Today, I’m returning to one of my favourite Victorian periodicals: Cassell’s Family Magazine. This illustrated publication was firmly aimed at the middle classes and featured interesting articles on a plethora of subjects such as student life at Edinburgh University, the benefits of Turkish bathing and how to cook fish. A regular column was ‘Chit-Chat on Dress by Our Paris Correspondent’ which advised young ladies and women how to dress fashionably, month by month.
In ‘What to Wear’ for May, the writer commented:
‘This is the month par excellence when wardrobes want fresh supplies, and half-worn costumes fresh trimmings. Neither in new materials nor in garnitures is there any lack this season. Checks, stripes, dots, figures, plain, shot, broché and chiné are all in vogue… Stripes are decidedly fashionable; they are worn in vivid contrasts, and this season they are not monotonous.
Victorian women did not throw out hardly-worn dresses each season unless they were extremely wealthy. Instead, they would use ribbons, lace and embroidery to give their outfits a new look, perhaps by changing the waistbands, sleeve trimmings or necklines, or by adding flowers to a bonnet or hat. This method of refreshing garments was particularly important to those women who had to economise and simply could not afford new dresses. That’s why the illustrations for the ‘Chit-Chat on Dress’ section were aspirational and for guidance only.
The correspondent wrote that ‘the new colour called ficelle is a most convenient one to adopt, for it can be brightened up with ribbons of almost every brilliant hue. It reigns supreme in silks, muslins, woollen stuffs, laces, millinery, embroidery, and the rest.’ This colour was called twine or string-colour, which sounds very like a neutral shade. Other fashionable colours included ‘porcelain-blue, clover, a terra-cotta which is red rather than terra-cotta, Havannah brown, and a Quakerish grey’ which were considered ‘the best and most artistic tones.’ Pinks and buttercup-colour, with eau de Nil, dark greens and dark browns were preferred for evening wear.
Then, as now, high fashion was only designed to fit slim people. Although paniers were a feature of the season’s costumes, the correspondent wrote that ‘slender figures may wear them full and bunchy if so inclined, but stout women (if they adopt them at all) should have them indicated by the merest folds. The new padded sleeves likewise require judgement in adopting them; otherwise they make their wearers look high instead of square-shouldered.’