One of the biggest misconceptions about late Nineteenth Century fashion is that the color black was only used for mourning wear. Nothing could be farther from the truth and in fact, black was freely used in a variety of styles ranging from simple house dresses to elegant evening gowns. To get an idea of how black dresses were regarded, here’s a few random quotes from the fashion press. First, from the December 1874 edition of Demorest’s Family Magazine, we learn that:
…All black dresses are more in vogue than ever for dinner wear, because jet is so much the rage; many of them seem to be a mass of jet, or of blue steel, which in contrast with black, is still more striking…
And in the February 1881 issue of Peterson’s Magazine, in a commentary on current fashions:
Black dresses are very fashionable, even for quite full dress, but, strange to say, black silk is less worn than formerly. Not so long ago, and for years previously, a black silk was regarded as an essential item In a lady’s wardrobe; it was the one safe investment, about which there could be no mistake when the fear of being over-dressed, or not sufficiently “got up ” was the question of the moment.
The reason of Its temporary disappearance, we believe, is that silk lacks that lustre or sheen which Fashion now affects in satin, and neither does it possess the dull finish of the fine woolen materials, which are likewise in vogue. But it must not be supposed that, because black silk is suffering from a partial eclipse, black costumes are not in favor; on the contrary, black camel’s hair, black cashmere, and black cloth costumes are all worn, and black lustrous Bengaline, satin de Lyon, velvet (in all varieties) brightened by iridescent beads of gay-colored plush or shawl patterned silks, are regarded as stylish dresses.
While the specific idea of whether or not black should only be worn for mourning seems to not have a definite answer in the fashion literature we’ve reviewed, it’s interesting to note that in a discussion of current fashions in the August 1881 issue of Peterson’s, it’s noted that:
Black lace, as well as jet and steel, are profusely used, especially on black dresses, and these arc no longer considered as belonging to mourning costumes.
And later in the October 1886 of Peterson’s it’s stated that black dresses are a popular item and that if one’s wardrobe is limited, a black dress is the most useful dress to have:
Black dresses, especially black lace dresses for house-wear, retain all their well-deserved popularity. These black gowns are by no means intended for mourning, and are usually elaborately trimmed with jet, and are worn by old and young. Where the wardrobe is limited, a black dress is the most useful one that can be worn.
And from the October 1889 issue of Demorest’s, it would seem that black dresses are somewhat of a constant:
All-black dresses have renewed their lease of popular favor, and black dresses with colored trimmings, especially the Escurial passementeries and those with Oriental colorings, are very stylish. Black silks are handsomely trimmed with passementerie of gold, silver, or steel beads or cords, and even these have their outlining of jet beads.
While the above passages make up an admittedly narrow sampling, it does seem to point towards the idea that a black dress was a fashion staple, whether in pure black or trimmed in other colors and one could never go wrong wearing one- better to be restrained than showy, especially in new social situations.
So, with the above in mind, let’s take a look at some dresses… 🙂 First up is this afternoon dress that was designed in 1873 by a one A. Cobray of Paris:
A. Cobay, Afternoon Dress, 1873; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.68.53.4a, b)
While this dress is not pure black with it’s insets of gold, the black does dominate, especially with the pure black bodice. The dress and bodice are constructed from Bengaline which have a dull luster. However, the bodice is trimmed in lace and bead appliques. Here’s a close-up of the buttons and the bead appliques:
Detail of Button
Detail of Button
Next is this late 1870s dinner dress by Pingat:
Pingat, Dinner Dress, c. 1877-1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art C.I.60.6.9)
And for a close up of the beading:
The dress has a late 1870s silhouette with a more restrained bustle effect- things haven’t moved to the Middle Bustle/Natural Form style yet but the demi-train suggests that things are headed in that direction. The beading patterns are in black but they provide contrast to the luster of the black silk fashion fabric.
Next up is this princess line day dress from 1880:
Day Dress, c. 1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.54.64)
With this dress, we’ve arrived in the Mid-Bustle/Natural Form Era. There is less of a train and the excess yardage is mostly concentrated at the bottom in the form of an extensive demi-train. The dress is made of a flat black silk fabric and trimmed with black velvet. In the front there is some ribbon trim with pops of crimson (Crimson Peak, anyone?). One notable element is the use of black velvet trim running in two vertical stripes along the length of the dress emphasizing the princess line.
And from circa 1880-1882, there’s this example of a black dress that utilizes extensive beading:
Day Dress, c. 1880-1882; From the exhibition “A Century of Style: Costume & Colour 1800-1899” at the Kelvingrove Art Museum, Glasgow
And here’s a closer look at the exquisite beading:
What’s interesting about this dress is it’s not really a pure black but more of a dark shade of gray (or maybe it’s the lighting for the picture) that offsets the black underskirt and sleeves. With it’s irregular surfaces, the beading picks up the light and gives the dress a three-dimensional luster that brings the dress to life, especially when compared to the previous example. In terms of silhouette, while this is also Mid-Bustle/Natural Form, there’s no train and it’s obvious that this was meant for more formal daytime wear (although it wouldn’t have been out of place for an evening event).
We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief excursion through the world of black dresses and it should be pretty obvious that black was not viewed as being something exclusively for mourning. 🙂