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Patricia Zakreski, Making a Black Ball Gown: Fashion and Social Change in the 1870s

2016 February 15
by lucinda matthews-jones

Patricia Zakreski is Lecturer in Victorian Literature and Culture at the University of Exeter. She is the author of Representing Female Artistic Labour, 1848–1890: Refining Work for the Middle-Class Woman (Ashgate, Farnham, 2006). She is co-editor of ‘What is a Woman to Do?’ A Reader on Women, Work and Art, c. 1830–1890 (Peter Lang, Oxford, 2011) and Crafting the Woman Professional in the Long Nineteenth Century: Artistry and Industry in Britain (Ashgate, Farnham, 2013). Her current project includes articles and a monograph on nineteenth-century women’s writing and the decorative arts.

This post accompanies Patricia Zakreski’s Journal of Victorian Culture article ‘Fashioning the Domestic Novel: Rewriting Narrative Patterns in Margaret Oliphant’s Phoebe, Junior and Dress‘. You can download her article here.

Clothes shopping, so far as many of us are concerned, is really a series of compromises, between price and sense, intuition and experience, taste and function. This internal dialogue gets immediately to the heart of everyday negotiations between culture and body: what is in fashion at the moment and what styles actually suit us? Cut, colour, and material are just some of the factors that change in clothing design every season, much more rapidly than our bodies might evolve. So which should we listen to – the dictates of fashion and custom or demands of our bodies?

Figure 1: Ball Toilettes in yellow faille and surah, and blue taffeta and white embroidered muslin. “The Fashions.” The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. 1 January 1876.

Figure 1: Ball Toilettes in yellow faille and surah, and blue taffeta and white embroidered muslin. “The Fashions.” The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. 1 January 1876.

This is the same question that confronts Phoebe Beecham, the eponymous heroine of Margaret Oliphant’s 1876 novel, Phoebe Junior, when she is trying to decide what dress she will wear to an upcoming society ball. The typical ball gowns of the 1870s were light-coloured blues, pinks, greens and white, with lustrous silks, sparkling jewels, and ample décolletage fortifying a young lady’s purpose to be seen and to attract eligible partners [Figure 1]. But when Phoebe considers what dress will look best on her body, she decides that she needs something to tone down her complexion, which she considers to be much too pink.

Basing her decision on scientific studies of colour, such as George Field’s influential treatise Chromatography (1835), in which Field explained that bright colours could be tempered by a judicious use of black in order to avoid a gaudy effect, Phoebe ignores the prevailing fashions in ball gowns when she declares that her dress will be black. In the 1870s, black was generally associated in the popular imagination with mourning [Figure 2], advanced age, or the uniforms of lower middle-class or working-class trades such as the governess, the servant and the increasingly visible shopgirl. Though black could be a colour for certain social events, it was not a colour for balls.

Figure 2: Black Mourning Dress, c. 1860s. Black cloth trimmed with crape. Killerton House Dress Collection. ©National Trust Images/Malcolm Jarvis.

Figure 2: Black Mourning Dress, c. 1860s. Black cloth trimmed with crape. Killerton House Dress Collection. ©National Trust Images/Malcolm Jarvis.

In Phoebe’s sartorial choice, Oliphant dramatizes one of the central concerns of the dress reform movements of the 1870s. For many dress reformers, fashion epitomised a form of tyranny characterised by arbitrary rules and ceaseless, useless and disorientating change driven by the social and commercial interests of consumer culture. The profit motives of milliners and manufacturers, whose primary aim was to sell their wares, were seen to be set against the fabric of liberal individualism. The Aesthetic reformer Mary Eliza Haweis, for instance, criticised the efforts of art and fashion to set universal standards of ‘good taste’, arguing,

“We shall never have any school of art in England, either in dress or decoration of any kind, until the fundamental principle of good art is recognised, that people may do as they like in the matter, and until women cease to be afraid of being laughed at for doing what they feel to be wise and right… Let us assert our individuality, if we have any, in dress as in other things.”

Figure 3: Afternoon Dress, c. 1878-80. Blue-grey grosgrain silk and plush velvet. Killerton House Dress Collection. ©National Trust Images/Malcolm Jarvis.

Figure 3: Afternoon Dress, c. 1878-80. Blue-grey grosgrain silk and plush velvet. Killerton House Dress Collection. ©National Trust Images/Malcolm Jarvis.

Oliphant herself argued for individuality in dress, but also looked for a middle way, a style of dress in which a woman could satisfy at the same time the demands of fashion and the needs of her own body. In her own advice manual, Dress, also published in the late 1870s, she described this middle way with reference to one particular form of fashionable dress, the princess-line gown (Figure 3). With its trim, sheath-like form, the princess-line style was simpler than earlier dresses, which were often made of multiple pieces including skirt, bodice, shirt, jacket. The princess-line gown was cut in long pieces with no seam at the waist. It also moved the bustle from the waist down to the train and included in the skirt a set of tapes that could be loosened or tightened to allow the wearer to adjust the fit so that it could follow more closely the natural contours of the individual female body (Figure 4).

Some dress reformers criticised the tailored princess-line, arguing that its narrow skirt constricted women’s movement, potentially damaging their health (Figure 5). But for Oliphant, the capacity for adaptation built into the construction of the skirt gave the dress the potential to express and to shape her individuality in a way that defied not just the uniformity of fashion, but also, more broadly, rigidly defined social patterns. Describing that process through which women could change the dress, as well as the social fabric, that restricted them, Oliphant wrote,

A little trouble, a little patience, and good sense where needs must, perhaps (for the moment) a vigorous pair of scissors to cut the knot of a ligature; and it will be found that the thing is done—not with any flourish of trumpets, indeed, or in a heroic manner, but sufficiently and well.

What Oliphant and many dress reformers realised was that clothing choices were also political choices that women engaged with in small ways every day. In many museum collections, dresses and other articles of clothing have traditionally been less valued than fine art, furniture or decorative objects. Studying the cut, construction, and colour of actual dresses that women wore in the nineteenth century can give the modern scholar insight into these everyday moments of engagement and consider the ways in which the representation of women’s dress decisions could affect social change.

Figure 4: Interior Detail of Afternoon Dress, c. 1878-80. Stiffened muslin lining and the cotton tape ties. Killerton House Dress Collection. ©National Trust Images/Malcolm Jarvis. Figure 5: Princess-line Dress, c. 1878-80. Dark blue silk with purple velvet trim. Killerton House Dress Collection. ©National Trust Images/Malcolm Jarvis.

Figure 4: Interior Detail of Afternoon Dress, c. 1878-80. Stiffened muslin lining and the cotton tape ties. Killerton House Dress Collection. ©National Trust Images/Malcolm Jarvis. Figure 5: Princess-line Dress, c. 1878-80. Dark blue silk with purple velvet trim. Killerton House Dress Collection. ©National Trust Images/Malcolm Jarvis.

It is also possible to consider how these discussions may also have changed fashion itself. By 1884, perhaps following Phoebe’s daring dress choice, the latest fashions from Paris featured a black gown in silk and lace (Figure 6), and black was finally acceptable as a colour for balls.

Figure 6: Ball toilette in black silk and lace, and Toilette for Concert, or Dinner Dress in mulberry pink silk. “The Newest French Fashions.” The Ladies Treasury. 1 January 1884, p. 53.

Figure 6: Ball toilette in black silk and lace, and Toilette for Concert, or Dinner Dress in mulberry pink silk. “The Newest French Fashions.” The Ladies Treasury. 1 January 1884, p. 53.

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