Halloween is fast approaching—do you know how you’ll be dressing up? Perhaps you’ll take a cue from Alice Vanderbilt and go as Electric Light.
Or follow the lead of this young lady, who “daringly assumed the character of a ‘lady brigand’, carrying mock pistols and a rifle”:
Or Miss Allen and friend, who went as Tennis and Winter:
The practice of dressing in disguise has been around for centuries, but these days we tend to mostly relegate the practice to Halloween, and to other festivals and holidays such as Purim and Carnivale/Mardi Gras to a somewhat lesser extent.
In the nineteenth century, fancy dress parties were quite the rage, and no holiday was necessary to throw one. Thomas Hales Lacy published two volumes of Lacy’s Dramatic Costumes in the 1860s, one for men and one for women, with over 200 plates each of “historical, national, and dramatic costumes.” Ardern Holt’s Fancy Dresses Described was published in no less than six editions between 1879 and 1895. Holt offers hundreds of fancy dress ideas with suggestions on how to create the costume and on whom it might be especially flattering; these books were supplemental to the fancy dresses offered for sale at Debenham’s department stores. Contemporary fashion publications, such as Godey’s and La Mode Illustrée also celebrated the art of fancy dress.
Ideas ranged from historical, such as Renaissance Italianite:
Or an animal, such as a bat:
Or a completely abstract concept, such as air:
Men dressed up, too. This gentleman attended a party dressed as a side of bacon.
Remarkably, for the most part, fancy dress didn’t depart much from typical nineteenth century silhouettes (the above bacon example notwithstanding)—the figures were still properly corseted and bodices and sleeves reflected what had been in vogue at the time. Suggestions to the identity of the fancy dress came in the form of appliques, collars, masks, and color choices, not necessarily a change in the cut of a typical garment.
However, while in fancy dress, it was acceptable to appear in public in a shorter skirt than a proper floor-length dress, with the ankle and maybe a little bit of calf showing. It’s amusing that the Victorians allowed a little more of the human form to show while in costume—much the same way that today, Halloween is synonymous with wearing costumes that show a lot of skin!
But of all the creative and fun Victorian fancy dress suggestions, why would I pick Alice Vanderbilt as your featured Fashionista for this Friday? I guess I can’t resist the decadence of a one-time use dress created by the House of Worth!