Dressing for TallStacks

A Primer of Period Costuming

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The Romantic Era

This decade is the beginning of the Victorian age. The fashionable silhouette of the period is of wide skirts held out by several petticoats and frilled bustle pads, wide gigot sleeves and bertha collars, and fanciful hair styles often imitating the bow loops and feather trimmings of the large hats and bonnets which were much favored. The bell-shaped skirts, falling from slightly above the natural waist-line, are cut either in shallow gores or in straight lengths of fabric and set onto the waist in tiny cartridge or triple box pleats. The hems of both skirts and petticoats are stiffened and/or padded.

The fitted bodice is most always belted or sashed for both day and evening wear. For day wear the v-neckline of the bodice is less extreme and worn over a beautifully tucked and frilled chemisette with single, double or triple collars. For evening wear the v-neckline is extremely wide and trimmed with a bertha collar which falls onto the sleeve heads. A fine silk gauze or batiste tucker acts as a modesty piece for the exaggerated neckline.

Lavishly trimmed bonnets and turbans are worn for both day and evening. The leghorn bonnet is the choice for day while the turban is favored for dinner gowns. Shoes are flat and plain similar to a modern ballet slipper.

Poplin and floral-printed striped cottons are appropriate for day dresses while evening gowns are usually of silks woven as gauze, organdie, satin or faille. Favorite colors for evening are white and pale yellow, with very pale mauves, pinks, and blues also to be seen.

1830 women


The bell-shaped skirt of the 1830's gives way to a more domed-shape silhouette with the fullness of the skirt extending from the body equally in all directions. Sleeves become tighter and more fitted. The fullness of the sleeve cap in the gigot sleeve slips to the forearm where it is caught at the wrist with a narrow or deep cuff. The necklines for day dresses rise to the throat where they are finished with neat little turn-down collars. For evening wear the necklines are straighter and tend to fall off the shoulder. The bodice waistline for both day and evening sits well on the hips and is deeply pointed in front. Skirts for both day and evening tend to be free of trimming from waist to hem, allowing the fabrics to be the visual interest.

As the decade progresses, the number of petticoats worn increases and more than just the upper most petticoat supports two or three tiers of flounces or ruffles. Poplins, silks and finely-woven wools in plaids or bold floral prints are popular for day dresses. Taffeta is widely used for visiting ensembles and dinner gowns. Fine muslins, gauze, peau de soir and velvets are preferred for evening and ball gowns. Plaids and bolder colors are now favored for evening wear.

The "poke" style bonnet fashioned in straw or silk is worn over the muslin or lace indoor caps. Pumps with low heels and cloth ankle boots with leather toe caps are worn for day while the ballet-style pump made in fabric to match the gown are retained for evening. Large shawls of cashmere or silk are worn for both day and evening. They are usually self-fringed and printed with the popular paisley motif or woven in bold plaids. They remain as a popular fashion accessory throughout the 1850's and into the 1860's.

1840 women


The Age of the Crinoline

With the ever increasing circumference of the skirt, more and more flounced and frilled petticoats are required to maintain the fashionable silhouette. At the beginning of the decade the crinoline petticoat is introduced. This is a cloth petticoat stiffened with bands of braided horsehair (crin). Although this is an improvement, numerous petticoats are still required and movement is still cumbersome. By 1855 the braided horsehair is replaced with 1/4" bands of steel sewn into channels at intervals along the drop of the petticoat. These hoops of "watch spring" steel greatly reduce the number of additional petticoats which need to be worn yet still support the skirt. In 1857 the "cage crinoline" is introduced. This consists of the steel hoops being held in place by a series of tapes falling from a waistband to a fabric hem.

Skirts now tend to be fancier with the introduction of deep flounces. For day the flounces may be edged with a braid or ribbon. However for evening the flounces are more usually made of a bordered fabric most usually matching, but sometimes contrasting to, the primary fabric of the gown. Velvets and laces become popular for evening while iridescent shot silks find their place among the woollens and cottons for day wear.

The evening bodice has a low-cut neckline extending to the tip of the shoulders where small puffed sleeves balance the wide flounced skirts. The day bodice is still fitted but the sleeves, which were wrist-length and fitted in the 1840's, now become shorter and wider showing a puffed or frilled undersleeve. Bolero jackets worn with full-sleeved shirtwaists become popular from time to time.



The "Godey" Lady

By the late 1850's the skirt has reached its maximum circumference. Flounces retain their popularity for the first few years of the decade but by 1865 the skirt is once again very plain. The emphasis is not on the decoration of the skirt, but the shape. The fullness of the skirts begins to move towards the back. This is achieved with the oval hoop which falls flatter in front than the sides and back and is usually supported by a small bustle pad. By the end of the decade a shorter overskirt appears. It is usually of a contrasting color to the skirt and is hitched up and back in a variety of ways giving back emphasis to the silhouette.

Bodices for day are high-necked with a variety of sleeve styles. Being made separate from the skirt, they are more and more like jackets. Blouses become popular for day when worn with a belted skirt. Evening bodices continue to be low cut with small puffed sleeves. As in the previous decades fancy shawls and especially fans are popular accessories for evening and social occasions.

After fifty years the heeled shoe returns and shoes are now being made for the right and left foot. It is now fashionable for evening pumps as well as stockings to match the color of the gown.

1860 women


The First Bustle Period

By the beginning of the decade, the crinoline has gone completely out of style. The overskirt is now pulled severely to the back where it forms cascades of graceful folds. The underskirt is likewise pulled to the back where it is held in place by a series of tapes and ties. Skirts are now heavily trimmed with ruchings, ribbons and heavy fringes. This first bustle period is sometimes called the "upholstered bustle" because the skirts resembled the heavy draperies and furniture throws so popular during the period. All of this drapery is supported by the "crinolette".

The bodice for day wear is even more like a jacket, very tailored and heavily boned on all seams. It is well down on the hips and dips very sharply in front. The neckline is either high to the throat ending in a band collar or open and worn with a chemisette. For evening the bodice is low cut and finished with small puff sleeves or sleeveless. It is also heavily boned and deeply pointed in front.

Day dresses are of silks in various weaves, wools, velvets and cottons. Striped cottons and silks are very popular and it is not unusual to see two or more fabrics, either matching or contrasting, used in the same ensemble. Muslins, organdies, taffetas and velvets are still used for dinner and evening gowns. Pastel shades are popular for evening while darker shades are popular for day dresses.

the bustle


The Second Bustle Period

During the very late 1870's and early 1880's the bustle disappears. The hitched-up drapery of the 1870 skirt is allowed to fall in billowing cascades down the back it the skirt in a waterfall effect. The bodice now falls well over the hips to the thighs and is very tailored and usually princess cut. By mid-decade, however, the bustle returns once again in the form of a cage bustle or a tournure ("the dress improver"). The overskirt changes from a billowy confection of fabric and trim to a neatly tailored arrangement of pleated jabots and apron-like tabliers. The underskirt looses some of its fullness and is now crisply pleated. Day skirts rise to ankle level and high button shoes and gaiters become important accessories.

The day bodice is tightly fitted with 3/4 length sleeves. Contrasting cuffs and revers appear on bodices. The vestee is introduced as either a separate garment or as part of the bodice. On the whole women' fashion takes on a very "man-tailored" or military look. Clothing for specific activities becomes popular and are made available through the ready-to-wear market.

With the introduction of chemical dyes colors become deep and intense. It is very popular for the skirt to be made up in one fabric or color while the bodice and drapery are made in a contrasting color. A vivid crimson bodice and tablier over a canary yellow skirt is a very popular combination. Wools, gabardine, bengaline silk and morocain are fashioned into day ensembles while finer silks, duchess satin and velvets are used for dinner and evening gowns.

tailored bustle


The Belle Epoque

The silhouette of the "gay nineties" is by far the most recognized silhouette of the 19th century. Wide "leg 'o mutton" sleeves form a sharp contrast to the small, tightly corseted waist and are balanced by the wide bell-shaped skirt. In order to achieve the smooth skirt front and deep pleated side and back, skirts are cut in 5, 7 or 9 shaped gores which allow the skirt to fit more smoothly over the hips. The wide front panel becomes a canvas for fanciful decorations of bows, ruching and braided passimeterie.

For day the ensemble can consist of skirt and matching bodice, skirt with a jacket or sleeveless bolero, or a skirt and shirtwaist blouse. All of these styles feature the exaggerated sleeves and a high stiff collar. Costumes for specific activities are now extremely popular. There are now costumes for tennis, for cycling, for rowing and many other outdoorsports and activities. For evening, the bodice features a low cut neckline and billowly puffed sleeves. Wide chokers and dog collars made of pearls or precious stones mimic the the high stiff collars of the shirtwaist.

Fabrics of infinity variety and color are used for both day and evening wear. Novelty fabrics are popular for afternoon visiting costumes and dinner gowns. Feathered and beribboned hats are a required accessory for dressy day wear while feathered and jeweled aigrettes complete the evening ensemble.

the belle epoque

Choosing Your Costume

Whether you are planning to participate in the TallStacks festival as a visitor or a volunteer, remember "It's More Fun in Costume". However, there are a few simple guidelines to keep in mind when choosing the style of costume you will wear.

  • Obviously choose a period and style that you like, will be flattering to you and in which you will feel comfortable.
  • You have a choice whether to rent a costume or make it yourself. There are a nice variety of period patterns available for the experienced seamstress. However, if your time is limited or you will need the costume for only a day, perhaps renting is a better option.
  • Think about what you will be doing during your TallStacks experience. If you will be going on a dinner cruise, remember that bustles and large hoops make it difficult to sit at a table.
  • If you are a volunteer, find out what your duties will be. If you will be required to do a lot of moving throughout the venue, a simple 1880's or 1890's style might be a good choice. On the other hand, if you will be assigned to a specific location with little need to move quickly from place to place, an 1850's or 1860's hooped skirt can be a good choice.
  • Remember the weather in October can be very changable: warm days, chilly nights and (heaven forbid) rain. If you are going to be out side, a skirt-jacket-blouse style might be a good choice.

If you have questions about renting costumes for TallStacks, we are here to help. Call us at 513.542.6100 and one of our rental associates will be more than happy to answer your questions. Our store hours are Mon.-Fri., 9:30AM - 6:00PM; Sat. 9:30am - 4:00PM; Closed Sunday.


©Schenz Theatrical Supply 2003