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Attire for mid to late 1800s

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Cathy Stephens
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We encourage formal period attire at our December Ball because it adds so much to the period atmosphere. However, no one should miss the ball because they don't have an extensive vintage wardrobe.

If you prefer not to come in costume, ladies may wear a modern skirt and blouse or dress (preferably long and full), and men may wear a modern tuxedo, dark suit, or dress slacks and sport coat. Whatever you wear, don't forget your smooth-soled shoes for dancing. (See our suggestions for dance shoes.)

Here are our suggestions for what to wear, for both ladies and gentlemen. In addition to comments on period dress, we provide hints for how you can approximate the look with moderen clothes.

Note: For 19th century balls that have special themes, you might want to come in a costume that reflects the theme.

mid-1800s dressGowns of the mid 1800s were low-waisted and off the shoulder with small sleeves and a deep flounce or bertha of lace or folded fabric at the neckline. Skirts were full and bell-shaped with lots of petticoats, and were decorated with flounces, ribbons, and lace.

Gloves, usually wrist-length, were always worn. Hair was parted in the middle, arranged in ringlets or a bun, and dressed simply with ribbon, comb, ornaments, flowers, or feathers. Shoes were simple flat slippers, similar to ballet slippers.

1890 gownBy the late 1800s, the silhouette ranged from the bustle-style layered drapery look to the bell-shaped, gored skirt that fit close to the waist and gradually widened to the hem. The hoops and mounds of petticoats were replaced by a single ruffled petticoat. Some gowns had trains while others had hems that went just to the floor. (Avoid trailing skirts that can be tripped over; if you must have a train, attach a loop you can use to hold it up while dancing.) Bodices for evening gowns were close-fitting with low-cut necklines and were sleeveless or had short, puffed sleeves or huge "leg of mutton" sleeves.

1895 gown      Gloves were worn elbow-length or longer. Hair was simply styled, usually drawn up in a knot on the top of the head and dressed with ribbon, feathers, wings, or flowers. Shoes had shaped heels; modern character dance shoes with a small heel are appropriate for this period.
      To approximate the period style, you might try revamping an old evening gown or bridesmaid or prom dress. (Make sure the skirt is full enough to let you can dance comfortably!)

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Gentleman's 1850 costumeGentleman's 1858 costumeFormal wear for gentlemen remained much the same throughout the Victorian era: black tailcoat, white shirt, white stock or bow tie, and white vest. Gloves were de rigeur throughout the period and usually white.

If a tailcoat is not available, a cutaway is close to the period style, but any formal-looking dark suit will do. Wear a plain white shirt with the collar pointed up, and a stock tie made from a length of white gauze, fine cotton or silk. Or wear a wing-collar formal shirt with white bow tie. Old military or band uniforms are also appropriate and are fun to wear.

Gentleman's 1890 costumeSome costume shops will rent appropriate costumes for the evening at a rate somewhat lower than formal clothing rental shops. Most gentlemen eventually assemble their own costumes but do so piecemeal, by watching for formal rental shop warehouse sales and checking the resale shops. The most expensive and difficult to find item is the tailcoat but it contributes so much to the period look that it is worth the investment.

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What to Wear to Other Period Events
Follow these links for our suggestions for dressing for other period events:
Early 1800s
Ragtime (1910s)
1920s and 1930s

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