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Not Quite Trick or Treat

Am I the only one to notice that over the last several years, Halloween has morphed from a children’s holiday to one just as popular among grown-ups? I guess some things never change, because people in the 19th century loved dressing up in outlandish costumes just as much as we do…only they didn’t do it at Halloween.The 19th century was undoubtedly the century of the costume ball. Their popularity in England probably grew with the Prince Regent, who adored “dressing up”, first in military uniforms, then later in Scottish dress as he fell in love with the romanticized Scotland of Sir Walter Scott’s novels…and from there, it was a logical progression to adoring costume balls. A few years later, his niece Victoria was equally addicted to costume balls up until the death of the Prince Consort in 1861. They remained popular at court (though the queen no longer participated) and in society at large right into the 20th century. Historical and cultural themes for costumes—dressing up as someone from the past or from a different land—were probably the most usual, especially earlier in the century, but as you’ll see shortly, costumes weren’t limited to Queen Elizabeth or romantic cavaliers.

Here are a few costumes from the first part of the century for your Halloween inspiration (a post on the costume balls of the later 19th century would require its own post, as another Prince of Wales, Victoria’s bad boy son Bertie, also loved to play dress-up).

In the Cultural Themes category, this is a “Danish Fancy Dress Worn at the Prince Regent’s Fete”, from La Belle Assemblée, August 1819:








And a “Fancy Ball Dress” also from La Belle Assemblée, August 1820. Perhaps she was going for the milkmaid look?







I’m not sure what these costumes are supposed to represent, though the one on the right seems to have a Russian feel, with her vaguely Slavic headdress and fur-edged boots (this from a French publication, Petit Courrier des Dames, March 1837):






Medieval themes were popular, as we see in this couple from 1838. Interesting to see a male costume, and how a 14th century “gates of hell” surcoat could be adapted to a 19th century corseted silhouette (Journal des Modes):






How about a pair of costumes from 1838, from La Mode–perhaps a musketeer and a revolutionary?








I saved the best for last: a Swiss Peasant and a Lady in Sailor’s Costume from La Belle Assemblée, August 1830. Yes, those are trousers. The text quickly assures readers that this is a French ball costume; of course, no proper English lady would appear in such a get-up!


4 thoughts on “Not Quite Trick or Treat”

  1. The thing I noticed after realizing that these are clothes that would never be worn by the people they represent, was how impossibly tiny the feet are. More reminiscent of Chinese women with bound feet than real appendages that could support a body.

    Yes, yes, I know these are only illustrations but they represent the “ideal” of fashionable people.

    And that led me to a report of “Brides” having toes amputated so they can wear fashionable shoes…

    Another rabbit hole to fall into.

  2. My guess is that the report of toe amputation is apochryphal, considering the state of anaesthesia and surgical practices in the 19th century. There’s also the story that people love to relate about women breaking ribs to be able to cinch their corsets more tightly; the only ribs that were being broken was the boning in the corsets themselves, to allow the wearer to actually bend.

    But the ideal of tiny feet is clear. I would have been a failure there, with my dainty size elevens.

  3. Of course you’re not the only one.

    Also, in NYC Halloween has been that for decades and decades, particularly in our part of it, just as it has been in New Orleans. Ha!

  4. My Dad and a friend shared a birthday. When they turned 50 my mom and her husband collaborated an a party – theme dress up in childrens clothes. I still have the photo album from that party. It was marvellous,

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