Summer Walking and Children’s Dress, 1830-1833

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History of Costume I 1800-1899

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With the coming of the 1830’s we plunge into the wild sea of Romanticism at its height and see the change it wrought in the fashions of the period. Without, yet, a strong enough cause to champion and the gulf between the classes closing, the man of ideas soured in his attitude to the drift of events, and if he fought at all it was in petulant bitterness against the power and bad taste of the rising industrial class. It was also a very good excuse for exhibitionism in manners and dress, to show by dramatic clothes and antisocial behaviour an exclusiveness and a dissatisfaction with the ways of the majority (we suffer in the mid-20th century from the same malaise, with our beatniks and long-haired protestors). As, of course, this meant a change from previous fashions and the innovators were influential there were many eager to be in the vogue, and for a generation the most rapid transformation took place in the appearance and behaviour of the fashionable world. It was mostly to be seen in women’s clothes since, as has already been said, male costume became conservative after 1800 and it was only in colour, width of shoulder and lapels, and furtive attempts to change the headgear that we see a reflection of the original ideas of the fashion-launching male. The earlier Byronic theory of being born at an unsuitable period for the reception of ideals persisted and made itself apparent in an attitude of a reluctant acceptance of the inevitable and a spirit of acid and hopeless melancholy. This fatalism would seem to be a repentance, or sickness, for the freedom and sensual enjoyment of the Revolution and post-war years but without a religious or moral cause, unlike to Commonwealth period in England, the pose became unhealthily egoistic. The enlightened took refuge, from the materialism they could do nothing to combat, in suffering or in the appearance of melancholy endurance. It is one thing to start a vogue and another to follow it perseveringly to a logical conclusion, and alas, on many of the Romantic idols we glimpse the cloven hoof or feet of clay that took the broad and pleasant way. Be that as it may, once launched the movement had ardent followers, and the tormented appearance, the out-of-this-world look of the beau ideal, the lofty poet, caught the fancy of the youth of the late 1820’s and ‘thirties and, as with every extreme fashion; much suffering was endured in the good cause of keeping up with the Byrons, Gautiers etc. It seems incredible that people could, on purpose, physically waste away, but with a strong determination to undermine the health and the right mental attitude, a situation was created that can be statistically proved to have caused early deaths, and so eager were the serious to do the thing properly that suicide was the only resort for those of sterner constitution. Gone were the days of freedom of limb and the bloom of health. To be absolutely with it a pale or sallow complexion, intense or fevered eyes and the leanness of the hermit was the pattern to follow. Semi-starvation, drinking vinegar or lemon, and drops of belladonna to dilate the pupils of the eyes were short cuts to creating the admired appearance, and, with lack of exercise, tight lacing and an enormous increase in the consumption of drink, th atmosphere was excellent for the hallucinations and fatalities so much enjoyed by this morbid generation. The climate of Romanticism would appear to be most unhealthy. A quick change of character was necessary for woman to fit into this dramatic scene, and from the gay camaraderie of the previous generation she had to submit to being treated as something frail and hypersensitive, above material needs, and as another fatal instrument of man’s torment to be combatted by the vinegar, bella­donna and drink. It has been suggested that the shortened skirts of this time show the beginning of the movement for women’s emancipation. Rather, it would seem to be the adaptation of the mode of the moment as the shoulder-line had slipped much too low for any sign of rebellion against the gradual and fatal raising of woman on to her pedestal. Except in one field, of which more anon, woman was well on the way to complete subjection. It may have been admiration for the protestations of the period of the Reformation that selected the early 16th century as a pattern for the high fashion of the day. It seems an extraordinary paradox for the drooping spirits of the age. Logically one would expect the long, trailing, slim garments of the middle ages as we see reflected in the Romantic revival in the ‘fifties in England. The fashion was an easy evolution from, and exaggeration of, the shape of the previous period, assisted by the fact that German influence was, at that time, very strong. The result was that the female silhouette became almost square, as broad as tall, the shoulders disappearing altogether in one drooping line from neck to enormous leg-of-mutton sleeves tapering to tiny cuffs. Wide turned-down collars or lapels right off the shoulders emphasized the sudden pulling in of the lengthened waist, now firmly corseted to give the right appearance of delicacy and add to the vapours and fainting that were necessary to creatures of such sensitivity. The huge sleeves that are a predominant note in this fashion were again a follow-through from the earlier style. In the great veiling of the flesh the short-puffed sleeves of the still classic mode were covered with long ones of thin muslin or gauze, necessarily large at the top but tapering towards the wrist. When made in opaque material the effect was of a leg of mutton and equalled in s extravagance those of Henry VIII himself. The crowning triumph was the hat: great flat round tam-o-shanter bonnets trimmed with feathers and ribbons and, jauntily balanced on puffed-out short curls, very reminiscent of the Lanzknecht of Durer’s engravings. Uncomfortable as it must have been, the line became popular as we can see from many portraits of the period, and even when less flagrantly extreme was still an exaggeration of the natural figure. Charming Indian printed muslins and chintz adapted themselves suitably to the stiff line over hip petticoats, flounced at the bottom to widen the short hem, showing dainty dancing sandals often squared at the toe after the same Reformation model. Children still suffered from adult fashions, the boys wearing Father’s frock coat, waisted, shortened and puffed at this period. They had been allowed a little comfort in sailors’ loose pantaloons for many years but the perfect little gentleman had his trousers strapped under his boots to be fashionable. The little peaked cap he owed to the mariner in the same way that children of a later date had to bear the blouses or short jackets of seamen and ‘middy suits’. Small girls were slightly less pulled in than their Mamas but high or square shoulders were strenuously dealt with and legs were cluttered with pantaloons and skirts to the ankles. Charming as we may find them, with their flounces and wide picture hats, life appears to have been tedious for the young of that day. Romanticism in the shape of horrors entered the nursery in the moral, goody literature so reformingly churned out for their edification. Pastimes of hoop-pushing and top-whipping, according to the season, were varied with weary sampler-embroidery for the girls (even in their tender years the more oppressed sex) and were all a sober nature which we see reflected in their serious melancholy little faces.

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm