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:
A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty by Mimi Matthews covers the course of women’s fashion and beauty changes from the 1840s through the 1890s, basically the length of Queen Victoria’s reign and influence. The book speaks to a lot of what initially drew me into researching the period of 1880-1930 in terms of the dramatic changes from restrictive, complex clothing and social customs to riding bicycles and wearing looser, linear garments without even a corset for shaping (or at least without the appearance of one).
I like the opening dichotomy of the book, “Though a young and eventually transformative queen had ascended the British throne in 1837, ordinary women of the 1840s had very little freedom of their own” (Matthews, 3). This would largely remain true throughout the reign of Queen Victoria. Women at this time anticipated that they would need assistance just to put on their clothing (which is why the closures were typically in the back) let alone doing much of anything on their own without a chaperone.
Little Ladies proved to be a hidden gem (and also more closely in line with the FFF timeline). Although most of the pieces date around the 1870s, many of the ideals and pieces themselves would have still been relevant and used in the 1880s, the beginning of the FFF area of study, though some of the silhouettes would have changed.
The exhibit makes the point that these dolls were instructional in the sense that they provided young girls with what to expect in marriage and coming years. Beautifully ornate and detailed, the dolls provided a counterpart to written materials on how a lady should act, what she should wear during very specific times of day (down to the handkerchief placed in her pocket and the bustle under her skirt), and the realms in which she should primarily occupy herself.
Arthur Schopenhauer was born in Danzig (part of modern-day Poland) in 1788. His philosophical works were widely read throughout the 19th century. Though he died in 1860, about 20 years before the time of our Femme, she would likely have been aware of his publications, or at least her parents would have been, as they were still widely read post-1860. In one of his essays on women he writes: