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: