Thursday, 20 June 2013

Period Fancy Dress

I'm a little bit obsessed with period fancy dress, especially when they dress up in the costumes another period. To me there's something endlessly fascinating about the blending of two periods as one era blends historic ideas with their contemporary aesthetic.

Take this photo of Prinzessin Viktoria von Preussen aka “Moretta” from the 1880s.The silhouette and neckline is unmistakeably 1880s, but the frills, sleeves and pannier skirt loops (without the shaping undergarments) show us that she is dressing in her interpretation of a Rococo costume. What I particularly like is the hair, the front curls are very late Victorian, but the height is, what we would call, Rococo 'inspired'.

Here is a dress from the 1760s, the sort of style she is imitating
This is an 1880s evening gowns from Charles Worth, the style she might have worn to a normal evening party.

Here's a few more period fancy dress gowns:

Princess Louise of England in rococo costume. 1865 - note the 1860s crinoline: once again the silhouette is entirely contemporary, but the hair is more authentic and she has the elbow length sleeve with lace. I wish we could see the front!

Queen Maude of Norway does 17th C style fancy dress 1897. I love the fabric choice here but the proportions look so odd with the the large shoulders and narrow skirt: much more 1890s the 17th Century. The collar is superb though.

A Lady's 17th C Dutch servant girl fancy dress - Charles Worth C1900. This costume feels very romanticised fairy tale character, and apart from the severe corseting, not unlike the sort of thing you would find in a Simplicity pattern

It seems that it's hardest for Victorians to accurately interpret pre-1800 costumes, when the corsets were more angular and petticoats more dramatic. The dead giveaway though is the Victorian curved corsets, as opposed to the straighter style used in previous decades.

Not everyone would have had family portrait galleries to use as inspiration. Here's some fashion sketches for fancy dress parties that would have been available, much like we would use fashion magazines for inspiration. They've done a pretty respectable job with the ones below.

1845 Fancy Dress Costume of 1700s
Duchess of Devonshire from 'Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls,' by Hold, Ardern, 1896

Dress of Tudor Period from 'Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls,' by Hold, Ardern, 1896
For me part of the fun is dating the actual period when the costume was designed. I like this one, because I don't know the date. I'm guessing it's probably from the 1870s or 1880s trying to do Elizabethan, soldier, and I can't even hazard a guess on the pink gown. I'm tempted to say Moulin Rouge, but given that she appears to be a child, it doesn't seem appropriate.

Please don't think I'm criticising these costumes, if anything I'm admiring them. This is the real anthropology of costumes, an insight into how previous periods perceived other eras. We romanticise the fashions of Victorian times, who in turn also romanticised previous periods. And we are no means immune to editing period fashions to suit contemporary ideals (but that's a post for another day).

This one below is my absolute favourite: Yes that does say Marie Antoinette period: she is of course famous for her leg-o-mutton sleeves. There is a slight nod to a panier petticoat and split front skirt but apart from that there is no resemblance to anything Marie Antoinette would have worn. Perhaps there was a different Marie Antoinette who lived in 1895???


  1. This is fascinating. I think every time suffers from an inability to divorce 'retro' from contemporary fashion sensibilities. Or is it that we want to 'sex up' past fashion to appear attractive in our own age? It's an interesting question (which I'm in no way qualified to answer!). Anyway, my favourite game is to chart the evolution of the representation of 40s fashion in film. War films from the 1960s: ooh, look at that incongruous beehive. 1980s: just really obviously 1980s' baggy shirt dresses. The noughties: over-the-top polished, highly tailored (i.e. tight) suits.

  2. Queen Maud is imitating French Renaissance style rather than the 18th century. Queen Alexandra went as Marguerite de Valois, queen of France (1553-1615), and her daughters Maud and Victoria posed as ladies in waiting for this queen. Maud's husband came as a Danish Renaissance courtier. If you look up a photo of Maud, Victoria and Carl, you'll see they're definitely sporting the Renaissance and not Rococo style.