“But what are we to wear?”

I have a lovely book.  Well, one among many lovely books.  I bought it in Wales, in a place blessed among men called Hay-on-Wye. It's chief industry is the selling of books. Over thirty bookstores, in a tiny green town.  One store was called The Castle Bookstore.  Because, I'm thinking, it was a bookstore…and it was located in a castle.  Sometimes my bouts of clear-thinking approach epiphanies.

It was there that I bought a lovely book:  "Fancy Dresses Described:  What To Wear At Fancy Balls".  It was published in 1888, when such matters were more important than they are today.  There were no Halloween parties, where the limit to one's dressing up abilities would be wearing a sixpack of Coca Cola for a hat and going as a coke head.

Different costumes were suggested for different physical and age types.  Being dark-haired, I would be referred to as a 'Brune'.  Suggested outfits for me would include:  Arab Lady, Autumn, Bee (which I did go as at the age of nine, one Halloween long ago), Gipsies of various kinds, Carmen, Cleopatra, Druidess, Esmeralda, etc.

The book would list the fabrics and decorations needed for each costume (back then, they didn't come ready made!).  If I was to dress as, say, Carmen, I would need an "equisite Spanish lady's dress, short white satin skirt…headed by bands of ruby satin, bordered with gold; down the front bows of gold braid tagged; stay bodice of white satin, with gold buttons…" and on and on.  I would find the possibility delicious myself.  If you were transplanted to the late 19th century, invited to a fancy dress ball, had your own couterier and unlimited funds – what would you go as?

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37 responses to ““But what are we to wear?”

  1. Hmm. What are the suggestions for redheads? I like the "druidess" idea, but that's for brunes…and I think I like the word more than costume. And were the Victorians okay towards red hair? I wouldn't want the suggestion to be the Whore of Babylon – wait, maybe I do…

  2. What about going as 'Autumn'? According to the book, you can wear evening dress drimmed in bouquets of 'poppies, corn-flowers, barley, oats and blackberries'!

  3. I, too, am a brune… I would co-ordinate my costume with Aubrey's so
    we would be dressed complimentarily, but not of course alike, as that
    would be gauche. I should fancy being a druidess, I think. What does
    that involve?

    I want to go to that town one day. I contemplated hijacking our tour
    bus as we neared the Welsh border, but decided against tempting Her
    Majesty's justice.

  4. Druidesss. Think 'long flowing Cashmere robe'. Think 'wreath of oak-leaves'.
    LT, Hay-on-Wye is a treasure. On that trip I spent over $500 on books.

  5. Fabulous! Sounds lovely and comfortable both.

    Now we only need a 19th-century ball to attend.

  6. hey! went to a.w.'s yahippie group and carol said that you're here so i created an hbgdaddy account. not to stalk but to have yet another group that i'll rarely post to. there's a crap load of neighbors in my house. what gives? i'll finger that our later. any who, i miss all the cool people that used to post at a.w,'s yahippie.com site and you happen to be one of the cool ones. (at least, by my feeble standards) i'm a bit inebriated and my judgement is a bit skewed. god – al stewart rocks! see what i mean?anywho, how doodly do, old friend?

  7. Hmm, what does the book suggest for blondes? Maybe I could go as spring…? Might be a bit boring, though. Any other suggestions? And the mere thought of a town with 30 boostores make me drool and my bank account sqeal in fear-yet another "must go there" place added to the list!

  8. "Autumn" works for me as it is perhaps my most beloved season – plus the colors of the accoutrements work really well with me. Last week I was watching the Discovery Atlas show about Italy – they featured the Carnivale Ball in Venice. I've always really wanted to go to Italy, but now I want to be ridiculously wealthy and go the the Ball – it's an 18th Century masquerade. Every costume/mask was just beautiful – not cheesy or cheap in any way (as I fear it would be if held in the US). The guests arrive by gondola (of course) and the ball is in this gorgeous old building…oh, the intrigues!

  9. Wow, MFBT strikes again.

  10. I would probably play up my Indian heritage and go as a maharani of some sort, with a peacock-blue sari and jasmine garlands and a ruby jewel through my nose.

  11. How am I? Glad to be out of there, I'll tell you what. And happy/surprised to see you here! Was there an onrush of grief when I left? No? OK.
    Yeah, 'Year of the Cat', that's nice. Wave your freak flag high.

  12. For 'fair women', the book has many suggestions…how about Aurora? That way you can wear a 'tulle ball-dress, lower skirt white, then one of blue and one of pink, all dotted over with gold stars…'
    We have the makings of a masquerade, here. With Teho and hbgdaddy tending bar, obviously.

  13. I'm in for a masquerade (and guess which song just lodged itself into my head? arg!)
    "tullball" is by the way nowegian for nonsense, how is that for freaky similarity? What is a tulle-ball dress? Aurora sounds cool ๐Ÿ˜‰

  14. 'Tulle' is a type of starched netting – like you'd find in a ballet tu-tu. A tulle ball dress would probably take up half the room – you'd make quite an entrance!

  15. [ciรฒ รจ buono]

  16. Mariser, you sound HOT. I give you 'Guinevere': "Costly dress of gold tissue, velvet, and brocade…jeweled clasps, if possible an emerald in each, square-cut bodice, with jewelled bands round…coronet of pearls…"

  17. (I'm writing this from a suite at Venezia, inside the Venetian in Las Vegas. The Venetian is just to sort of place to throw a good old-fashioned 18th-century fancy-dress ball. Alas, there's none to be had at the moment. Perhaps tomorrow.)
    I doubt I'd look presentable in anything in your book, Aubrey, but with my long dark hair and long beard I imagine I could manage something along the lines of Solomon. That was the sort of thing that would have gone over at a fancy-dress ball, wasn't it?

  18. I hope I'm not being too forward, but Umuhk, with your long dark hair and long beard, I fancy you'd make quite the King Arthur; perhaps you'd agree to be my date to the ball.chain mall, lots of silver, some kind of [faux] pelts around the shoulders… what thinks you, Mistress Aubs?

  19. Okay, I confess, just the phrase "fancy ball" makes me think of AC/DC.But, as a redhead with green eyes and a glare, I don't know what I'd wear. Unless there's a Satan's Secretary ball gown described in your book.

  20. Hay-on-Wye sounds like paradise! I must pilgrimage there some day.Being dark-haired myself, I'd lean towards going as Carmen, just so long as I don't share her fate.

  21. Haha, RedZ, you definitely sound Druidess. I'm small, light olive, black hair–una zingara, Aubrey?! And a Venetian masque is a must.

  22. If Umuhk does not fancy being King Arthur, could he be the Druid leader for we Druidessesess/

  23. Reading the introduction, I find that this edition is for ladies and children only! They do list a few thing for a gentleman, but not too appealing, I'm afraid: an Irish cabdriver (but you WOULD have a 'hat trimmed with green and sprigs of shamrock', or a Christy Minstrel ('blackened face, woolly wig…' yikes!). No scope there.
    A Venetian Fancy Dress Ball. Of course. I once attended a fancy dress wedding – I made/wore a black mask, with 2 ft. black & white feathers, black bows and black ribbons.

  24. you made it on the front page. go you. (:

  25. Aubs!, you are on teh front page!! wheee! congrats. I had a feeling, after 5-6 comments, that this post had to be featured on the front page. 'tis too inspired.

  26. I suppose 'Milk Maid' wouldn't quite fit in with the extravagant costumes you other ladies will be wearing. What else do you have for us flaxen-haired, light-skinned damsels? Spring, perhaps? Venus? Oooh, how about Helen of Troy? Or did she have dark hair, I'm embarrassed to not remember.

  27. Wow! Front page! I'm officially jealous… (Not weally!) So anyways, I'm temporarily a brune, wuz s'posed to be a redhead tho, and my "God given" color is dirty blonde/gray. So what the heck does THAT mean? ๐Ÿ˜‰ Back in High School and Jr. College, I sang in a Madrigal group – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madrigal_(music) – Accapella (unaccompanied) music of the 13th & 14th century. So my costume would have to be from that era.

  28. Oooh, I am so jealous. I wish I had a copy of the book, since I'm really, really, really into costuming…
    I've seen pictures of the Vanderbilt (I think it was) fancy-dress ball in ca 1890/1900 – one of the hostesses went as 'Electric Light'. Carmen, up there, would've fit right in…
    And, if you're ever in LA, let me know and I'll find a Civil War or Victorian Grand Ball for you (although the VGB is sold out – the Jane Austen Evening in January is available, however).
    As for red hair, yeah, there was a vogue for red hair, along about the time of the PreRaphealites (which is okay with me – I have a PR/art nouveau design flapping around in the back of my head for a – ahem – rather round 'red squirrel' lady costume someday. Would that I could get the Significant-Something-Or-Other to be a 'grey squirrel' gentleman…)

  29. This is SO fun to read, Aubrey! How interesting, the suggestions for all the different colorations! I am another redhead, fair, freckly skin, so another Autumn, probably, which is also MY favorite season and the dress and accessories sound gorgeous!Umuhk, please alert the Venetian that we will all be there by Friday. Dress ball to take place Saturday. That should give us all time to arrive and prepare! You can pick us up at the airport in your Irish cab.Hay -on-Wye definitely goes on my to-do-some-day list! ;)Yay, front pageness!

  30. AmyH: I see you as a water nymph – "in a dress of frosted tulle…looped up with seawood, coral, shells, crystal and aquatic flowers…the bodice should be trimmed with a fringe of shells…diamonds, coral, and aquamarine with silver are the most appropriate ornaments…" Yes?
    MC2: I LOVE all music from the 13th – 17th centuries! I would love to hear you sing! And possibly as Maid Marian, wearing a dress of "green satin and black velvet…a horn carred at the side…". Would look lovely with your red hair.
    serenpoly: I do live in L.A. – I know of an annual Art Deco dance, and while I have the bobbed hair, I don't have the $$$ to get in. Poopie.
    Is costuming your job? Your study? Tell me more.

  31. I think that book needs to come back into print! As a green-eyed blonde, I'm sort of half-way between a viking-esse and a leprechan, I suppose. It all sort of lessens the opportunities for exotic in 18th century England as well. Maybe a little Dutch girl… pah.

  32. (oops – 19th century. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

  33. They have some of these books used on Amazon, but the cheapest one is $125. How much did you pay for yours?

  34. I think a peacock would be great fun — huge feathers and tons of color!

  35. Women always have the best selection of the choicest fashions, and this book is obviously historical proof. Though the prerequisite is posessing disproportionate wealth, the costuming possibilities available to any woman seems vast. I wonder if there's even such a manual for men from the period?And not to be oblivious, but is the "Carmen" referenced in the book a reference to the opera that bears the same name?

  36. Essy, I don't remember the cost of this book, still it was considerably less than $125. But I know that there were earlier, more elaborate editions – with larger illustrations, all in color. No, this is just a small, book – plain on the outside, wonderful on the inside.
    cabritoloco, ladies were considered society's decorations – of course they had to have lovely things to wear! I don't think there would be manuals like this for men – it wouldn't be considered seemly. But some of their costumes were pretty outlandish – ever hear of the 'Dancing Marquess'? Do a search for Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey – and enjoy.
    Oh, and yes, it is the Carmen from the opera. With different outfits from different scenes.

  37. I'm surprised no Cleopatras yet. I have to say, I'd probably give that one a shot, though I probably have more the body type for a gypsy.

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