Victorian’s, both in England and in the colonies, were enamoured with donning fancy dress costume when attending events such as parlour games, theatricals and balls, and would go to extreme lengths to present their themes. Fancy dress character provided a form of escapism from the strict conventions of daily life.1 However, unlike today, it seems there was no pressure for individuals to create their own theme. The expectation was that these would be chosen from images and descriptions in fashion plates or publications of the day, which were widely available. Themes could range from historical figures, exotic foreign dress or be allegorical or symbolic.
The Scrap Album Fancy Dress, made in London c.1893, is a wonderful example of Victorian era fancy dress. The dress features 100’s of decoupage paper cut-outs, which cover the cotton tulle layers that float above the bodice and skirt. The dress was worn with matching shoes, sash and a fan. In case the theme was not immediately obvious, the bright red silk sash declares ‘Scrap Album’ in wax and gold paint. The costume is a visual merging of two important Victorian pastimes: fancy dress costume and the compiling of ‘scraps’ or ‘scrap’ albums.
Adern Holt’s publication Fancy Dresses Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls 2 was so popular that it was regularly updated and expanded in this era with an almost overwhelming array of costumes from which to choose. Listed in themes suitable for wearers in the categories of brunes (brunettes), fair women, elderly ladies, gentlemen, sisters, husbands and wives, and children, and even servants were included, although presumably, they had little choice in the matter. The book suggests a Druidess might be a suitable choice for brunettes and Moonlight or Swiss for fair women. A Peacock theme was felt an appropriate choice for an elderly lady, as was Mother Hubbard. A quick browse at the section starting with the letter D, lists costumes as diverse as Dominoes, Dairy Maid, Dragonfly, Druidess, Dutch Fish Wife and Dawn.3
“…there are few occasions when a woman has a better opportunity of showing her charms to advantage then at a Fancy Ball.”4
And generally, there was permissiveness for what would normally be quite scandalous, such as shorter skirts which revealed ankles and lower necklines for ladies.
Consistency of costume came second to convenience. Costumes were generally based on fashionable dresses of the day and gloves were worn independent of their authenticity to a costume, because it was uncomfortable to dance without them. However, the wearing of fancy dress did give Victorians an opportunity to bend strict dress and social conventions in order to achieve that all important authenticity of character.
Fancy dress costumes presented in fashion plates and publications were suitable to be made by ladies at home or by a professional dressmaker. The wearer of the NGV’s Scrap Album Fancy Dress is likely to have chosen her relatively demure theme and taken it to the court dressmaker, Madame Gough. The dressmaker created a fashionable base garment and adapted it with the embellishments and trims which brought the ‘Scrap Album’ theme to life. Like many other fancy dresses of this time, the embellishments are placed on an upper layer of the skirt and bodice. This embellished layer could be removed after the event and the dress could be re-used as part of a regular wardrobe. However, it is hard to imagine that the fan, sash and shoes could be readily incorporated into another outfit.
The theme of the dress is inspired by an important pastime for both adults and children in the Victorian era. Scraps had first appeared at the beginning of the 19th century as simple black and white engravings, which were often hand-tinted. They were printed in sheets and needed to be painstakingly cut-out by hand, before being pasted into albums, that contained poetry, letters, paintings and drawings. These albums were used as an extension of a diary, usually by young ladies. By 1837, the first year of Victoria’s reign, a process of colour printing called chromolithography was invented. Scrap manufacturers quickly adopted this new technology allowing the printing and embossing processes to be automated, resulting in a huge increase in production. The scraps were printed, then coated with gelatine and gum to give them a shiny surface, before embossing. A stamping press was then used to cut away the excess areas of paper from the design, leaving the individual scraps connected by small ladders. 5 With the laborious task of cutting out small pictures removed, the sale and popularity of these colourful scraps dramatically increased. The wide range of motifs available can be seen on the Scrap Album Fancy Dress where scraps include exotic men smoking pipes, angels, butterflies, plants and flowers, animals, historical characters, ships and clowns.
Although the dress was acquired by the NGV intact, it required attention from the textile conservation department before it could be displayed and stored safely. The relative inflexibility of the paper components on the extremely flexible surface of the cotton tulle had resulted in issues such as curling, bending, breaking and loss of adhesion of the scraps. The silk/cotton satin used to make the skirt had substantial tears and weaknesses. Before the dress could be displayed, the paper components were flattened, repaired and re-adhered, and the skirt fabric was backed and stabilised using a stitched repair method known as couching. Finally, a display underpinning was made to support the costume and give the correct silhouette for display.
As a textile conservator the costume is intriguing for many reasons. The Scrap Album Fancy Dress comprises unusual materials, with many rarely found in costume, and it has survived so beautifully despite its extreme fragility. Although intended for a single event, it was carefully stored intact and treasured by its owner and her descendants. It is also a wonderful reminder of some of the nuances of living in the Victorian era which is often stereotyped for strict dress and moral restrictions. Scrap Album Fancy Dress illustrates that when attending a fancy-dress event in this period, one could embrace creativity and self-expression in the choice of theme, its execution and the possibilities of pushing social boundaries.
Kate Douglas is Conservator of Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria
Cooper, Cynthia (2003) Fancy Dress Balls: All Dressed Up and Somewhere to Go http://collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/scripts/printtour.php?tourID=VQ_P2_9_EN&Lang=2 (accessed 24 April 2020)
Holt Adern, (1887) Fancy Dresses Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls 5th ed. (London: Debennham and Freebody)
Holt, Adern (1887) Fancy Dresses Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls 5th ed. (London: Debennham and Freebody) p64
Holt, Adern (1887) Fancy Dresses Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls 5th ed. (London: Debennham and Freebody) p9
Mosier, E, van der Reyden, D. and Baker, M. (1992). The Technology and Treatment of an Embossed, Chromolithographic “Mechanical” Victorian Valentine Card. The Book and Paper Group Annual: Volume eleven. The American Institute for Conservation p. 108