Need a last-minute Halloween costume idea or have been invited to a fancy Victorian dress ball and don't know what to wear? Fret not. These costume designers have you covered.
The Victorians adored fancy-dress parties: what better way to escape the rigidity of social conventions than to spend a festive evening disguised as Cleopatra, a Swiss milkmaid, Alice in Wonderland, a jester, hen woman, a witch or Hell itself, looking pretty in a pink puffy skirt? Some women also took advantage of Halloween to be a little risqué and scandalously show some ankle or bare shoulders, after being modestly covered from head to toe the other 364 days a year.
Well-to-do party-goers of the era consulted the book, Fancy dresses described: or, What to wear at fancy ball, an elaborate, alphabetical guide to hundreds of glorious costumes written by British author Ardern Holt, who wrote columns on society and fashion, primarily for Queen magazine; and also turned to prolific costume designers Léon Sault and Charles William Pitcher, known as Wilhelm.
Fancy dresses described: or, What to wear at fancy ball, first written in the 1879, was so popular that it was updated several times, with the sixth and final edition published in 1896. The costumes are mostly for women, but include a section on children's dress. Holt also makes suggestions for couples, including Jack and Jill, rooster and hen, any kings and queens, a wizard and witch, night and morning, or night and day.
Costumes range from the peasant garb of Austria, Italy, and Ireland to the finery of the six wives of Henry VIII, Marie Antoinette, and other members of French and English royalty. There are also costumes perfectly suited for Halloween, including a couple of witch variations and a goblin outfit for a child.
Additional entries spotlight characters from Shakespeare and Dickens; traditional apparel of Egypt and ancient Greece and Rome; Cinderella, Maid Marian, and other folkloric figures; as well as outfits suggested by astronomy, the seasons, the animal kingdom, and other thematic subjects. Costume designers, reenactors, lovers of Victorian fashion, and Halloween enthusiasts can find these historic volumes a tremendous source of inspiration.
Holt’s versions of this book over the years got increasingly less conservative as the era progressed. But he was still prescriptive in what you were allowed to wear, from blonde to brunette, old to young and he even insisted your costume had to match your personality:
"It behooves those who really desire to look well to study what is individually becoming to themselves, and then to bring to bear some little care in the carrying out of the dresses they select, if they wish their costumes to be really a success. There are few occasions when a woman has a better opportunity of showing her charms to advantage than at a Fancy Ball," he wrote.
Some of my favorite costumes featured here are from the fifth edition of the book published in 1887 by Debenham & Freebody: Wyman & Sons of London. The book was contributed to the Internet Archive by the University of California Libraries and is free to download.
According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sault was a fashion and theater designer and illustrator who later became a magazine editor, publishing some of his fancy dress costume designs as part of a series titled "L'Art du Travestissment" (The Art of Fancy Dress). His designs included characters such as Mephistopheles and embodiments of concepts such as Astronomy.
He also designed a lot of costumes for the great fashion designer Charles Frederick Worth, considered by many to be the father of haute couture and who founded the House of Worth, one of the foremost fashion houses of the 19th and early 20th centuries. During the 1860s, Empress Eugenie of France threw a number of extravagant masquerade balls which required the guests to wear elaborate and inventive costumes that were made up by Worth based on Sault's designs.
Wilhelm was one of the most inventive and prolific late 19th century costume designers, whose early passion for stage spectacle led to his employment designing pantomime costumes for Drury Lane Theatre. His attention to detail and his ability to create visually stunning and decorative costumes appealed to producers and public alike and led to a constant stream of work, according to the V & A Museum.
Wilhelm worked in the prevailing style of late 19th century realism, but with an imagination and flair. It was his knowledge of the techniques of stage costume making, and how to use materials, that made Wilhelm supreme among stage designers.