Evening Dress, 1832-1840

£5.00

History of Costume I 1800-1899

Availability: In stock

Some generations, much more than others, signpost an important change in the look that reflects the social behaviour of the time; it is for this reason that we have lingered on the 1830’s, the years that not only created an outstanding fashion but laid the foundations of a new way of life that was to endure through a century. It is the metamorphosis of a new attitude to woman and the way the silly creature fell into the trap, with such girlish enthusiasm, that makes such a strong impression of the period. The pinched-waisted, puffed-fronted men were typical, but to them was granted the privilege of changing their behaviour with their styles, whilst the position in society of the great majority of women remained hum-drum and static for generations. It cannot be expected that the principles of an intellectual movement will be understood by the masses, and very soon after any revolution only the trappings of an ideal are left. Not that the Romantic movement was anything to write home about, but it had at least something blood-stirring, or -curdling, in it. What filtered through to the less perceptive majority was decidedly anaemic. Values changed, feeling was less deep and it was the appearance of sentiment that remained and grew stronger during the century, resulting in the sickening attitude to patriotism and war and the indifference to suffering in those outside the pale of a comfortable income. The Italian Romantic Ballet can be credited, in great part, with fixing the new image of woman. La belle Taglioni danced like a sprite in her layers of tulle, big-eyed and innocent, in a strong limelight that lifted her, even higher than her elevation, out of this world. The frail delicacy of her personality and dress were so much admired that the sale of chiffon and gauze doubled, and the girls rushed, with varied success, to assume the ethereal figure and complexion of their idol. To retain a pose it is necessary to have the co-operation of a partner and, quite obviously, the attitude did not appear funny to the opposite sex who rallied to the sprite worship with a will. The soulful femme fatale of the Romantics had never been very popular in England and, indeed, hardly fitted in to the solid domestic life that still endured in this country, but the delicate ultra-feminine creature, so tender and frail, positively demanded the so-strong protective male with the wide shoulder, or shirt front, as a haven for distressed weak heads. That he got heartily sick of the role and added a little spice to his existence with the ladies less clinging and of more independence of spirit is another matter; for the image of the ‘little woman’ had come to stay, and permeated everything in social life – the clothes, the literature and music. Where the Romantics had wrestled with feeling, their successors wallowed in sentimentality. The Romantic ballet gave a fresh fillip to dancing and it is strange how the delicate woman could manage to last out a ball with 24 set dances and a supper at midnight. The ballroom was an excellent background to show off ethereal graces and the valse was the exact medium for a swooning reliance on a strong arm. The short skirts were probably the outcome of the ballet and the materials quite certainly reflected the flimsy costumes of its exponents. Flimsy, but of such volume that only the tops of the arms and the downward-sloping shoulders could rise from an obscuring cloud, in contrast to the revealing flimsiness of the early years of the century. Yards and yards of gauze were gathered, puffed and flounced into these pantomime-fairy dresses, the most solid part of which might be in the scalloped or vandyked satin, low bertha collars or as trimming on the wide sleeves. The hem was piped with cords to stiffen the underskirt of pale flower colours. The head had undergone a transformation with the widening of the silhouette. Centre partings divided frizzy puffs over each ear while the back hair was pulled tormentingly tight on to the top of the head in a bun, or coil, from which sprouted flowers, ribbon bows and, or, plumes. The slightly coy (and this was the most exciting variation of the soulful innocent) might even, daringly, copy the Taglioni wreath of roses, slightly tipped askew, and don dangling ear-rings to match a set of heavy necklace, brooch and bangles, in turquoise or coral, that became so popular at this time. As the years advanced and the demure image became set, the hair was parted and smoothed down in two wings over the ears and caught up at the back in the fashion we always associate with the young Queen Victoria. Men’s appearance was undergoing a change as much in colour as in shape. The Romantics had favoured sombre colours to suit their mood and, except for the ultra-smart dandy whose aim was to be noticeable, the darker materials added dignity to the man-about­ town, and from now on the well-dressed man kept to blacks, greys and browns and the woollen mills commenced their output of fine suitings that still hold first place in the markets of the world – and have made such vast fortunes for the merchants of the north of England. The late ‘thirties saw the first black coats for evening dress. We shall never know to whom this boon to mankind can be attributed, and its acceptance was gradual, but he must have been a determined and far-seeing fellow to whom the impecunious or the social climber must always be grateful. In very few instances in the history of costume has convenience or thrift triumphed over capricious fashion. Besides, it was soon discovered how well the complete suit of black cloth showed off a good figure and improved a bad one. Women may have encouraged the continuance of the fashion as there was at least no competition in brilliance of attire and the black made a perfect foil to a colourful ball dress. The waistcoat could be pale coloured but was mostly white over a pleated or frilled shirt ending in the still high collar and white stock, which later became narrower and was tied with a flat bow in front. The pantaloons could still be short for evening wear, reaching just to the ankles, but were of an incredible tightness, equalled only by the most modern stretch material now made for ski trousers. That, at least, was the aim of the designers and the ideal of the fashion prints and could only be realized by refraining from sitting or bending the knee. The portraits of the period show a slightly different picture and it is no wonder that the underfoot strap retain­ ed its popularity for so long.

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm