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!😃

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.

Portrait of Madame Tallien, by Jean-Bernard Duvivier, 1806

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 ‘individualism’ 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. 🙂 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.

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