Evening Dress, 1845-1860


History of Costume I 1800-1899

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It is curious that a style in dress has always seemed to take about thirty years to turn full circle, with a twenty-year period of progress to a peak and some ten years to wane, before a complete break occurs to change the visual scene by which we identify an epoch. The mid-19th century saw the gradual development of a style that was so outstanding, in every sense of the word, that it obscures all other fashions and remains, in the popular image, the dress of the whole century: in this country (owing to our long-reigning monarch) the Victorian crinoline. This extraordinary garment developed from the full skirts of the late ‘thirties to the real crinoline frame of 1855, to disappear altogether by 1868. So intrusive was its shape that it seems to occupy a far longer period. The term comes from the word ‘crin’, horsehair, which was used to stiffen petticoats, but even when hoops of whalebone and finally steel were used the name crinoline persisted to identify the shape of dress. Although fashion plates of this time present a picture of sickly sweetness and purity the exaggeration and tastelessness of the later style do point to the conclusion that a very different influence was at work in its creation. The social historians tell us that the mid-19th century was the most hypocritical period in modern history because the outward appearance of modesty covered behaviour of vicious depravity, a discovery of hind-sight that has coloured the popular impression of the crinoline as an instrument of calculated seduction. This was probably true of the centre of high fashion, Paris, where this garment first astounded the public. It was the coincidence and simple evolution of several factors that brought fashion, puritanism and plain instinct into direct conflict at that time. The stifling atmosphere of suppression and clothes reached a simultaneous climax of combustion. The product of sentimentality and patriarchy is hardly likely to be very exciting, and since, as with arranged marriages in France, there could have been little physical attraction, it is natural that man, in his contrariness, should weary of a situation of his own making. With every respectable woman and girl securely guarded he could only find a playmate among those with no background of rigid moral behaviour. There was a considerable stratum of society all ready at hand. Bohemians of the ‘thirties had found their pleasure with the work girls of Paris and had so glorified them in literature that there were many tiny frozen hands in chilly garrets willing to be warmed by love and support in what, now, became an accepted sphere of social life. By the ‘fifties, association with a woman of quite another class of birth had become the fashion and had moved out of the garrets into a life of its own. The woman was no longer the little work-girl, but one who used the glamour of the entertainment world as a stepping-stone to notoriety. From what one can gather of their appearance from early photo­ graphs their only claim to favour was, in the words of a caption to a Garvani cartoon of the period, as ‘forbidden fruits’ or as the object in a futile competition of fortune-wasting. To our modern taste, and in comparison, the ‘lady’ of the day would win hands down, but after a surfeit of sweetness a man must have found a little uninhibited vulgarity a most refreshing change. A discreet liaison was not at all to the taste of these forceful females, and although not received in polite society’s private gatherings (unlike the women involved in a famous scandal of recent years) they could display their conquests and the fruits of their protector’s bounty on their ample persons at all places of public entertainment. The extraordinary situation arose in which the fashionable world was on two levels, with the men, only, mixing freely in both. As show was the principal reason for this semi-social world, the demi-mondaines exercised their not inconsiderable powers of exhibitionism to make their appearance noticed. Fashionable dress had at that moment (around 1855) reached its limit in bulk, and it was the simultaneous desire to exaggerate still further an already monstrous shape, while relieving the body of the weight and encumbrances of pads, petticoats, horsehair and whalebone, that sparked off the ingenious idea of constructing a frame of circular steel hoops to hold out the skirts to whatever circumference was desired. Advertising being in its infancy, the great dress-designers only just beginning their empirical rule and the popular press not yet alive to the public’s appetite for details of the private lives of spectacular characters, we are not at all sure who invented, or wore, the first crinoline frame. But the idea was a winner, the makers of one type netting 750,000 francs in one month. Great competition then prevailed in improving their astonishing skirt foundation. Watch-spring steel replaced wire; ingenious methods of expanding and contracting the size while in use, and safeguards against embarrassments were all worked out and advertised. It mattered little to the ordinary woman how this cage-like frame came into being for it enhanced the shape and relieved her limbs from the encumbrances that had made even walking difficult. To the coquette it gave an enticing air of unapproachability and -a most gorgeous discovery – when well manoeuvred it swung like a bell, to disclose feet and ankles that, having been hidden for so long, had become items of particularly exciting interest. The usual storm broke over this new evidence of woman’ s absurdity, and such were the hazards of controlling a stiff wire cage surmounted by dozens of yards of material, fringes, frills and ruchings that the comic cartoons of Punch were hardly caricatures. Nothing daunted, every woman, from the Queens down to scullery maids and even peasant women in the villages, took to the crinoline like swans to the water and appeared in it for every form of activity -except horse-riding. They managed to get into carriages and buses, play with th children, emigrate and follow the guns on the moors in it, for th steel cage gave them an air of arrogance they had long been lacking. With one or more ladies in full sail an escort was forced to retire completely into the background or be lost among the folds. The flounce (delightful word that expresses exactly the attitude of women at that time) was another means of enlarging the skirt. In 1840 the dress had fallen in simple folds, held out by starched petticoats with, perhaps, one flounce to widen the hem line. As the years advanced the bell shape widened over more petticoats and the flounces increased to eight or nine. By 1858 the frills could number up to fifty, the wider flounces themselves trimmed with ribbon or lace and scalloped, festooned or fringed. At its most menacing, around 1859, the skirt measured ten yards round and in the hands of a designer most anxious to please the more outrageous leaders of fashion it could resemble a rustic beehive nestling in a rose garden; only the bees were missing. As the skirt increased in circumference all the lightest gauzes of the East, or of the busy mills of England and France, were used to produce creations of frothy unreality and although the sewing machine had been introduced from America into Europe in the early ‘fifties its performance was not then equal in expertise to the hand and all this glamour was produced by overworked fingers, very often to be worn by the elite on one or two occasions only. The lovely materials held their perils, however, as being so far away from the flimsy perimeter it was impossible to see imminent danger from fire, and heartrending are the tales of ghastly death caused by these fairy dresses, especially to actresses in dangerous proximity to the gas or candle footlights – for Lady Macbeth, Phaedra and Medea were all à la mode. The whole dress conformed to the bell shape, and the line of sloping shoulders and rounded arms, like a handle, had to disappear into the skirts. By day the sleeves were fitted at the top and belled to three-quarter-length over full muslin undersleeves. By night they were merely a continuation, across the shoulders, of. the neckline that slipped lower and lower off the body as the skirts grew wider and longer at the back. Hairdressing, too, followed the round shape of the dress, dipping low at the back, where all the interest of decoration was centred. Bonnets were low on the head with a tiny curtain to cover braids, buns or curls gathered low on the nape. The indefatigable Mrs Beeton had introduced paper patterns of dress designs, from France, in 1860, and with their aid, at the price of Ss 6d, a skilful woman or ‘little dressmaker’ could concoct quite intricate replicas of the real thing. With the cost of a crinoline frame or petticoat, which could be used as a foundation under any dress at the modest price of 21s, fashionable clothes were within the reach of any woman with energy and perseverance. To good Mrs Beeton must go the honours for attacking for the first time those class barriers of dress which, through the sewing­ machine and mass manufacture, were finally demolished in the next decade.

Additional information

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm