In considering late 19th Century fashion, skirt length is always a factor that can’t help but be a major consideration. Although the fashion idea visualized dresses with trains of varying length, practical considerations were never far away and many fashion publications spoke to this issue. One such example can can be found in the February 1878 issue of Peterson’s Magazine:
The dress for the street, or for the dusty and muddy country road, ought always to be made with a skirt that will just escape the ground. This very sensible fashion is slowly gaining favor, though most people are very loath to dispense with the more graceful, half-trained, walking-dress, which gathers up so much dirt.
The above comment speaks to a common problem that was very common. Even from just a quick glance at period photographs and fashions plates reveals that even for the more “practical” day dresses have trains and these were clearly natural dirt collectors. On a more practical level, trains restricted mobility and while this may have been less of an issue in the home, it was a big problem outdoors, as many re-creationists today have found out, much to their chagrin, on more than one occasion; some fashion problems are seemingly timeless.
For going out of the house on simple errands or other non-social activity, the following advice for dressing were made:
For the ordinary morning walk, for shopping, and all the many occasions, in which the mother, or the useful daughter of the house, is required to be out of doors, the quietest of dresses should be worn, unobtrusive in color, and plain in make. This, we say, without reference to the money the wearer may possess. Good taste calls for the sober tones, and few trimmings for this kind of dress, in the woman who spends thousands on her toilette, as in the one who goes out early in the morning to gain her daily bread, and comes home late at night. Dark grays, browns, greens, or blues are appropriate, or a black cashmere, which always looks lady-like. If it is objected that this has too much the appearance of mourning, that can be remedied by a bow of some bright ribbon, at the neck. Silk, at the early morning hour, is not suitable, unless it is a plain black silk. From the myriads of woolen goods that come now, a cheap and pretty dress can always be made.
From the above, it is obvious that good taste, even for those with money, dictated that dresses were to be simple in style with duller, darker colors such as dark grays, browns, greens, or blues with few trimmings. However, just in case this gives an appearance of looking like one was in mourning, Peterson’s offers a solution in the form of a ribbon. Finally, it is noted that most silk is inappropriate as a material for “morning” dress and that wool is the preferred material.
Peterson’s also offers some advice in regard to hats:
The hat or bonnet should have but few flowers or feathers and felt to be more appropriate than velvet; if a hat is worn it should be of some shape not too pronounced. But the middle-aged woman should be chary of wearing this style of headgear. The face, that has lost its youthful roundness and bloom, often looks hard and grey, under the severe lines of a hat. When large shade-hats were worn in summer, they had common sense on their side for usefulness; but the hat of the present day does no more than the bonnet to protect the face.
It is interesting that straw was the preferred material with a minimal use of flowers or feathers. It is also noted that as a practical article, they are mostly useless as a means of protecting oneself from the sun.
Next, we see some more general commentary on dress:
The outside wrap should correspond with the dress, in quietness. A deep plain sacque, like the dress, is the prettiest; but many persons wish to utilize an old garment, and cannot always afford to have the new wrap. In that case, take off all superfluous trimmings from the old one, and make it look as neat as possible. The colored street petticoats are more appropriate, for morning than white ones; they should be a little trimmed, but not gaudily so. The boots should always be neatly laced, or buttoned, so that the wearer need not fear a puff of wind. Plain linen collars and cuffs, always fresh looking, and carefully mended gloves, if now ones cannot be afforded, are very important. No jewelry, except a watch and chain (which latter ought not to be conspicuous), and small ear-rings. These remarks apply, in all respects, to women of all stations; the rich woman will have more latitude in the quality of her dress, not more in the quantity of ornament, or in color.
It is interesting that in the above passage, the emphasis is on presenting oneself is that one’s dress should be “quiet” and that the only difference between wealth and not-so-wealthy should be in the quality of the garments themselves. These comments seem stand in stark contrast to what we see in many pictures and fashion plates but naturally, we need to take this all with a grain of salt- we suspect that the reality was somewhere in between and that like today, some people dressed what was considered poor taste (the fact that these comments were even published is proof of that).
However, as with all “rules,” there are exceptions and so there are here when Peterson’s states:
For the woman of leisure, who passes her morning on the promenade, or in calling on her friends informally, more richness of dress is quite allowable, but not much more ornament. Silks for out-of-door wear are now used much less than the rich, woolen materials; but if the silk is considered more desirable, it can be worn for visiting. We must admit that the fashion here is for the slightly trained skirt; we wish it was otherwise, pretty as it is; and some ladies have boldly taken up the cause of the “round” skirt, and had their nicest out-of-door dresses made in this way.
The dresses for the promenade and visiting in winter should not be of light or showy colors; but they may be more dressy-looking than those worn earlier in the season, or worn for business. More trimming is allowed; but both color and trimming should be unobtrusive. Either a felt, or velvet hat or bonnet, may be worn, with feathers or flowers; the hat has greater latitude in shape also. A velvet sacque, or cloak, should never be worn with a woolen dress; a cloth one is much more stylish, as well as appropriate, for such a dress. The cloth sacque or cloak, however. may be worn over silk; a velvet wrap is, of course, appropriate for silk. Dark gloves to match the dress are very suitable; but those of a medium shade are a little more dressy.
Here we see a little more latitude in dress: it is now acceptable for one’s dress to be a bit more elaborate, utilizing more fancy fabrics such as silk and a bit more ornamentation so long as it’s “unobtrusive.” In terms of the winter season, it is recommended that light or “showy” colors be avoided but at the same time color can be “dressy-looking,” a statement that can be interpreted a number of ways. Ultimately, based on extant dresses and other documentation, we believe this to mean that richer jewel tone colors were also acceptable for winter wear when visiting or otherwise displaying oneself in public (as opposed to simply being out on business).
Peterson’s also on the side of practicality when it comes to to dress lengths and the role of the train- it is clear that they would prefer the train to be eliminated for day wear (or at least most of it). The comments on outerwear are also interesting in that a velvet sacque or cloak is not to be work over a wool dress but rather one made of “cloth” (linen or a heavy cotton?) is acceptable. Also, velvet worn over silk is always acceptable. Finally, it is noted that velvet hats are acceptable here and, of course, gloves are essential preferably in a medium color (e.g., brown or gray).
For dinners and receptions, Peterson’s makes the following recommendations:
It is only in our large cities, as a rule, that dinner parties are given late in the day, or by gaslight, which is the universal custom abroad. Even at Newport the dinner is at three or four o’clock, as a rule: this is, that people may drive afterwards. In the country, or even in the city, where the dinner is early in the day, the hostess should wear some pretty, quiet dress, brightened up by ribbons and jewelry, if she likes; but she should always endeavor to be less dressed than her guests. This is a rule for a hostess, under all circumstances.
The guests at a dinner, at this time, should never wear silks that are too light; but otherwise may make their dress as festive-looking as will be suitable by daylight. For small dinners, later in the day, the kind of dress, which we suggested, in the last number, for a lady to wear at a formal “Reception” in her own house, is quite appropriate for either hostess or guest. Even for small evening companies such a dress is suitable. Of course, the lightest shades of blue, pink, etc., are not to be worn at home, when a lady has a “Reception;” neither, as a rule, should they be worn at a small dinner at her own house, though, if she is sure that her guests will be much dressed, she may do so.
But those light colors can be worn most suitably, when the lady is a guest at a small dinner, having the dress made as we suggested for the “Reception,” in our last number. A few artificial flowers in the hair, and on the dress, can be worn; the hair may be more elaborately done up; jewelry is very appropriate; gloves are indispensable; and these are not to be removed till the seat is taken at the table.
The dress open in front is very pretty, and cooler at a hot dinner table; but if that is not liked, the dress can be high in the neck, with a pretty lace fichu over it. Shoes and stockings must be neat, and ought to match the dress. If silks are too expensive, very right shades of cashmere make beautiful dinner, or small evening party dresses, especially for young ladies; in fact, are more appropriate for them than silk ones are.
In the above, it is noted that “Dinner” was held in the late afternoon or in the evening. For the hostess of a late afternoon dinner party, the acceptable dress would be the same as a better dress worn to receive visitors in the home with perhaps a little more decoration. However, at no time was the hostess to dress more better than her guests- understated elegance was definitely the byword here. Also, it is noted that the light shades of blue, pink, green, et al. are not to be worn by the hostess (but it is perfectly acceptable for guests) and conversely, these colors are perfectly acceptable for wear at someone else’s dinner party or reception. Naturally, there is an exception is the hostess “is sure” that her guests will be wearing these colors and the event is in the evening (confused, yet? 😉 ).
Some further observations are noted in regard to dress necklines: either open neck or closed collar are acceptable and that a dress worn to a reception or dinner party need not be made out of silk, cashmere is also acceptable (and in fact, more appropriate for young ladies). Below is a circa 1878 dinner dress that incorporates many of the elements discussed above:
Dinner Dress, Lord & Taylor, American, c. 1878 – 1883; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1979.34.2a-d)
Dress label for Lord & Taylor done in a pseudo-French style.
Close-Up of the train fabric.
Close-Up of button.
Shoes that were worn along with the dress.
The above dress was made by Lord & Taylor in New York (Lord & Taylor had agents in Paris who kept the home office abreast of Parisian fashion trends) and for the most part perfectly fits the ideal of the “perfect dinner dress” that one would mostly likely wear out to other people’s functions. For the skirt, we see the use of an ivory silk satin trimmed with two rows of flounces on the lower skirt followed by a row of knife-pleating along the hem line.
The above passages provide some insight into acceptable forms of day and evening wear for the late 1870s and early 1880s and their usefulness still exists over 100 years later as recreationists strive to replicate the styles of this era. Moving up, we also see the same color silk satin used in the bodice in the front and sleeves covered by a celadon-colored silk brocade shaped in a vest-like over-bodice that flows towards the back to form a tail that descends about half-way down the back of the dress; the lines flow to create a tailcoat effect. Supplementing this is a train and front apron made from a matching celadon silk satin. The overall effect is quite imaginative and without know more about the provenance of the design, we would venture to guess that this was inspired by Worth or one of the other Parisian couture houses.
So now that we have whetted your appetite, we hope that this dress and the preceding commentary provide some ideas those who wish to recreate a slice of this era and for others, provide some aesthetic pleasure. Until the next post, we bid you, adieu!