Fashion Observations From 1878 – Part II

To understand fashion, it is important to know when it was appropriate to wear each item. In contrast to today’s casual styles, the Victorian Era was highly formal and how one was judged was largely dependent on one’s appearance. Appearance was also important because it made a statement about one’s social position, and just as important, the position of one’s family. While America prided itself on its seemingly egalitarian society, it was in many ways just as class-bound as Europe with the only major differences being that one’s social position was largely defined by one’s wealth and that social boundaries in America were far more fluid with the possibility of social advancement always within reach.

For fashion, etiquette provides a guide as to what was worn and when and this in turn serves as an aide to the modern reconstructionist or living history. In the past, it has been our observation that while people will go to great lengths to recreate historic clothing, they will wear it to events that are inappropriate for those particular garments. Case in point is where ball gowns or evening dresses are worn during the day and especially in direct sunlight- not only is it incorrect, but it reads poorly (silk satin with its high luster simply does not look good in bright daylight). Conversely, we have seen day dresses, complete with tall hat and parasol, worn indoors at a formal ball. Once again, the effect is poor and spoils the whole occasion.

With that said, let us continue with our exploration of the year 1878…

Today we continue with our survey of fashion etiquette from 1878 as described in the January 1878 issue of Peterson’s Magazine (Page 87). First, the proper color and trim for a dress worn at home is further explained:

In large towns, where calls are so usual from one to four o’clock, the morning-dress, which we have described, is not appropriate after one o’clock: that Is if the lady is “At Home” to any except her intimate friends. Then, a dress, with a demi-train skirt, made of silk, cashmere, or any other material that is preferred, should be worn. In winter, the tint should be rather dark for ordinary occasions; but it may be of some rich color. Plain linen cuffs and collars, with a little lace edging, or embroidery; a locket, suspended around the neck, by a velvet; a bow of bright, or light-colored ribbon; a bow of ribbon In the hair, suitable to be worn with the dress; neatly arranged hair, and well-fitting shoes. If the throat is pretty, a dress cut open at the neck, with a plain frilling, is admissible. A dress of this kind is suitable for a house-dress all day, let the material be what it will; and if the stuff of which the dress is made is not too cheap, the ruffling, etc., etc., may be rather elaborate, otherwise such ruffling would be out of place.

In terms of color and trim, dresses worn at home are to be relatively simple. In terms of color, winter colors are darker although rich color (i.e., a jewel tone) is perfectly acceptable. Peterson’s now proceeds to describe dresses appropriate to other occasions:

For more ceremonious occasions, such as a “Reception,” or a formal “At Home,” the dress should be of lighter tints, brighter colors, and more elaborate in make. It will be quite appropriate to have more trimmings on skirt and waist; and the hair may be a little more showily dressed. A small bouquet of artificial flowers may be worn on the breast, or in the belt: or if the window garden will afford it, a few
geranium leaves, with a cluster of the rich flower, or a rose bud, may be substituted and will be much better. The sleeves, for a ceremonious morning-dress, may, if desired, only reach to the elbow; but in that case the gloves should have four, or five buttons; and for these ceremonious occasions gloves are indispensable. Or the long mitts, which have been introduced within the last year, may take the place of the gloves. A fan will often be found necessary, in the heat and excitement of such a reception; but it should never be of lace in the daytime. All morning-dresses, it must be remembered, should be high at the back and on the shoulders; but, if preferred, they can be cut open, square, or heart-shaped, in front. A good deal of lace may be worn about the neck, or tulle can be crossed over the besom. The neck should not be too open, however; or, if the dress is very dark, a soft, white fichu, or one made of soft, light-blue silk, or crepe, pink, buff, or scarlet, will add very much to the “dressy” look of the costume. Very little jewelry should be worn, even with a “reception-dress;” but more is allowable than with other day-dresses.

In contrast to the normal “morning dress,” more fancy dress was essential for formal occasions such as a reception or if one was was receiving visitors on a formal basis. For these dresses, colors were to be lighter than standard morning dress and more elaborate trims were permissible. Necklines could be lower than for morning dress but within limits and the use of white fichu around the neck for darker colored dresses was recommended. Finally, gloves were an essential fashion accessory and fans were also highly recommended.

Below is an example of what would be a more fancy dress that reflects the above advice.


Day Dress, c. 1878 – 1883; McCord Museum (M2003.76.1.1-3)


Three-Quarter Rear View


Side Profile

By the criteria of Peterson’s Magazine, the above dress is one that would definitely not be a “morning dress” but rather something more suitable for being seen in public. The lighter wine colored silk fashion fabric contrasts nicely with the darker burgundy of the velvet trim around the neckline and the small “apron” swagged across the front.

So what did this mean in practical terms? Basically, it distinguishes between morning dress which was meant to be simple and somewhat utilitarian versus a more elaborate dress, such as a reception dress, in which was meant to be more fancy and a lot less practical. But more importantly, this distinction served to make separation between the private and the public: what was worn in the intimacy of the home was not what one wore publicly and to do otherwise told others that one was of a lesser social status. Image and appearance were everything in the Victorian world.

In considering the role of etiquette, the above is only one example and while these provided a guide to proper presentation and deportment, they were only guidelines and often people modified them to suit their needs. The wide variety of etiquette books and advice public in magazines of the period provides ample proof that people desired this sort of guidance. In the end, etiquette provides a link between fashion and its role in society. We look forward to presenting more of this information in the future.

3 thoughts on “Fashion Observations From 1878 – Part II

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