One of the many things about the Victorian era that fascinate me is dress code. Like everything else in a woman’s life, it all seemed to be about limiting her freedom. Her reputation was precious and it took very little for it to be smudged. To be seen in public without a hat or gloves, was unheard of, no matter what class she came from. The colour red was considered shocking (floozies only!) and we are all aware of the mourning restrictions regarding black (that strangely didn’t apply to men, other than a black band on a sleeve!). Looking back it is hard to believe that women submitted to these strictures. But for anyone interested in costume and accessories, we have been left with a wonderful collection of artifacts to admire or collect.
My particular favourite was the fan. They first appeared in Ancient Greece about the 4th century, and developed into a staple fashion accessory during the 17th century. The leaves could be made of anything from silk, or parchment to feathers, intricately decorated with jewels, lace, etc., while the sticks evolved from bone to ivory and tortoiseshell, often embellished with gold and silver work.
And they weren’t just to keep you cool. An entire language developed, used by young ladies to communicate with the opposite sex – a way to cope with the restricting social etiquette that prevailed in ballrooms throughout Europe.
Chatelaines, often worn by the woman of the house, also intrigue me. They were a set of short chains on a belt with a variety of useful items such as keys, sewing kit, scissors, watches, vinaigrette and household seals. They were symbols of power. Younger women in the house often wanted the appearance of this responsibility, and would wear decorative chatelaines with a variety of small objects in place of the keys. In a bachelor or widower’s house, the housekeeper would have worn it. Below is a particularly beautiful example.
And of course there were hats. Lots of hats. Big ones, small ones and delicate ones. Sigh!
But of course it would be the Edwardians who would take the hat to its most glorious … but that’s another day’s post.
Historical fiction writer, blogger