The 1890s, that is.
For those of you who are lucky enough to be living somewhere that celebrates Halloween but didn’t just have a hurricane, you may find instructive this 1897 tome FANCY DRESSES DESCRIBED; Or, WHAT TO WEAR AT FANCY BALLS.
“But what are we to wear?” begins the introduction. “This is the first exclamation on receipt of an invitation to a Fancy Ball.”
The entire book is available online for free here. It’s chock full of ideas for historical costumes. Although it does note, “As a rule, the historical dresses worn on such occasions are lamentably incorrect.” The book continues:
To avoid glaring inconsistencies, it is well to remember that powder was introduced into England in James I’s reign, though not very generally worn. It attained the height of its glory in the Georgian period, and in 1795 fell victim to a tax raised by Pitt on hair-powder; those that wore it subsequently were called guinea-pigs, on account of the guinea tax. Periwigs were first mentioned in 1529. High-heeled shoes were not heard of till Elizabeth’s reign.
In addition to party themes and decorating ideas, the book contains costume ideas for brunettes, blondes, older ladies, children, couples, sisters, and even a few men’s costumes - although it suggests consulting the companion volume, Gentlemen’s Fancy Dress: How To Choose It, for a fuller discussion.
The book is also big on national costumes. Ever wanted to dress as an Albanian? An Algerian? An Andalusian? An Assyrian? An Austrian? An Appenzell Lacemaker? An Armenian? An American? An Anglo-Saxon? An Alsatian? An…Amsterdam Orphan? Now you can. And that’s just the A’s.
I think next year for Halloween I’m going to throw a FANCY DRESSES DESCRIBED theme party and insist that all of my guests dress as something out of this book. I’ll have an apartment full of periwigs and Elsas from Lohengrin and Cock Robins! That’ll make a nice, high-brow contrast to the Lindsay Lohan theme party I threw this year.
I mean, it has a carrier pigeon costume, for goodness’ sake.
There are lots of artists whose subjects it suggests make good costumes: Watteau, “Albert Dürer,” Titian, Holbein. These are all good ideas.
In addition to its sometimes questionable ethnic costumes - “GIPSY, QUEEN OF GIPSIES, FORTUNE, FORTUNE-TELLER, PEDLAR, BOHÉMIENNE, AND ZINGARI” - there is under men’s outfits, well, this:
A CHRISTY MINSTREL: blackened face, woolly wig, enormous collar, extravagant bouquet, long-tailed coat, trousers of striped calico, and banjo.
This magpie costume is gorgeous and I want it.
Ditto “Monte Carlo.” Look at that racy short skirt!
The kids’ costumes are ridiculously cute.
And, naturally, the book includes that old stand-by, the Witch. Happy Halloween!