After living through lockdowns, the stress of trying to decide what to wear on a big night out might be a bit of a hazy memory that we’re going to have to get familiar with again. But just be thankful you’re not a woman of the 1800s who had a whole world of rules to negotiate. ‘Etiquette’ in the 1800s covered everything from the rules of polite behaviour to the very specific dress codes for virtually every different social interaction. So, what did the typical wealthy woman have to consider when picking her outfit for an evening’s event?
When thinking about dress of that time we might think of corsets, camisoles, slip-dresses, petticoats and overskirts, all of which could make just getting dressed more complicated. But that was only the tip of the iceberg.
An 1800s woman may have changed her clothes four times a day before the evening, starting the day in a loose, comfortable gown called a ‘wrapper’ before moving into something more formal with a high neckline to receive visitors. She would then be expected to change her outfit if going out to run errands, take a walk or visit friends. A fancier fabric could then be worn for the afternoon. Once the sun went down, all the rules changed. High necks and long sleeves were replaced by shorter sleeves, the baring of shoulders and lowering of necklines.
Women’s magazines promoted the styles of the time, encouraging women to stay on top of current fashion trends through fashion illustrations and even paper patterns and sewing instructions for DIY garment-making. In the early 1800s La Belle Assemblee (1806-32) and Le Beau Monde (1806-10) were highly popular, and in the 1860s The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine was a major source of instruction for women in all aspects of their lives.
Wearing the ‘wrong’ outfit was socially unacceptable, so it was important for an 1800s woman to know what she needed to wear for each social occasion. The rules were different depending on the event they were attending, whether it was a dinner, theatre, opera or ball.
Ball gowns were more fanciful, airy and elaborate in comparison to formal dinner dresses. The ballroom required women to wear their most decorative gowns, luxurious fabrics, lavish trimmings and sparkling jewels. As the popular dances of the ‘polka’ and the waltz were quite energetic and women needed to wear multiple layers of undergarments, they understandably had to wear lighter fabrics to a ball. A heavy, rich fabric would only be appropriate for older or married women who were expected to chaperone rather than dance. While young single ladies attended a ball in the expectation of finding and attracting a husband, married and older women were left on the sidelines, guarding the rules of decency between the singletons.
Ball gowns were expected to be in cheerful, light colours in keeping with the fun nature of the event. For dinner, more neutral colours were expected: black or dark colours being particularly fashionable. It was a definite no-no to expose too much skin at the dinner table so necklines were higher and sleeves expected. Dresses did not need excessive ornament or decoration as most of the gown would be hidden under the table. There was also a difference between the outfits expected to be worn to attend the opera and the theatre. While light materials would have floated around a dancefloor, they could be easily crushed in the crowds attending an opera. Silks were therefore a preferred fabric with a lower neckline exposing more of the shoulders. Women went to the opera to be seen and admired so were expected to wear their luxurious gowns with a richly embroidered and embellished ‘opera cloak’. The theatre however, had different rules. Women were not expected to make a statement in their theatre dress, with a more subdued look being the order of the evening.
No element of dress was left without instruction. For all occasions, the hair had to be accessorised. Bonnets and hats that would have been worn in the day could be substituted for flowers, feathers, and jewels in the evening. An opera or ball would see a more elaborate decoration of the hair than dinners and theatres. Gloves were typically longer in the evening than in the daytime and whilst they could be white for an opera or a ball, they should be any other colour if attending the theatre. Gloves could only be removed at the dinner table; to do so at any other time would have caused quite the scandal.
Alongside the more instructional magazines, hundreds of articles discussed the virtues and vices of women’s fashion. It was a difficult time to be a woman in the 1800s, as women were ridiculed for their ‘obsession’ with fashion but faced social exclusion if they didn’t meet expectations. Their social status and ability to acquire a husband were linked to the way they looked. As Lynn Linton wrote in The Girl of the Period in 1883, “if one must have a fool in one’s house, the pretty one would be the best, as, at the least, pleasant to look at; which is something gained.”
The next time you’re standing in front of your mirror worrying over what to wear, spare a thought for a woman of the 1800s, who could meet the 101 rules of evening wear and still be considered a fool.