A Look At Fans…

Fans were a key fashion accessory during the late 19th Century and ranged from the purely functional to something far more decorative than functional and were art pieces in their own right. Below is an account of our visit to a small exhibit of fans at the FIDM Museum a few years back.


During the late 19th Century and early 20th Centuries,   were considered an essential fashion accessory and especially for any woman who wanted to present herself in the best possible light. Recently, we had an opportunity to take a look at some as part of the A Graceful Gift: Fans from the Mona Lee Nesseth Collection Exhibition at the FIDM Museum in Downtown Los Angeles. Introduced into Europe during the 17th Century from the Far East, the folding fan evolved from a functional item designed to keep the user cool to something that was more decorative than practical.

Folding fans came in a variety of materials ranging from the very simple and utilitarian to the ornate and materials ranged from wood to brass and ivory. The fan itself was usually made from a treated parchment (although other materials such as silk were used) which often featured painted or printed scenes. Below are two fans from 18th Century France and the variation in style is readily apparent, from the practical…

To the ornate…

Now, from the FIDM Museum exhibit:

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Fan, Spanish, c. 1850 – 1865

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Close-Up Of Fan.

The frame appears to be made of mother of pearl. All manner of scenes were painted on the fan leaves, many focusing on Oriental themes, a reflection of the then-current fascination for Chinoiserie. Painting scenes on the fan leaves were also popular as an at-home pastime and blank leaves were readily available.

Below is another example:

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Fan, French

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Close-Up Detail

Finally, here is a fan that is attributed to having once belonged to Phoebe Apperson Hearst:

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Fan, Félix Alexandre, artist Dumoret, jeweler France, c. 1875–85; Constructed of Mother-of-pearl, point de gaze lace, gilded silver & diamonds; FIDM Museum (2013.975.2AB)

Overall, it was a small but interesting exhibit. Fans are an easily overlooked fashion accessory but were considered an essential element in any respectable woman’s wardrobe. As applied to recreating period fashions today, vintage fans are readily available at a variety of price points but it must be noted that many of these are fragile with age and are not able to withstand any sort of prolonged use. There are also reproductions and restored originals but it’s been our experience that the reproductions are for the most part, substandard and a faint echo of the originals. We hope you all have enjoyed this brief overview of fans and in the future we’ll be posting more in regard fashion accessories. 🙂



Fashion Evolution- The Late 1870s

In keeping with the theme of fashion evolution, here’s a post covering fashion evolution during the late 1870s. Enjoy! 🙂


The late 1870s were a time of transition as styles moved away from the full bustled trains characteristic of the First Bustle Era and evolved towards the cylindrical silhouette of the Middle Bustle Era or Natural Form Era. The transition to the Middle Bustle Era could be said to have begun as early as 1875-76 although it wouldn’t come into full flower until 1878-79. The June 1877 issue of Peterson’s Magazine notes that:

There are three popular styles now, the Princess polonaise, basque bodices, with upper and lower skirts, and Princess dresses. The prominent points in the best polonaises are the long seams in the back, the plainness of the tournure, and sufficient length to give a slender effect. Fringes and wide galloons are the trimmings universally used, and the galloon is very generally arranged in sloping lines, or a long V down the back from shoulders to waist; small fichus, or mantles or the same material, complete the costume. The aim appears to give the costume the effect of a Princess dress; and in most cases, the merest glimpse of the under-skirt is all that is visible; therefore it is made both narrow and clinging, and is usually trimmed all round alike. The drawing-string across the back breadths is always added, no matter how closely the skirt is cut to the figure.

In these new dresses the shoulder-seams are very short, the neck is cut very high at the back, and the tight sleeves have the upper half slightly gathered on the elbows, to fit the arm more perfectly.

From the above commentary, it would seem that there are three styles at work: the older conventional basque bodice and skirt combination dress; the princess line dress; and the princess polonaise which appears to be somewhat of a hybrid between the first two styles.

Le Moniteur De La Mode, 1877

So how do these styles appear? Well, to begin, here’s one princess dress design that was marketed as a pattern in the October 1877 issue of Peterson’s:

Here’s another princess dress style, this time from the April issue of Demorest’s Family Magazine, that was also marketed as a pattern:

The above design is described as a:

A short, tight-fitting “Princess” dress, with the front opened at the left
side in “Breton” style, side-forms front and back extending to the shoulders, and side gores under the arms. A wide sash is draped across the front, and tied loosely in a knot at the left side, and the edge of the skirt is finished by a side plaiting. The back piece is full, being crossed by three clusters of shirred tucks, and is finished by a deep flounce that is, in its turn, ornamented with three side plaitings [pleats]. Two back pieces are given with the pattern,the full outer piece extending the entire length, and a shorter plain piece to which the shirred tucks are to be secured. The sleeves are trimmed to match the back. The collar may be of the same material as the dress, or be of lace, to suit the taste. The design can be suitably made up in a variety of dress goods, excepting perhaps the heaviest, and is especially desirable for thin fabrics, and a combination of colors or materials.

The above description pretty much hits all the high points as to what characterizes the princess dress design and there was a lot of variation in terms of fabrics and trim. Below are a few images of extant princess dresses:

Day Dress, c. 1870 – 1880; V&A Museum (CIRC.606-1962)

 

Day Dress, c. 1876 – 1878; Manchester City Galleries

Day Dress, Princess Line, c. 1878; National Museum, Prague (H2-193316)

Next, there’s this design for a house dress in the “Princess polonaise” style that was also marketed as a pattern:

In the description of the dress, it’s noted that “the polonaise is trimmed to correspond with the skirt and that it’s princess in form and slightly draped at the back where it’s caught up in a row of ribbon to match.” Essentially, this dress consists of a skirt and polonaise with the polonaise cut in single long pieces in the princess style, with no sewn waist.

The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, July 1877

Here’s another take on the princess polonaise style that was offered for sale as a pattern in the February 1878 issue of Demorest’s Family Magazine:

The description for this style is given as:

A “Princess” polonaise, having drapery in folds across the front, and revers turned back from the sides and joined over a full platting added to the short back pieces somewhat in the manner of a train. The design is tight-fitting, has a seam down the middle of the back, and is cut with side-forms carried to the shoulders; darts are taken out under the arms, and the fronts are fitted with the usual number of
darts on each side and buttoned down their entire length. The design is adapted to all classes of dress goods, and may be trimmed in any manner that will correspond with the material chosen.

Just for reference, here’s another illustration of this style:

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Finally, the basque bodice and skirt combination style was predominant during the early to mid 1870s and it could take a number of different forms. Below are a few examples from 1876-77:

Day Day, c. 1875 – 1877

Worth, Ensemble-Reception Dress, c. 1877 – 1878; Cincinnati Art Museum (1986.1200a-c)

Dinner Dress, c. 1876; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1975.227.3)

Day Dress, 1876; Philadelphia Museum of Art (1969-147-1a,b)

The above examples of all three styles are just a fraction of the wide variety of styles that were out there but it does convey that there were a number of different styles in circulation during the mid to late 1870s. Ultimately, the basque bodice and skirt combination would be left behind and by 1880 we see an almost complete transition in styles. Of course, as with every style shift, there were hold-outs who clung to older styles but as a mass movement, it was clear that styles were evolving. In future posts, we’ll attempt to further document fashion changes that occurred during the late Nineteenth Century so stay tuned! 🙂



Fashion Plates & Fashion History

When we originally wrote this several years ago, we were more focused on the fashion plate as an accurate means of documenting how garments looked during the late 19th Century. However, as time went on, our opinion has shifted somewhat to the idea that fashions plates depicted what was possible and as such, served as inspiration more than anything else. This idea is further reinforced by the fact that most of the 19th Century fashion press got its start as a means of promoting the sales of printed paper patterns. For example, The Delineator was owned by Butterick, one of the leading pattern manufacturers and another major publication, Demorest’s Family Magazine for all intents and purposes is glorified pattern catalog. But what is more striking is that the fashion plates of the period go a long ways towards documenting evolutionary changes in fashion silhouettes which is extremely useful. Combined with original photographic images and extant examples, we can get a very good picture of how garments appeared and as such, fashion plates are just one more valuable tool but not the only tool.


Fashion plates are often criticized as fashion history documentation because their representations of period fashions that bear no relation to what those particular period fashions ACTUALLY looked like. At best, they’re fantastical distortions of reality, representing an ideal that could never be attained (of course, the same argument can be made about today’s fashions as depicted in the fashion press).

Cover Petersons 1887

However, nothing could be further from the truth. The reality was that fashion plates, both colored and black and white, played a practical role in the transmission of fashion information during the 19th and early 20th Centuries; fashion photography would not come into its own until the 1910s. While  the study of fashion plates as an art form in itself has become popular today, this was not what they were intended to be. Rather, it was a blueprint for individuals to be able to replicate a given design.

Cover Godeys 1885 Cover Harpers Bazar 1885

However, at the same time, fashion plates did present ideal views of their subject garments with their unnatural poses and the models were perfect physical representations. But never the less, fashion plates were first and foremost meant to be a practical means of transmitting fashion information. Ultimately, the fashion plate was a practical tool and used as such.

Cover Delineator 1890

More specifically, the fashion plate was deliberately constructed to impart information to the viewer and specifically to enable the viewer to be able to make a garment based on the plate- in short, “how to do it” blueprints and as such they were often used as supplements to accompanying sewing patterns and were typically printed in magazines. Magazines such as The Delineator, Godey’s Lady’s Book, Harper’s Bazar, and Peterson’s Magazine were only a few of the many magazines that were available to the home sewer and professional dressmaker.

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Fashion Plate from Peterson’s Magazine, June 1872.

Above is a fairly typical fashion plate- it looks like a simple illustration of a group of dresses. Well, yes and no- the poses are somewhat stilted with the emphasis on showing as much of the dress as possible. Notice how the decorative treatments are given the best angle possible and especially on the train. This was deliberately done in order for the viewer to see the entire design in order to replicate it.

But it was not only fashion plates. Patterns and more detailed information were also supplied:

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Evening Polonaise Pattern from Peterson’s Magazine, May 1872.

Petersons Nov 1880

Fashion plates simply illustrated what was possible and were meant as a source of inspiration, not necessary something to be followed line-for-line. But more importantly, fashion plates showed the progression of styles through the late 19th Century and just by glancing at them, one can readily see differences and especially in the silhouette as it evolved from the 1870s through the  1890s. Here are some some examples from the 1870s and 1880s:

Godey's Lady's Book, November 1872

Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1872

Englishwomens Domestic Magazine June 1876

The Englishwomen’s Domestic Magazine, June 1876

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The Englishwomen’s Domestic Magazine, July 1877

Le Mode Illustree 1878

La Mode Illustree, 1878

Fashion Plate, 1881 from the Revue de La Mode.

Revue de La Mode, 1881.

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Revue de La Mode, 1885

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C. 1886

Petersons April 1889

Peterson’s Magazine, April 1889

As we move into the 1890s, still more shifts in the what was considered to be the ideal silhouette can be seen:

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Journal Des Demoiselles, January 1892

Journal Des Demoiselles, August 1893

Journal Des Demoiselles, August 1894

Delineator 1898 Dec

The Delineator, December 1898

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The Delineator, December 1898

What is interesting about this progression of plates is that by the 1890s, it’s all about the front of the dress. While there are frontal views in earlier plates and rear views in later plates, it is still obvious that the emphasis had shifted which is consistent with the movement away from the bustle. The 1880s provide some interesting ground in that the views seem to almost split 50-50, at least based on a very unscientific examination of fashion plates from various sources, both online and in books.

The above is only a small sample of the fashion illustration that was characteristic of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries but it does show that even then, the dissemination of fashion information was being done on a large-scale industrial basis, pushed along by technical advances in the printing trades. Moreover, with the rise of mass-circulation fashion magazines such as Godey’s, Petersons, and Harper’s Bazar, fashion’s reach extended to almost the entire world and most notably in America. The “pretty” and “fantastical” fashion plate served a very specific and practical role that today is easily overlooked. In the end, fashion plates were an art form in terms of their ability to impart information rather than existing as representations of fashion.



Wedding Dresses of the 1870s

When we think of a wedding dress today, we usually envision a bright eggshell white dress trimmed with lace. However, this has not always been the case and this was especially true during the 19th Century; the concept of an all-white dress solely dedicated to being used on only the wedding day was relatively limited to the more wealthy women because of the expense. The reality was that wedding dresses came in a variety of colors and styles, often dictated by finances, availability of materials, and location. In many instances, the wedding dress was simply a woman’s “best dress” and was worn on formal occasions long after the wedding itself.

Wedding Dress1

The color white has not always been associated with weddings per se in Western culture although is has been associated with purity. For example, during the Middle Ages, white was actually considered the color of mourning. During the 19th Century, the association of white with weddings (e.g., white weddings) is said to have begun with Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert on February 10, 1840 when Victoria wore a white (or more properly a cream-colored) wedding gown. In regard to the dress, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary:

I wore a white satin dress, with a deep flounce of Honiton lace, an imitation of an old design. My jewels were my Turkish diamond necklace & earrings & dear Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch.

With Queen Victoria’s choice of a white wedding gown, a trend was started (at least among the more wealth) which slowly developed over the remainder of the 19th Century. In regard to this trend, the August 1849 edition (page 440) of Godey’s Lady’s Book stated that:

Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.

We have now come to that subject which is said to engross the thoughts of a young lady from the time she comes out until she is married. The choice of a wedding dress!

Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one. Now and then a fashion of light silks or satins comes in vogue, but is not generally adopted. White, then, let it be, if it is the simple muslin of the pretty country girl, who needs no foreign ornament, or the satin and Brussels lace, or the silver brocade of a Parisian countess. This, be it understood, if one is married at home. Of late, it has been quite common to be married in a traveling dress, and have the same tears shed for the ceremony among the bride’s friends, answer for the parting. A bridal tour being considered, by some ladies, quite as indispensable as a wedding ring.

Below are some examples of wedding dresses as depicted in fashion plates. Although the plates coloring depicts the dresses in pure white, in reality, the color chosen was often more of a cream or ivory.

The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, November 1875.

Magasin Des Demoiselles, 1876

Turning to the dresses themselves, here is one example of a late 1870s wedding dress:

Wedding Dress, c. 1878; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.83.231.20a-b)

Wedding Dress, c. 1878; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (M.83.231.20a-b)

Allowing for age and museum lighting, the color of the dress is of a shade of off-white, especially when compared to the accompanying veil.

Below is an interesting wedding dress dated from 1874 that done in a polonaise style in a silk gauze:

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Wedding Dress, English, 1874; Victoria & Albert Museum ( T.68 to E-1962)

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The above dress belongs to the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum and according to the Museum website, the bride that originally wore this dress was Lucretia Crouch, who married Benjamin Seebohm at the Friend’s Meeting House in Clevedon, 10 September 1874.  Both the bride and groom were Quakers who, as a rule, favored mainstream styles of clothing at this time.

The dress itself was made of a cream-colored silk gauze with narrow narrow opaque stripes and trimmed with cream silk embroidered net lace. A three-quarters length bodice with flared sleeves and attached draped polonaise overskirt bordered with lace. The bodice fastens with hooks and eyes in the centre front and with a ‘V’ neck. The underskirt is full-length and is constructed from the same silk gauze edged with three flounces of lace with edges of lace attachment to the bodice and skirt of silk satin rouleaux, and an additional row of rouleaux on the sleeve edges. The bodice front and polonaise overskirt are trimmed with silk satin ribbon bows. There is also a belt sash of silk satin lined with cream silk which has a fastener in the center front that is camouflaged with a satin bow. Finally, a large silk gauze and net lace bow supported with a stiff cotton gauze interlining and is attached to the back of the belt.

Now on the flip side, consider this:

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Wedding Dress, 1874; Chicago History Museum (1946.31a-d)

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This dress is constructed of a green silk taffeta and was worn by  by Mrs. Robert S. Elder, née Harriet Newell Dewey, mother of the donors of the dress, to her wedding in 1874. What is nice about the above example is that the provenance of the dress is firm and as such, it does demonstrate that other colors were used, even while the trend towards white was gaining momentum.

Here is another example of a wedding dress from 1879:

Wedding Dress, 1879; from antiquedress.com

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This dress style is in a princess line constructed of silk featuring two contrasting colors, blue and white. If you look closely at the pictures, the white portions appear to be of a silk damask (the detail shows up best on the sleeve). This style is characteristic of the late 1870s with a minimal bustle although it still has a train.

The provenance of this dress is excellent (I double-checked it on Ancestry.com), it was worn by a Hattie Ray (nee Pagin) at her wedding to Hugh G. Ray on June 5, 1879 in Frankville Township , Winneshiek County, Iowa. There is no doubt that this dress was a more practical style of wedding dress that was suitable for wear as a “best dress.”

Here is a dress from 1872 that is interesting in that while it’s a wedding dress, it’s a relatively simple one with somewhat minimal trim. Yes, it’s still pretty busy by today’s standards but by the standards of the 1870s, not so much. 🙂

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Wedding Dress, 1872; Metropolitan Museum of Art (35.78.1a, b)

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The above dress is relatively restrained compared to regular day dresses of the early 1870s and the train is fairly simple. Probably the greatest extravagance is the fringe running along the mid-front of the dress and flowers.

Below are two more examples, one from 1878 – 1879 and the other from 1880. Both of them are interesting in the use of asymmetrical trim and especially the 1880 dress.

Wedding Dress, c. 1878 – 1879; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979.339.2)

Close-Up of the hem/guard.

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Wedding Dress, 1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art (34.95.1)

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Close-Up

While an all-white wedding dress was considered to be the ideal, it’s evident that wedding dresses of other colors were used, either by themselves or combined with white. However, it as a trend, the all-white wedding dress was gaining ground and especially since it was a status symbol. Weddings have traditionally been more than just a ceremony to mark the start of a formal relationship, it was also an occasion for families to display their status and respectability, concepts which were of the utmost importance to Victorians. The wedding ceremony, and the wedding dress by extension, were essential to the family and the bride demonstrating that they were respectable elements of society. Granted, this was the ideal but it was a major driver of social behaviors.

Finally, the development of the wedding dress is a prime example of how fashions have been traditionally transmitted, starting with those of higher social stature (such as Queen Victoria) and then slow spreading downward in society. In the case of America, while it often stated that it was a less structured society with much social mobility, when it came to fashion the same situation applied only with industrialists and businessmen taking the places of aristocrats (ok, that’s a broad oversimplification but it works here).

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Wedding Dress, 1875

So, on a more practical level, if one is searching for recreating a wedding dress from the late 19th Century, there are a wide variety of choices that are available and one does not have to settle for some shade of white. Also, in terms of style, one has choices in that a day dress, evening dress, or even ball gown style can be adapted for use.

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Wedding Dress, 1871; The rug certainly adds an interesting ambience to the picture.

We hope you have enjoyed this brief overview and stay tuned for further installments taking wedding gowns into the the 1880s and 1890s.



Water Lily Inspiration…

This dress has always been a favorite of mine- inspired by Monet’s waterlilies, it has layers of different silks all dyed to match and a suite of antique lace. Dreaming of when we can dance again at balls. 🙂