Thursday, January 16, 2014

Victorian Dressing Rules

As promised something about victorian dressing rules.

“A large fraction of our time was spent in changing our clothes,” one Victorian woman wrote in her memoir. "You came down to breakfast ready for church in your ‘best dress’...After church you went into tweeds. You always changed again before tea, into a ‘tea–gown’ if you possessed that special creation; the less affluent wore a summer day–frock. However small your dress allowance, a different dinner dress for each night was considered necessary. Thus a Friday to Monday party meant taking your ‘Sunday Best,’ two tweed coats and skirts with appropriate shirts, three evening frocks, three garments suitable for tea, your ‘ best hat’...a variety of country hats and caps, as likely as not a riding–habit...rows of indoor and outdoor shoes, boots and gaiters, numberless accessories in the way of petticoats, shawls, scarves, ornamental combs...All this necessitated at least one huge domed trunk, called a ‘Noah’s Ark,’ an immense hat–box and a heavy dressing case.”

There's no doubt about it, Victorian women wore a lot of clothes. There’s also no doubt that Victorians had specific rules—a code of etiquette—for what sort of clothing could and should be worn for every occasion. This was often trying to purse and patience, but every woman who had any hope of being considered a “lady” lived by the etiquette of dress. Much of this etiquette was passed by word of mouth, but books also gave specific rules for dressing, as did fashion magazines. So whether a lady was preparing for an evening at the opera, a shopping spree, or a quiet vacation, there was little doubt as to what sort of clothing she ought to wear.

 Even something as deceptively simple as the length of a skirt was cause for much consideration. In 1905, The Delineator recited the rules: For shopping and similar activities, the instep length, a mere two inches from the ground, was worn; a skirt one inch longer, called the clearing length, was a favorite for shirtwaist gowns and general street wear; for tailored dresses worn for visiting or afternoon chores, the round length, touching the floor, was considered best; skirts in what were called the medium– and long– sweep were suitable only in the house, since they trailed the ground; and trains of six to ten inches were appropriate only for evening gowns, while a wedding gown could have a sweep measuring two and one–fourth yards from the belt to the end of the train.

   Skirt lengths previously settled, as a Victorian woman began her day, her first question was what to wear to breakfast. This might seem silly in an era where either p.j’s or whatever we plan to wear for the rest of the day are generally considered equally suitable at the breakfast table—but Victorian women took this matter quite seriously; they could never appear in a nightgown or robe. “The most suitable dress for breakfast,” an 1860 etiquette book advised, “is a wrapper made to fit the figure loosely.” But not too loosely, it was quickly pointed out. The idea was to appear trim and neat first thing in the morning.

  Yet as soon as breakfast was over, it was time to change outfits again, for, as The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, Fashion, and Manual of Politeness reported, “a lady should never receive morning callers in a wrapper.” Some women switched into a special, dressy outfit just for visitors, but this was frowned upon by those in the know. “An elaborate costume before dinner is in excessively bad taste,” The Ladies’ Book elaborated. Instead, dresses worn for morning visitors needed to be more simple, but also needed “to fit the figure neatly, finished at the throat and wrists by an embroidered collar and cuffs, and, unless there is a necessity for it, in loss of the hair or age, there should be no cap or head dress worn.” If the lady was going out to visit others in the morning, the rules of dress were much the same: “For morning calls, the dress should be plain, and in winter furs and dark gloves may be worn.”

  On the weekend, the next outfit to be donned was one for church. “Harper’s Bazaar is certainly not very Puritanical on questions of dress,” the editors of one etiquette book wrote, yet they quoted that very periodical as saying that “the best bred people of every country but our own avoid all personal display when engaged in worship...Our churches, on the contrary, are made places for the exhibition of fine apparel and other costly and flaunting compliances with fashion...The fact is, that our churches are so fluttering with birds of fine feathers that no sorry fowl will venture in.” Instead, a true lady wore a simple dress and bonnet of a modest color, like navy or brown.

 If a lady wished to go out walking, she once again had to change her costume. Here, to be in “good taste,” she needed to wear something in quiet colors—something that was anything but conspicuous. “Browns and neutral tints, with black and white make the prettiest dresses for the street,” one 1860s book claimed. “Above all, avoid wearing bright colors...First, your dress. Not that scarlet shawl, with a green dress, I beg, and—oh! spare my nerves!—you are not so insane as to put on a blue bonnet...If you wish to wear the green dress, don a black shawl, and—that white bonnet will do very well...Wear no jewelry in the street excepting your watch and brooch...If it is real, it is too valuable to risk loosing in the street, and if it is not real, no lady should wear it. Mock jewelry is utterly detestable."

 Victorians also differentiated between dresses suitable for walking and those suitable for shopping. Dresses for shopping needed to be practical, made of a material that would stand up to being crushed in a crowded store, and without loose sleeves that would snag on baskets or carts. “A woolen skirt, made quite short, to clear the muddy streets, is the proper thing,” one book suggested. “There is no surer mark of vulgarity than a costly dress in the market.”

 For journeys—whether by train, coach, or ship—special traveling costumes were considered a must. Like a walking dress, it was imperative that a dress worn during travel be “quiet and modest”— never conspicuous. And one dress simply would not do; the whole wardrobe for a journey had to be taken into consideration. The Delineator advised in 1890 that “the woman who makes a transatlantic journey will find that...of gowns, three are sufficient...two, if one does not intend to make visits or accept any sort of private hospitality.

  If a woman worked outside the home, Mrs. M.L. Rayne, author of the 1893 What Can A Woman Do? had this advice: “The working dress of American ladies to–day is a happy compromise between the despotic fashions of a court and the severe bigotry of a reform costume of the coat and trousers pattern...A dark, neat color, such as navy blue, or a rich brown, in a soft woolen goods that drapes artistically, and follows the outlines of the form” was most appropriate. Demorest's added, “A working professional woman will be satisfied with six dresses in her wardrobe; a fashionable lady will feel destitute with less than sixty.”

   Dresses for the evening were a complicated matter governed by what sort of entertainment the night would entail. For a small gathering, a dark gown for winter and a light–weight one for summer were considered the best. For larger parties, low–necked, short–sleeved affairs were considered suitable. Judging by the number of editorials devoted to proper dressing for the evening, many Victorian ladies had trouble determining what was appropriate. For example, in 1883 one fashion magazine noted that “at a recent series of readings given in a private parlor, and which often took the form of lectures, and drew together a literary and scientific audience, there were women, fashionable women, who did not know any better than to appear in very light and open evening dresses with lace sleeves and expansive arms and necks. This exposure, common enough at balls, seems terribly out of place in comparatively small gatherings of professional workers, and actually in these cases created a vast amount of inconvenience, for no window could be opened, and nothing done in the way of ventilation, on account of these undressed women.” Instead, while attending lectures, etiquette books advised women to wear a dress and bonnet that would be appropriate for the street.

  In 1864, one of the most popular fashion magazines in the United States, Peterson’s, conceded that for dinner low necklines were only appropriate if worn with a lace fichu or scarf covering the bosom. Martine’s Handbook of Etiquette added that “it is not in good taste for the lady of the house, where a dinner–party is given, to dress very much. She leaves it for her lady–guests to make what display they please, and she offers no rivalry to their fine things.”

  For an evening at the theatre, a simple dress, not low in neck or short in sleeve, was worn with a bonnet. For the opera or for concerts, more ridged rules applied. “Here,” one etiquette book lectured, “you should wear full dress, an opera cloak, and either a headdress, or dressy bonnet of some thin material. Your gloves must be of kid, white, or some very light tint to suit your dress. Many dress for the opera as they would for the theatre; but the beauty of the house is much enhanced by each lady contributing her full dress toilette to the general effect.”

  For a ball—and only for a ball—a lady could pull out her grandest, most fanciful attire. Elaborate trimmings of lace, flowers, or ribbon (and often all three) were appropriate only here; no lady would be caught dead at a ball without them. Etiquette books warned against wearing heavy, dark fabrics at balls. Light, gay colors and fabrics were preferred in such festive atmospheres and black “should be worn in no material but lace.” Married women wore rich shades of silk, and for unmarried ladies nothing was more appropriate than a light–weight white gown. “All ladies must wear boots or slippers of satin, white, black, or the color of the dress,” The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette insisted. “White kid gloves, full trimmed, a fine lace trimmed handkerchief, and a fan, are indispensable.” 

Spending the summer at a “watering place” or resort was enormously popular all through the Victorian era. Peterson’s reported that even during the Civil War ladies dressed elaborately at watering–places—but the editors shook their heads in shame that women would be so excessive during such hard times. They pointed to the extravagance of France in the pre–revolution days, and noted “how paltry such expenditure now appears when we compare it with what is being daily carried on at the present time...and the worst feature about the matter is, that one handsome dress all the day is not considered sufficient; there are many ladies who change their toilets four and even five times every day!–a–days ladies dress before their bath, then they dress to take their bath...then, for breakfast there is a change for the fifth time, and for the ball a sixth change. And as it would not be thought proper to appear in each dress more than four times, continued variety is wanted, and so much novelty is consequently sought after that both dress– makers and their employers scarcely know where to turn.” Impractical, light–weight, light–colored dresses were favored at such watering places, along with an ample supply of bathing suits. If a lady was active in sports (whether hiking, tennis, horseback riding, or bicycling), she, of course, also had to bring suitable costumes especially for those activities.
       Women in mourning were expected to alter every bit of their usual attire for widowhood, although in practice, by the end of the 19th century the rules for mourning dress were not quite as strict as some etiquette books would have us believe. As early as the 1870s, one author wrote of longing “for the day when this custom shall be obsolete...true grief does not wish to parade itself before the eye of the stranger...It is a sacrilege to drag the widow forth from grief to be fitted for a gown.”   Instead, most women simply took their old gowns and dropped them in a vat of black dye. If a widow chose to follow mourning tradition, she wouldn’t lighten her dress at all until 12 months had passed, but more often than not touches of white lace, then lavender, and then gradually other colors, were added to a widow’s dress after only a month or two.
     Yet even the Victorians, with their faithfully followed etiquette of dress, were not so strict that they couldn’t see the benefit of not being entirely wrapped up in appropriate attire. In the 1874 book A True Friend, this idea was expressed beautifully: “A friend of ours...who had long been absent, returned recently, and called upon two beautiful young ladies of his acquaintance. One came quickly to greet him in the neat, yet not precise attire, in which she was performing her household duties. The other, after the lapse of half an hour, made her stately entrance, in all the primness of starch and ribbons, with which, on the announcement of his entrance, she had hastened to bedeck herself. Our friend, who had long been hesitating on his choice between the two, now hesitated no longer. The cordiality with which the first hastened to greet him, and the charming carelessness of her attire, entirely won his heart. She is now his wife."

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