Fashion Observations from 1878 – Part I

During the mid to late 19th Century, the American fashion press was a growing industry, thriving on the desire of a newly-emerging middle classe’s desire to keep abreast of the latest fashion trends. As part of the fashion press’s mission was to also instruct on fashion etiquette. The guiding philosophy behind the need for proper fashion etiquette is explained in the January 1880 edition of Peterson’s Magazine (pages 87-88):

Etiquette for Morning-Dress.- For a lady, dress is so important, that, even as a matter of etiquette, it must be given the first place. In other words, there is an etiquette of dress as well as of manners. Certain dresses should be worn, at certain times, and in certain ways: one is fit for the house in the morning, another for promenade, another for an evening party; and one who dresses differently, in cultivated society, is apt to be thought underbred.

We would premise that we do not encourage extravagance, when we say there should be this variety of dress; for if a lady uses one dress, she cannot be wearing out another; and one suitable dress for each occasion will not only last for one season, but for two or three, if the material Is good, and it is well made, and Is not cut, or trimmed, in too pronounced a style. For, be it remembered, a very showy dress Is one that will date itself; in other words persons will say, “She has lived In that dress for years; it was made at such and such a time.” With this preliminary observation, we proceed to speak, this month, of the etiquette for the dress a lady should wear at home, and for morning callers.

Some of the above advice even holds true for today in that a more restrained, perhaps “classic” style tends to age less than one that is based on the latest fad and as such, provides better value for the money in that it will not age as fast. One dramatic example of this phenomenon can be found with styles of the 1970s, most which have aged poorly and are generally avoided as style inspiration by designers (that’s an interesting discussion best saved for another day 🙂 ).

Turning to the passage itself, one is struck by how the “standard” is obviously one that is oriented towards the more wealthy who had the wherewithal to maintain several styles of dresses for each specific occasion and time of day. But even so, this upper class ideal still remained the standard to which the middle classes, or anyone with any pretensions of aspiring to a higher social status paid heed to. In practice, while many lacked the means to follow it to the letter, it was still something to aspire to and as such, people  made do with the means at hand.

The above passage also illustrates the downward theory of fashion, one of the basic theories of how fashions are transmitted. Essentially, the theory holds that fashion is transmitted from the upper classes, flowing downward to the lower classes. Throughout history, this process had been slow and gradual but with the industrial revolution and the advent of cheaper clothing, the process of fashion began to speed up. Of course, today this theory has been greatly modified in today’s modern world but elements of it still hold true.

Next, we proceed to some more practical advice:

For the morning, at home, a dress ought to be longer than one for out-of-doors. The demi-train Is much more graceful than the short skirt; and with a ruffle, from a quarter to half a yard deep basted on the inside of the skirt, the train is kept clean; and the ruffle can be taken out, and washed, and replaced, as often as is necessary: this ruffle need only start from the side gores.

One of the prettiest fashions for morning dress is the Princess, straight down the front and almost close-fitting there, but quite so at the back, with a train that is untrimmed: the front is usually trimmed all the way from the shoulders down, and buttoned the full length. This dress can be mode of camel’s hair, cashmere, merino, or any of the hundreds of varieties of woolen goods that now come, varying in price from twenty cents up to two dollars a yard, and therefore can be brought within the means of all. Silk can be used, but it is not so soft and pretty.

For those whose occupations are no more arduous than making point laces, embroidering in crewels, or reading the last new book, light blues, or pinks, or delicate buffs, even whites, or soft grays, or fawn colors, trimmed with knots of pretty gay ribbons, are suitable. In such a case, frills of lace, zigzagged down the front, with bows or knots of ribbon, add very much to the effect. For those who are older, and require a more sober style of dress, darker shades of blue, violet, crimson, deeper grays and fawns are in keeping.

The above is interesting that it is advocates both fashion and practicality at the same time in regard to trains and the use of what was termed a bayaleuse, or dust ruffle, that lined the inside of the skirt along the hem and acted to pick up the dirt and otherwise protect the skirt’s fashion fabric. These were often simply basted in and could be readily removed and laundered or replaced.

Also interesting is the advocacy of the princess line dress, a new style that was coming into vogue as this time characterized by the lack of a waist seam between the bodice and skirt. Below are some illustrations of teh princess line:

Journal Des Demoiselles_1878_1

1982.528.4_F

Day Dress, American, c. 1878, Metropolitan Museum of Art (1982.528.4)

1982.528.4_TQL

The second paragraph is also interesting in that it’s clearly aimed at someone who has servants to bulk of the household work, or at least the more arduous tasks- use lighter colors if one does not have to do any serious work since there is little chance of stains or soiling showing up against the light-colored fabric.

So, from the above, it appears that the princess line dress was definitely trending for 1878 as an ideal dress style for “morning dress,” constructed preferably of wool (although silk was acceptable. Morning dress was meant to be worn at home, preferably in the morning hours (hence the name). Below are some more style ideals:

The busy housewife should have the train of her morning dress made shorter than that of the woman of leisure. It should be without the lace, the many bows of ribbon, buttons alone being the only ornaments down the front, with ribbons at the throat and pockets only. Pretty flannels, in small plaids, or some simple-figured goods, will stand the wear of much use better than a plain material. Of course, for summer, the simplest chintz, or pique, or any white goods, may be worn, trimmed with braids, or ruffles: a belt or sash would add greatly to the summer morning dress. To protect the dress, while busy, a neat white apron should be worn; it may be full of pretty, suggestive pockets, if liked, or it may be inside of one of the towels, that ore now embroidered in rod at the ends (for which embroidery we have given patterns), and pinned on. In our next number we will give an engraving of a morning dross with one of these towel aprons.

The above provides some interesting information in regard to how the morning dress should be constructed and detailed in regard to the train. Also, it notes that a decorate apron should be used if the dress-wearer is going to be doing any sort of household chores.

And now we get to the some commentary on the appropriateness of wearing the morning dress and overall appearance:

When the breakfast cups have boon washed, the room dusted, and the flowers watered, the apron may be laid aside. Neatness, above all things, is necessary to the true lady. One woman will look perfectly thorough-bred in a shilling dress, while another may have on the most expensive toilet that Paris can produce- and yet look vulgar. No crimping pins, or curl papers are allowed after a lady learn her chamber: the hair should be simply, but becomingly adjusted; the collars and cuffs should be spotlessly fresh; the shoes and stockings neat; and above all no jewelry is to be worn in the morning; rattling bracelets and dangling chains are utterly out of place then. If the ears are pierced, only the simplest ear-rings should be worn, and the fingers should be divested of all rings, except the wedding or engagement ring, or a seal-ring. By following these hints, any lady can be prepared for either the privacy of her own home, or for early morning callers. But no matter what the material of the “breakfast dress” may be, nor how pretty made, is it allowable to be worn during the whole day; the half tight fitting dress that looks so comfortable and appropriate in the morning, looks slovenly when morning occupations are over.

In the above, projecting the proper image is critical and especially if one is going to receive morning visitors. The emphasis is definitely on dressing simply with a minimum of jewelry and at the same time making sure that everything is neat, clean, and in the right place. In short, the woman’s appearance here is also a reflection on her household, and by extension, her husband. Definitely the Victorian ideal personified.

In the next installment, we will take a further look at some fashion commentary in regard to other sorts of dresses. Stay tuned!

(To be continued)

One thought on “Fashion Observations from 1878 – Part I

  1. Pingback: Fashion Notes From 1879 | Lily Absinthe

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