Correct Dress- The View From The 1870s & 80s…

This post did not set out to delve into social commentary but in the course of researching fashions of the late 1870s and early 1880s, we came across some interesting statements made in the fashion press of the time in regard to the proper etiquette for wearing specific dresses. While this in itself is no surprise, what did strike us is the degree to which the concept of dress and fashion were intertwined with wealth and class and especially here in America.

While in many ways America was free of the rigid social structures of nobility vs middle class vs the lower classes, in reality it had its own social structures that acted in much the same manner only with money substituting for birth being the determining factor. Along with this was the idea of social mobility and opportunity- anyone could rise to a higher social standing by making money and America had plenty of opportunities to do so.

In terms of fashion, in order to properly maintain one’s social station, it was essential to have the appropriate dress and especially when it came to women. The ideal portrayed in the popular fashion press of multiple outfits for each of the day’s activities was only attainable to those who had the means. However, at the same time, with industrialization and mass production, clothes were becoming increasingly less expensive and this in turn made this ideal achievable for more women. So, in the end, it could be argued that the popular fashion press took the idea of exclusivity and opened to the masses (at least the masses of a rising middle class).

That said, we now turn to the question of why there’s so many badly dressed women in spite of an abundance of moderately-priced good clothing…

“Why are there so many badly dressed women?”

The eternal question that has been asked as long as fashion has existed and asked countless times throughout history. The 19th Century was no exception and today, we take a look at one attempted to answer this question from the January 1879 issue of Demorest’s Family Magazine (page 43):

The question is often asked, why there are so many badly dressed women when the choice is so great in the selection of materials, and greater skill in the industrial arts constantly makes fabrics more beautiful. The answer to this question is to be found in the enormous choice, and this very variety which confuses inexperienced persons much more than it assists them in making a selection.

Taste, also, has improved with the development of true art in design, and the woman is now tested by far more rigid rules, so far as clothing is concerned than formerly. There was a time when ordinary dress was so simple, and so little diversified, that no more thought was required in regard to it, than to decide on the suitable material and color for the purpose for which it was required. But now colors have been multiplied and these again broken up into an infinite number of ones and shades; instead of the few standard fabrics, we count them by the hundreds, half at least being only an imitation of the original by whose name it is called.

Instead of the straight skirt, and plain tight body, we have complete designs in never-ending supply clearly outlining the form, and depending on little details of style and finish, and minute differences of cut for the wide distinction between elegance and crudity, if not vulgarity.

A knowledge of all this minutia presupposes time, and means sufficient to make oneself acquainted with the changes as they occur in every department of dress and fashion, and this, to the majority is not possible. The actual work of life absorbs all the strength, and most of the hours not spent in sleep, with the larger number, and their clothing becomes not a matter of selection, or the gratification of cultivated taste, but a concession to the law of necessity which compels the substitution of something new for the old, when the latter is worn out. What it shall be depends upon what is thrust upon the attention at the moment the new clothing is needed, modified by the length of the purse, and the concessions which have to be made to the existing state of the wardrobe.

The most of the clothing of women is bought piecemeal, and this is why it so often happens that one part of it seems to bear no relation to the other. It is for this reason, also, that it is of great importance to ladies of restricted incomes that they should adopt a few principles or permanent ideas, in regard to the material of their dresses at least, and stick to them. The dark colors, which have become fashionable of late years, and the long complete designs are a great small amount of material for which it can be advantage to all who do not wish to bestow much thought upon their dress. Given these two central ideas for a starting point, and the dress must be unobtrusive, and almost as certainly neat, and ladylike looking. Moreover, the difference of a few inches in the length of a skirt makes a difference between a plain walking, and more stylish indoor dress. Black, or wine-colored cashmere is not superlative fashion, but the wearer cannot help looking like a lady particularly if it is plainly cut, and allowed to fall with natural, and therefore artistic grace.

The peculiarity about the fashions of to-day is, that they may be made either very costly, or very economically. The fine soft woolen fabrics are no less desirable than the richest silk and satin. In fact, they are much more in demand by those who wish to realize pure art conceptions; the best dressing is not that which costs the most, but that which is most effective, and best suited to for the age, means and requirements of the wearer.

The above basically attributes poor dressing to several reasons:

    • Too much variety in styles, materials and trims.
    • Women do not have the time and resources in order to learn all the necessary details, especially with all the demands of everyday life.
    • Because of lack of knowledge, fashion choices are due to on-the-spot snap decisions dictated by immediate need rather than any sort of planning.

These are all valid points and are still valid today- not a day passes that one doesn’t see this sort of commentary in popular fashions blogs and magazines. At root, the problem is one of too many choices and not enough knowledge to determine what the right choices should be. The solution? Demorest’s suggests that women should “adopt a few principles or permanent ideas, in regard to the material of their dresses at least, and stick to them.” Sound advice, to be sure, and especially when grounded in the idea that “dress must be unobtrusive, and almost as certainly neat, and ladylike looking.” As with Peterson’s fashion etiquette, the ideal was that one should select their dresses consistently on the basis of creating a modest, tidy appearance.

Demorest’s then goes on to state that:

The difference, in fact, between good and bad dressing is less a difference of individual taste than of fitness. The poor parade their one flimsy, showy best on all occasions. The rich can afford to dress suitably, and reserve their displayed toilets for occasions when they are demanded, and may be properly worn. All that ingenuity can invent money now can buy, and we are no longer restricted to one fashionable style, color, or fabric. It is difficult to make inexperienced persons believe that the deep Spanish lace collars, for example, have not superseded the plated [pleated] ruffle, and the narrow rim of linen at the throat. It takes some time to learn that all neat, unobtrusive styles are retained for street wear, while whatever can lend a charm, or add to the picturesque effect, is pressed into the service of those who can afford to make themselves beautiful at home.

The above reflects the zeitgeist or spirit of the time in that dress is intertwined with class and wealth. In order to be properly dressed for society, one needs to be equipped with several dresses that will properly match the occasion for which they are being worn. More fancy dresses be reserved for proper occasions than indiscriminately worn all the time. As part of this, it is noted that the rich can afford a variety of dresses/outfits for various occasions and thus, they can maintain a more modest appearance for everyday purposes yet have the ability to dress fancy as the occasion demands.

Perhaps, we are reading way too much into this but when considered along with what was previously noted in the past two posts (Here and Here) in regard to Peterson’s notes of dress etiquette, one definitely can see that being properly dressed reflected one’s social position and wealth and as such, wealth provided the foundation for social position. While this may seem to be a concept that is more in keeping European class attitudes, it really is not because in America, the only measure of class status was wealth rather than a varying combination of noble birth and wealth.

OK, we have strayed a bit afield here and we completely admit it. 🙂 To get back on track, let us consider the issue of the over-abundance of fashion choices- it’s a situation that confronted Victorians and it’s one that confronts us today. 🙂  In both instances, the solution is relatively the same- plan your outfits around a few basic principles and use that to shape your purchases. Rich or poor, this is a plan that was, and still is, easy to follow. What’s interesting is that the problem then and now is pretty much the same although it could be argued that perhaps the scale is a bit less with today’s emphasis on more casual fashions. We hope you have enjoyed this brief excursion through Victorian fashion philosophy and we hope to unearth more information in the future. 🙂

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