlatan, or tulle, one skirt over another; the low full bodice drawn with a string at the neck, without tucker; shoulder-straps with wing-like sleeves at the back, falling on skirt; flowing veil; the hair loose, an old-fashioned bodkin or hairpin thrust through it; a gold girdle confines the waist.” p 94

For comparison, below is an example of the White Lady in marble. This statue was made about 20 years before this book was published, but I think you can see how this costume in the book was interpreted to account for a more socially acceptable version. The White Lady is a ghost. She doesn’t seem to be associated with any one particular story or person (it is difficult to find any conclusive information on this). In this case however, she represents the recurring white lady ghost of Avanel.

Joseph Mozier, The White Lady of Avenel, 1866, Wmpearl [CC0]


Undine and Venetian.png
Plate XV, Figs. 57 and 58


Or maybe you pictured yourself dressing up as someone less scary this year, like “Undine” or a “Venetian”? Great, here’s how:

Undine is a type of “Water Nymph” (also listed with a Mermaid,  Lorelei, and similar type water creature costumes). This is comprised of a “dress of frosted tulle, or silvered tulle over green, looped up with seaweed, coral, shells, crystal, and aquatic flowers,  for the salt-water nymphs; water-lilies and grasses for those who rule o’er lakes and rivers, such as Undine and Lurline. A veil of tulle to match the dress hangs over the hair, which should be covered with frosting powder, and be allowed to float about the shoulders. A cuirass bodice of silver gauze, the tunic silver gauze, is a good rendering of the character.” p 92

It is easy to see, in an era like the 1880s when adding ribbons, bows, and all kinds of haberdashery to ones skirts, how appealing a costume like “Undine” would be. All kinds of sea related materials could be attached to the skirts, which were already quite large in this period (and provided quite the canvas).

Or for someone interested in a costume with a more realistic historical representation, there’s also a “Venetian.” According to the author, in 1874, the Princess of Wales dressed as a Venetian wearing:

“train and bodice of white and gold brocade, with long open sleeves hanging from the shoulders, finished off with gold fringe, over tight sleeves of crimson satin, embroidered with pearls and gold; crimson satin petticoat, worked in gold; gold girdle and pouch; ruff and white and gold gauze veil. Brocade, satin, and velvet, embroidered in gold, were the materials most used for petticoat and dress; white and black gauze for veils; fine lawn and reticella for ruffs.” p 88-89

As this author aims for accuracy, this costume has an especially detailed amount of information. Holt continues:

The hair was arranged in small curls and puffs about the forehead, and formed a knot at the back of the head, as a support for the veil. The fan was made of ostrich-feathers, suspended from the girdle by a chain of gold or silver. The most usual make of Venetian dresses was a full all-around skirt, long stiff pointed bodice, cut as a high square, with a ruff coming from the back of the shoulders; sleeves to wrist, with cuffs turning upwards, and either a puff at the top or a frill of pointed lace turning upwards from the shoulder-point; a jeweled girdle, the front of the bodice jeweled.” p 89

Based on paintings I’ve seen, this seems pretty close to what a Venetian woman would have actually looked like! The author also mentions Titian’s paintings of Venetian women as a reference point, so that both reassures me that this is not strictly an idealized version of the costume, but also means this look likely corresponds to 16th century version of Venetian dress (during Titian’s lifetime).

Paolo Veronese, Portrait of a Venetian Woman (La Belle Nani), ca. 1560, [Public Domain]

Last but not least is a costume that remains a classic today: a cat! Specifically here, a White Cat.


White Cat.png
Plate XVI, Fig. 61


A little different than you might see this Halloween evening, for a white cat in 1880, wear as follows:

“short white silk or satin skirt, edged with several rows of white fur or swansdown; low square jacket bodice, similarly trimmed at the back; from the shoulders hangs a loose white fur mantle; head-dress, a cap of white fur, like a cat’s head, with ears and red bead eyes. Round the neck either a red collar and bells, or a red collar with the words ‘Touch not the cat but with the glove.’ It is optional whether the hair be powdered, but it looks better. High white satin boots bordered with fur; gloves to match.” p 94

Undoubtedly these versions of costumes from the 1880s are much different than those of the 21st century, but a love of “fancy dress” and masquerading persists today. Just as it was a way for people to express themselves in a playful manner in the 19th century, it still gives us an opportunity today to don the look of someone or something else for an evening of fun. And who knows? Maybe next year you’ll find yourself in a swansdown trimmed cat costume!


-Danielle Morrin

Holt, Adern.  Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls. 2nd ed. London: Debenham & Freebody, 1880.


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