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Friday, 18 March 2011

“But Why All This Constant Change and Varying of the Fashions?” Or: Ladies Fashions in 1877:

As an addendum to last week’s ladies and fashion posts, I have added this article that I found in the periodical The Leisure Hour from June 1877. It concerns similar fashion related themes, though this article is sixteen years older than those posted last week concerning ladies fashions.
Interestingly, this article also mentions a man I have blogged about a few weeks ago, fashion pioneer Charles Worth, who, according to this article, worked at Jays Mourning Warehouse in London. (Though this is the only place I have seen that information.) 

The article deals chiefly with the way fashion in London worked, and why the ever changing tide of fashion was (and, I suppose therefore, is) a good thing.

Ladies Fashions
Changes of fashion in dress are proverbially frequent and great. My first recollection of my own mother is that of a pretty, delicately made young lady about the middle height, with black eyes, ivory complexion, and dark glossy hair, arranged on the top of her head in five or seven immense upright loops or bows, whilst over the forehead, it was arranged in French curls.
She wore a myrtle green brocaded silk dress, short enough to show the ankle and foot enclosed in white silken hose and black satin shoe. The body was cut low in the neck, but not nearly so low as evening dresses are now worn. Round the throat was a neckerchief of black net, covered with flowers worked in silk with a tambour needle, tied with studied negligence.
The huge leg-of-mutton sleeves were well stiffened out at the shoulders and tight to the wrists, where, one above another, two or three tight gold bracelets were clasped.

It needed a pretty woman to look well in such a costume, and hose were hard times for the very tall or the very stout. But even this costume was a great improvement on the dress worn some years before, specimens of which a certain old wardrobe contained, and which were sometimes lent us to play at “dressing up” and wearing “trains.” Those horrible dresses had the lowest of low bodies and the shortest of round waists. The worst of them – when the fashion had reached its height, I suppose – measured only a few inches from the neck to the waist, and the bust was fitted with the minuteness of a skin. I am sure the body did not exceed three inches in depth. The sleeves were equally short, and puffed, so as to stand out each side of the shoulders like wings. The skirts were short and gored tight to the form, measuring at the widest part barely three yards round.
The only merit they possessed was economy of material, for I remember hearing that my mamma and grandmamma each had a present of a china crepe shawl from abroad, which was either a shawl or a dress-piece., and mamma’s was made up into one of the very dresses I can remember as contained in the old wardrobe.
It was quite plain, except a row of small tabs round the neck, made of white taffetas by way of a berthe, and a very full, pinked-out rouche round the extreme edge of the skirt.

It is said that fashion always repeats itself after a lapse of years. Let us sincerely hope this very “undress” style may never come in again. A narrow scarf and long gloves were considered sufficient additions for walking abroad in mild weather. Addison relates an amusing story of his astonishment in visiting a remote country village to find the rural ladies attired in the very latest London fashions, till, on enquiring , he learnt that they had not changed their style of garments for ten years, and that the new “mode” was the revival of an old one. Apropos of this, I look up at my great-grandmother’s portrait. There she sits, good lady, a beauty in her days, in a damask robe of the new “peacock blue,” with square-cut body and Dolly Varden sleeves with their white frills, and brown hair dressed off the face, for all the world like a young lady of the present day, save for a peak to the stomacher.

Ladies’ attire has never been so artistically arranged or so generally becoming in any age as at the present day, and the ill-favoured never before had such a good time of it. She must be plain indeed who looks so now. Neither is our present style of dress costly. The universal “polonaise” tunic takes but little material, and the fashion of making the gown, or “costume,” as it is the order of the day to call it, of two materials, gives scope for doing up old dresses and utilising remnants.
Some readers may ask why the designs for ladies clothing are prettier at the present time than of yore.
Everyone knows that the fashions in dress emanate from the sister capital, the gay metropolis of “La belle France.” Worth, the great man-milliner, if he has to answer the grievous charge of tempting to ruinous extravagance, has yet, certainly inaugurated the reign of improved taste. Racking his own brains, and employing the most valuable assistance regardless of cost, to design shapes and forms in garments that shall enhance beauty and conceal its absence as much as possible, and at the same time follow out the laws of good taste, every successive effort has achieved a fresh success. The impetus once given, others have joined in the contest.
In France artists of some note are not too proud to draw the design of a garment or the pattern to be embroidered on it, and the manufacturers of articles of dress for ladies are not niggardly in making the reward worthy of their acceptance. Besides this, there are persons who obtain a good living by merely designing dresses. Amongst others, I could mention a certain Frenchman who announces his annual visit to London in a fashionable journal about February with a stock of bijouterie, false hair, and “designs for ladies’ dresses.” These designs are drawn and coloured by hand on tinted cardboard , and fetch from one to five guineas each.
He will only show two – or, at the outside, three – to a customer, and if a purchase is not made, he returns them to his portfolio, refusing to show any others, with a polite, but final “Then I have nothing which will suit you.”
But if purchased, one or two more will be brought out to tempt the customer to further outlay. These designs are most frequently sold to West end shops and high-class milliners.

But our own English people are not lax in inventing designs. Nay, it must not be forgotten that the now celebrated Worth, the guide of Parisian fashion, is an Englishman, once a member of the staff of assistants at a well known mourning warehouse in Regent Street, where they have at the present time head clerks who are employed constantly in designing new robes and mantles, and who draw well.

Some of our readers will say “But why all this constant change and varying of the fashions? Why cannot we establish one good style and keep to it? Why need women waste their money in constantly shifting the cut and custom of their garb?”
Here are three questions which need three answers.

Why this constant change?
But for this change manufacturers would grow stagnant, commerce would flag, and factory hands and needleworkers starve. Had not each woman of our community better be taxed a little in a frequent change of clothes, than half our women – and men and children too – starve? I ask those well meaning people who propose to save in clothes and give in charity, whether it is better to pay wages to working folk, or first to make, and then to feed, a race of paupers? Do not suppose that I am advocating or apologising for undue extravagance. The thrifty woman knows how to cut and turn her own and her children’s raiment. The honest woman will not spend more than she can afford; and why should the rich woman not disburse a little of her surplus wealth, and “make good for trade”?

I have yet another plea for fashion cleanliness and health. It is not goof for health to wear garments too long a time. They all imbibe, not only the impurity of the atmosphere, but some of the emanations of the body. We change our linen frequently, but the more thrifty among us make our dresses, mantles and such coloured garments as are dark and long-wearing, last a considerable time. It is well that we should not make them last too long. As long as they do not look shabby, we are tempted to overlook the question of health. Indeed, I believe it has never occurred to some minds. The cheerfulness a new garment induces is referred altogether to vanity, and the airy freshness imparted by cleanliness forgotten. So much for the part taken by purchasers and wearers of new dresses.

But the vendors of clothing and the dressmakers combine to make the changes of fashion as frequent as possible that their own trades may flourish. And in this conspiracy the ladies of rank join them. It is always the desire of women of position to wear a different style of dress from that of the populace, and this can only be achieved in these days of progress and equality by a constant succession of changes. As soon as my Lady Duchess appears in a new style, Mrs. Citizen, with the assistance of her mercer’s manufacturer, who has also been on the qui vive, has a clumsy copy of it.

No sooner is Mrs. Citizen seen in her new splendour than Betty, through the medium of a maker for the million, equally alert, is arrayed in a grotesque caricature of the thing. When I speak of a clumsy copy and grotesque caricature, I do so in no invidious spirit, with no absurd prejudice of aristocracy. It is a literal fact. The original design is almost always graceful, however peculiar it may be. The manufacturer and dressmaker of inferior capacity who copy it in inferior, and perhaps, unsuitable materials, too scantily or too amply cut, render an exaggerated caricature.
The ordinary female pedestrians of the lower-middle classes represent almost always a burlesque of the original fashion; and so as Dame Fashion gets reproached when Bad Taste should have all the blame.

“This is all very well,” says a crusty old gentleman at my elbow; “very well for an excuse. But look at your ugly fashion-plates; look at your journals for women-folk; what can you say in extenuation of them?” I reply, “There are fashion-plates and fashion-plates. You know nothing about it. In the first place, the newest and most elegant fashions are never published in fashion-plates. Our English aristocratic ladies have their dresses made by modes not yet published, and the French are in advance of them. It is not till a mode is going out of vogue with the crème de la crème in Paris that it is drawn and printed in French journals. We English are often a year behind the French, and if we have from a good source all their newest-printed fashion-plates, we should find such dresses in vogue in England just twelve months later. All our best coloured fashion-plates come from Paris, and have the name of the English journal that issues them printed on them after their arrival, or sometimes by the Parisian houses to order.

As for the smudgy, uncoloured prints we sometimes see, the best of them are stereotypes or casts from French woodcuts, badly printed. Some of the French originals of what look but ugly pictures as they are issued in England, are very beautiful and delicate in execution and graceful in appearance. The blottiness of the print seems actually to abolish the grace of the design.
But the inferior pictures of fashion, both coloured and black-and-white, are imported from Germany. The German fashions are for the most part clumsy copies from Parisian designs, and are often ugly and inelegant, as well as coarsely executed and ill-drawn. They are also much cheaper.

Many attempts have been made from time to time to produce fashion illustrations for ladies’ journals in this country, but have always failed, especially in the colouring, the class of persons employed for that purpose not possessing the same good taste as our foreign neighbours.
                                 G. C. C.


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