Fashion Advice From The 1880s

In the course of researching various fashion topics, one often stumbles across interesting items that shed light on how people viewed the fashions of their time. With the development of mass media and the fashion press in particular, the volume of commentary sharply increased and it became a more prominent feature of mass culture. Below is just one small sample of what was out there so enjoy! ūüôā

As long as there has been fashion, there has been fashion advice to go along with it. People anxious to look fashionable, or at least avoid any fashion faux pas,¬†sought fashion advice from others and especially when they were not sure of themselves. With the growth of an affluent middle class during the late Nineteenth Century, fashion was becoming increasingly accessible to more people and with it grew the desire to mimic the upper classes in style and dress (along with the various social anxieties that came along with it). While advice from friends was still sought, people sought out other sources of fashion information and publications arose to meet this new market demand and this in turn created what we would term today the “fashion press.”

One good example of this new phenomena can be found in a passage from the November 1881 issue of Peterson’s Magazine¬†that addresses the issue of following fashions:

The beautiful in dress, should he an object of real interest to every woman. But this beauty is not to be sought by a blind following of fashion-plates. Of course, no woman can dress well, who goes against the prevailing style of her generation. The costume of the ancient Greeks, for example, was a very graceful one; but it is eminently unsuited for a climate like ours, or the modesty of Christian civilization. Hence, when Madame Tallien during the French Revolution, appeared, in a classic dress, with bare limbs, even the men of that day were shocked.

Theresa Tallien (July 31, 1773 – January 15, 1835)

No really lady-like woman wishes to appear odd in her dress; for, to appear odd in her dress; for to be singular, is to be talked of too much; and true modesty shrinks from this. But, in following the fashion of the day, there is room for judicious selection. One color suits one complexion: another color another. A bonnet that looks well on one woman, will not look well on another. Fortunately, there is always sufficient variety in the fashions, to allow of tasteful selection; and, when this fails, of adaptation.

The so-called “dress reformers” have always failed, because they make women look like frights. They act as one must be hideous, in order to be healthy, which is sheer nonsense. As the Philadelphia Times says, “pay the fullest respect to anatomy and physiology; but, in doing so, also pay respect to the eternal laws of beauty, and cultivate ‚Äėindividualism‚Äô in dress in accordance with artistic principles as distinguished from affectation.” First know what the fashions are, and then select what suits your own style. That is the true way to dress.

In many respects, the above advice still holds true today in that while people are urged to conform to fashion, they should not blindly follow what is depicted in fashion plates (or other, more modern media) but rather, they should cultivate a personal style that works for themselves as individuals. As noted above, what looks good on one person does not necessarily look good on another. Thus, the solution is to be informed about fashion (presumably by reading Peterson’s) and being able to make judicious selections. Also, looking “odd” in one’s dress is the ultimate faux pas and will result in one being talked about by their peers in an unfavorable manner (and by extension, failing socially).

However, it is also interesting in what is said in regard to reform dress: “they make women look like frights.” This was a decidedly ¬†mainstream opinion in 1881, to be sure. With today’s attitudes, the opinion in regard to reform dress and its somewhat rebellious stance towards mainstream fashion has shifted in the opposite direction.

William Powell Frith, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881. This seemingly innocuous picture was meant as a satiric stab at the dress reform movement and Oscar Wilde who is shown on the left wearing a top hat and lecturing to a group of admirers.

While today we pride ourselves in our individualisms and overthrowing “the tyranny of fashion,” the reality is that we tend to carve out an individual style within current fashion. Probably one of the best examples of this can be found with denim jeans- originally a sign of rebellion from mainstream conformity for many, today those same jeans have become mainstream and we follow right along. ūüôā¬†Ultimately, the best piece of advice and one that¬†has withstood the test of¬†time is “know what the fashions are, and then select what suits your own style” and that is hard to argue against.

Authenticity, Reenactorisms, And Fantasy- A Reconsideration

The subject of historical authenticity is a hot-button issue in recreating historical fashions and it seems that hardly a day goes by that we don’t get a question on this issue. It’s been awhile since we first wrote this post and during that time we’ve constantly re-assessed our position. Furthermore, during this time of enforced isolation, we’ve had a lot of time to consider this issue and in the end, our position hasn’t changed much except perhaps we’ve tried to be open to new ideas and be receptive to change. So without further ado, let’s proceed… ūüôā

One of the most frustrating aspects of working with historic costume is when we¬†encounter garments, hats, or other costume items whose creators adamantly insist¬†that they¬†are historically correct when clearly that is not the case.¬†In these situations, one’s social skills are put to the test and while we want to scream “you are clearly wrong!”, our polite response is¬†“That’s nice,”¬†“Wow, that really shows some effort,” or “You¬†look really pretty today.” Kindness wins.

Trying to get things right- studying original garments is part of the game…

While we naturally applaud those who go to the time and effort to create some amazing designs, we also take an exception to those who create “historical” fashions but have clearly done little or no research on their own. We could go on for days finding numerous examples on the internet and then ravaging them for their lapses in historical accuracy but ultimately it’s cruel and counterproductive.

Is it wrong? Is it right? Choices have to be made and sometimes without the benefit of perfect information.

Counterproductive? But shouldn’t one constantly be on guard against the historically inaccurate? Yes and no. For us, the bigger issue is: “are we on the clock?” For example, if we are working on a film where we are being paid to¬†provide historically accurate wardrobe (or as historically accurate as the production designer, director and budget will allow), of course we will act in a swift and sure manner to preserve the integrity of the production.

Trying to beat the clock… 3 am at the atelier…

Being “on the clock” also applies to our historical designs. If there are deviations from what is¬†historically accurate, we are up-front about them.¬†In some instances, we have had to make concessions¬†to¬†modernity due to availability of materials, client preferences, etc. Unfortunately, modern realities are part of recreating historical fashion and in some instances they can not be avoided. In the end, we are not paid to be the “costume police” and it’s a role we would prefer not having and we are not in the business of publicly calling people out. If you ask us privately what we think about a costume, we will be honest and supportive.


With that said, let’s look at some of the more common reasons why costumes fall short of the mark for historical accuracy. First, there are “reenactorisms”. Loosely defined, reenactorisms are those practices (for our purposes, as applied to costume) which have their basis in what reenactors or self-styled “living historians” do rather than what was historically done. Perhaps it the particular practice began as someone’s imperfect interpretation of something historical or simply someone making something up because they either didn’t know any better or were too lazy to properly research it. Some examples of reenactorisms often seen at late 19th historical events are¬†ball gowns and evening dresses worn during the day, “saloon girls”, and men wearing far too many weapons.

During my gunfighter days…yes, I’m guilty!

Next, closely related to reenactorisms are those practices that can arise from various sources and are now preserved by “groupthink”. Roughly defined, groupthink is:

…a psychological that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without consideration of alternative viewpoints, by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences or groups

While this phenomena is similar to reenactorisms, its scope is more limited to specific groups who, simply stated,¬†“do things a certain way because that’s just the way it’s done” with no regard to whether or not the practice is historically justified. Any attempt to introduce new information that might compel change is extremely unwelcome.

Period hairstyles? Go to the source… ūüôā

One example of this that we have witnessed when a small women’s group decided that the only way to portray historically correct hairstyles of the 1870s and 1880s¬†was for everyone to wear wigs. Not only were the wig hair styles historically questionable, but the wigs themselves did not look like any known hairpieces of the era. Unfortunately for the larger organization, this small group’s unfortunate fashion choice then became¬†the de facto standard¬†for a much¬†larger group¬†in which they belonged to.¬†At no point were the use of wigs¬†questioned; people in the larger group simply uncritically adopted the style thinking that it somehow “must be right”. Finally, yes we were asked at several points what our opinion of this practice was and we answered honestly and provided historical documentation but it was largely disregarded. C’est la vie.

Another phenomenon is what I call the “cool factor.” Essentially is a matter of people superimposing their modern sensibilities onto historic portrayals (“Look, I’m a walking arsenal just like in the movie xxx!”). One example of this is when it comes to firearms and especially for those recreating the Old West. Often times, men (and some women) will arm themselves to the teeth (literally in some cases) with multiple pistols, knives, and maybe a shotgun or rifle. Hey, we get it, it’s fun and you get to look larger than life. I too have been guilty of this: when I first started coming to Tombstone, I used to strap on my pistols and a knife or two and walk up and down Allen Street like something out of the movie Tombstone. However, in reality even the most dangerous gunfighter/desperado types rarely carried as much weaponry as modern reenactors even when they were expecting a fight.

Other reasons for costumes lacking historical accuracy can range from lack of research¬†to attempting to take shortcuts in materials and/or construction.¬†While taking shortcuts¬†can be somewhat forgivable, lack of research is not. Now granted, the word¬†“research” sounds somewhat intimidating but it really isn’t- it simply means reading up on the subject (aka “doing your homework”). While information resources were more limited before the advent of the internet, this is no longer the case today and there is a wealth of resources,¬†both online and¬†hardcopy, on 19th Century clothing¬†that are readily¬†accessible. Understanding 19th Century clothing is not difficult but it does require some thought to translate it into recreating garments of the period.

Sometimes one has to study original garments to get those details just right…

As for shortcuts, it’s understandable that people would want to take shortcuts wherever possible and we do it ourselves. However, the thing to remember is that the garment still has to have the correct period lines and details (i.e., the look)¬†and this requires an attention to detail.¬†In terms of materials, this can be more tricky but bear in mind that 19th Century fabrics had very specific uses and that it’s not always possible to get good results with fabrics made from¬†manufactured or synthetic fibers, with a few exceptions, of course ( Blog post for another day!).

Sourcing the right fabric- sometimes it’s easy, sometimes not so much…

We have identified some of the sources behind why historic costume can¬†miss the mark in terms of accuracy and while by no means is this survey exhaustive, it does offer a cautionary tale for anyone with a sincere desire to recreate historic fashions of the 19th Century (or any other period for that matter). Essentially, to have the right look, one must not only inform themselves about¬†the subject, but they must also be willing to alter their beliefs as to what is correct in light of new information. We can never achieve total accuracy for the simple reason that we are not living in the¬†all-encompassing world of the late 19th Century; a world that¬†is impossible to¬†completely recreate for a variety of reasons.¬†To one degree or another, how we approach historical costume is affected by our modern beliefs and the best that we can do is to work around them. In short, we’re all a work in progress.


We always aim to be on target… ūüôā

In the end, we believe that it’s essential to be true to oneself and understand and accept that one must constantly be learning, open to new ideas and to admit be ready to adapt and new information is discovered that changes how we view things. We looking forward to what the future brings.