Clothing was perhaps the quickest way to indicate someone’s social class. Fashions changed so quickly that you needed a great deal of wealth to keep up. While fashions change just as quickly today, modern media and technology in clothing production has allowed for quick and inexpensive ‘knock-offs’ of high fashion. In the early nineteenth century, patterns could only be circulated so quickly, dresses were often made bespoke, and fabrics like silks, satins, furs, and lace did not have cheap alternatives.

However, it was a sign of vulgar ‘new money’ to be dressed too splendidly. The essence of aristocracy was stylish subtlety–an aesthetic that was often portrayed in the silver fork novels as difficult to achieve. There were frequently ‘wealthy bourgeois’ characters who tried too hard to break into high society and unknowingly embarrassed themselves by wearing too many jewels and having clothing that was too splendid.

Le Cabinet de Lecture Journal. Paris. 1830.

Le Cabinet de Lecture Journal. Paris. 1830.

Fashionable Attire

  • “’There is only Paris for a waistcoat! – London produces buckskins and boots, – Germany has its coats, – but nothing like Paris for a waistcoat!’” (Cecil 19).
  • “the waistcoat of Jack Harris seemed to flutter before my eyes, as a memento of my insignificance” (Cecil 29).
  • “Of an evening, I am by no means averse to a very rich and ornate species of vest; but the extremest caution is necessary in the selection of the spot, the stripe, or the sprig, which forms the principal decoration . . . if you wear a fine waistcoat, and see another person with one resembling it, forthwith bestow it upon your valet” (Pelham 2:65).
  • “It is not every many who can wear a white waistcoat and cravat, without looking either as insipid as a boiled chicken, or as dingy as a Spanish olive. But for those qualified by nature by clear complexions and well planted whiskers to surmount the difficulty, nothing like it to mark the inborn distinction between a gentleman and a butler!” (Cecil 104).
  • “crinoline or its substitutes is not an expensive luxury, and young people in the country can afford to be in the fashion at very trifling charges” (The Book of Snobs 110).
  • “I deem it the supreme excellence of coats, not to be too well made; they should have nothing of the triangle about them; at the same time, wrinkles behind should be carefully avoided; the coat should fit exactly, though without effort . . . this can never be the case where any padding, (beyond one thin sheet of buckram, placed smoothly under the shoulders, and sloping gradually away towards the chest,) is admitted. The collar is a very important point, to which too much attention cannot be given . . . it should be rather low behind, broad, short, and slightly rolled. The tail of the coat must on no account be broad or square, unless the figure be much too thin . . . The gigot sleeve is an abominable fashion; any thing tight across the wrist is ungraceful to the last degree’” (Pelham 2:63-64).
  • “With regard to the trowsers [sic], be sure that you have them exceedingly tight across the hips” (Pelham 2:67).

Unfashionable Attire

  • “’Who ever thought of wearing the same dresses two nights successively?’” (The Davenels 1:53).
  • “The Reign of Terror had frightened people out of their wits, and out of their hair-powder.” (Cecil 11).
  • “’I am glad he does not wear a turban; that would be bad taste, I think’” (Vivian Grey 1:185).
  • “’Vulgar beyond measure!’ said Emma, ‘with very thick red elbows, and skin like nutmeg-graters, dressed exactly after the prints in the Ladies Magazine, and smelling horridly of musk’ A general groan resounded. ‘Monsters!’ ejaculated the Colonel” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. I 85).
  • “what an odious thing is a blue coat with brass buttons, shining as if to stare you out of countenance, and reflecting in every button an concave composition, which you recognise as a caricature of yourself. No lady should dance with a man who wears a blue coat and brass buttons” (Romance and Reality 1:38).
  • “It was . . . Major Nonplus, taking his appetitenal walk before dinner, and looking, in his red Belcher cravat, Flamingo face, and scarlet waistcoat, for all the world like an ambulating carbuncle, trying to extinguish the setting sun” (Cheveley 15).
  • “Those abominations, white cravats, having again come into fashion” (Cheveley 407).
  • “He seemed to consider himself in the light of a walking bouquet of flowers, or a moveable chandelier. His waistcoat was a piece of furniture to decorate the rooms” (Sketches and Travels in London 214).
  • “’Oh! – your court-dress; – well, what have you chosen? – not violet I hope. – You will be taken for a Bishop’s wife, or daughter, – or grandmother, if you intend to bury yourself in that horrible flounce!’” (Pin Money 1:69).
  • “’it is, to my fancy, the extreme of bad taste to dress differently to other people. Such affectation spoils beauty, and makes ugliness more conspicuous’” (Almack’s 2:122)
  • “’Ah! she again,” cried Mrs. Boswell; “with all her neck and bosom displayed, as if she were a fair girl of seventeen, instead of a coarse woman of forty!” (High Life 1:300).
  • “’I hate to see a woman’s foot look like a man’s. Nothing so ugly as great coarse shoes upon a pretty woman’s little foot’” (Recollections of a Chaperon 1:242).
  • “’I perceived yesterday, you had on a pink gown, with blue shoes, gloves, and ribbons. Lady Anne is a great critic in dress, and perhaps would have laughed at, what she would have called, the ‘bad taste’ of this: – you will recollect my love, if you have not shoes that match your gown, always wear white, and I’m afraid white gloves will always be indispensable here’” (Country Houses 1:207-208).
  • “’Anything like dowdiness would ruin an angel; if a woman has not fashion, she is quite lost – nothing can save her’” (Herbert Lacy 1:80).
  • “’I won’t try to defend them against the shocking imputation of being always too well dressed. I am afraid they are guilty, and, of course, they must bear the dreadful consequences’” (Herbert Lacy 1:83).

Jewelry and Watches

  • “I observed she had about nine bracelets and bangles, consisting of chains and padlocks, the Major’s miniature, and a variety of brass serpents with fiery ruby or tender turquoise eyes, writhing up to her elbow almost, in the most profuse contortions” (The Book of Snobs 110).
  • “His wristbands are fastened up towards his elbows with jewelry. Gems and rubies meander down his pink shirt-front and waistcoat. He wears a watch with an apparatus of gimcracks at his waistcoat-pocket” (Sketches and Travels in London 209).
  • “’Watch!’ said I: ‘do you think I could ever wear a watch? I know nothing so plebian; what can any one, but a man of business, who has nine hours for his counting-house and one for his dinner, ever possibly want to know the time for? . . . if a man is worth having he is surely worth waiting for!’” (Pelham 1:63).
  • “’you, dearest, must do honour to the ball by wearing your diamonds, the ornaments to which I am least partial, because they are more calculated to excite the admiration of others, than that of a husband’” (Victims of Society 82).
  • “’None but brilliant brunettes should ever wear rubies’” (The Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman 82).
  • “Speaking of the hand, I would observe, that it should never be utterly ringless . . . carefully eschew all mourning rings, all hoops of embossed gold, all diamonds, and very precious stones, and all antiques, unless they are particularly fine. One may never be ashamed of a seal ring, nor of a very plain gold one, like that worn by married women” (Pelham 2:64).
  • “’wear not a single ornament, unless it be my diamond star on your forehead, to shew that your dress is the result of taste not economy’” (Finesse 2:42).
  • “’Mrs. Luttrell is a sweet woman; – she has diamonds enough to form a moderate-sized chandelier, and I must say she does them ample justice; – one seldom sees her without them, except at church” (Pin Money 1:113).

Children’s Clothing

  • “at six months old [I wore] . . . .a splendid satin cockade . . . while a flowing robe of embroidered cambric, four feet by ten, disguised my nonentityism . . . The spectacle, enhanced by a showy sash of gorgeous ribbon, was the very thing to captivate a baby’s eye . . . adorned with a satin cockade and twelve yards of superfine French cambric” (Cecil 1-3).
  • “The cockade generation of to-day is at a premium. One might fancy all the little boys one meets were heirs apparent . . . and all the little girls, countesses in embryo. They are not only clothed in purple and fine linen, Flanders lace and Oriental cashmeres, but we hear of nursery governesses, nursery footmen, the chlidrens’ [sic] carriage, the childrens’ [sic] pair of hoses!” (Cecil 10).

General Advice

  • “He scorned to share his fame with his tailor” (Granby 1:108).
  • “Style, like dress, should be appropriate, and not detract attention form what it was meant to adorn” (Victims of Society 125).
  • “there is in a man’s exterior appearance the consequence of his inward ways of thought, and a gentleman who dresses too grandly, or too absurdly, or too shabbily, has some oddity, or insanity, or meanness in his mind, which developes [sic] itself somehow outwardly in the fashion of his garments” (Sketches and Travels in London 212).
  • “If you are a tiger in appearance, you may naturally expect to frighten a delicate and timid female; if you are a sloven, to offend her” (Sketches and Travels in London 213).
  • “You would not enjoy a feast if you came to it unshorn, in a draggle-tailed dressing-gown. You ought to be well dressed, and suitable to it” (Sketches and Travels in London 214).
  • “A young fellow must dress himself, as the host and hostess dress themselves” (Sketches and Travels in London 214).
  • “Women never allow beauty in a face that has an odd-looking bonnet above it, nor will they readily allow any one to be ugly whose caps are unexceptionable” (Ernest Maltravers 1:49).
  • “’Remember, girls, I cannot permit any shawls to be worn, – they only conceal the figure’” (Finesse 1:301).
  • “Blondes look to best advantage in white” (Finesse 2:42).
  • “’you have only left yourself five minutes for dressing-time. You will be a terrible figure’” (The Heir of Mordaunt 1:103).
  • “French women, of all classes, understand dress much better than the English” (Almack’s 1:44).
  • No “refined English or American female will permit the word breeches to be pronounced in her chaste hearing” (Vanity Fair 747).

One thought on “Clothing

  1. Pingback: Silver Fork Etiquette: A Hunterian Associate Project on 19th century self-help fiction | University of Glasgow Library

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