Dress Design: An Account of Costume for Artists and Dressmakers


The subject of Historical Costume covers such a multitude of detail that a volume on each century could be written, with hundreds of illustrations. Thus it is, most works on costume are expensive and bewildering; but I hope this small practical handbook will be a useful addition to the many beautifully illustrated works which already exist.

I have divided the matter into centuries and reigns, as far as possible, in this small work, besides separating male and female attire, thus simplifying reference. A special feature has also been made, of supplying the maker or designer of dress with actual proportions and patterns, gleaned from antique dresses, as far back as they could be obtained; and I am much indebted to the authorities at the Victoria and Albert Museum for the permission given me to examine and measure their unique specimens; also to Mr. Wade, Mr. G. G. Kilburne, Mr. Duffield, Mr. Box Kingham, Mr. Hill, Mr. Breakespeare, and others, for their valuable assistance with interesting specimens. I have used outline drawings in the text, as being more clear for purposes of explanation. The dates given to the illustrations are to be taken as approximate to the time in which the style was worn. Many of the photographs have been arranged from my own costume collection, which has made so much of my research simple, reliable, and pleasant. I am also happy to state that before the final revision of this book I have heard that my collection of historical costumes and accessories will, after a preliminary exhibition at Messrs. Harrod's, be presented to the Victoria and Albert Museum as a gift to the nation by the Directors of that firm. Thus the actual dresses shown in these plates will find a permanent home in London, and become valuable examples to students of costume. The coiffures in the collotype plates are not to be judged as examples, for it would have consumed far too much time to set up these figures more perfectly, but all the bonnets, caps, and accessories given are genuine examples.

In a book of this size, one cannot go into the designs of materials, &c., which is a study any earnest student would not neglect, but in this connection I would draw attention to the comparative colour density and proportion of designs chosen for various effects.

It has been my endeavour to arrange a greater variety of the forms which make up the characters of each period, and also to give a wider knowledge into the footwear, or details of the footwear, than is usual in most costume books.

In a review of the styles I would not press any choice for building new designs, as I believe in close individual research and selection, which may utilise many interesting features from costume settings even in periods which are almost scorned. I believe the purest beauty is found in the simple forms of dress and decoration settings from the 12th to the 15th centuries, schemed to the natural proportions of the figure. The grace of line and movement is often aided by the short train, which can be so happily caught up in many ways; the slight drag of the train always keeps the front clear in outline, besides showing the movement of the limbs. Length of fall in the material was desired, the figure creating its own folds with every turn, but a belt was often placed rather high under the breast. There is little reason with nature of fine form to make dress into sections by a corset waist. A long, lithe, complete curve in outline—much happier unbroken, except by the girdle—is certainly the most artistically useful conception, not breaking the rhythm (as does the harder belt), while it also induces much beauty in lifting and arranging the drapery. The long falling sleeve also has the same qualities, giving a greater fullness of shape, a variety of colour (by a difference of lining), with a winglike motion, besides softening the angle of the elbow.

I think the next garment for high esteem is the chasuble-shaped tunic (with or without sleeves). Falling cleanly from the shoulders, it stops at a charming length for the skirt to take up the flow of line. The delightful effect of partly-laced or clasped sides was not missed by the ablest designers. How refined, too, was the character of decoration of the old period! The art of concentrating effects is seen to perfection, retaining the breadth of shape and length unbroken. Jewelled embroidery of fine enrichment was wrought on the borders, neck settings, square corners, the girdle, and the clasps. The preciousness of effect was truly appreciated by the enclosing of the face in the purity of white lawn and zephyr-like veilings; the circlet and the long interlaced plaits and charming nettings were all tastefully schemed. Has woman ever looked more supreme through all the centuries of extravagant styles and distortions? I believe not: but I have come to the conclusion that, at whatever period of seeming insanity of style, the woman of fine taste can overcome all obstacles by her individual choice and "set up," and has really always looked fascinating.

There was another form of decoration at this period—the cutting of the edges into a variety of simple or foliated shapes, giving a flutter and enrichment to forms in a simple manner, and this, in conjunction with the increasing richness of materials, was a valuable aid to lighten the effects. It was probably initiated by the heraldic characteristics in vogue.

The pricked and slashed details had much the same result in enriching surfaces.

Later the fan sleeves of the 18th century were enhanced in a similar way by the curved and scalloped shaping, which was used as late as the Victorian sixties with happy effect on the polonaises.

Now, as regards the finest corset dress, the palm must be given to the sack-back dress of the eighteenth century (not in the period of its distortion with hoops), and a full setting showed it to greatest advantage.

This type of design lent itself to more variety in beauty of arrangement than any other; the looping, reefing, and tying always set gracefully in accord with the back fall. The easy exchange of the stomacher also gave additional chance of effect, and the beauty of the fan-shaped sleeve, with its lace falls at the elbow, was a delightful creation. How rich and refined this character could be, without the monstrous forms and head-dresses which later invaded it and turned it into ornate absurdity!

When we examine the period of Charles I, we find much charming dignity in the adaptations of earlier inventions; the collar settings were noble, indeed perfect, in arrangement, and the bodice decoration and proportions most interesting.

For the grace of girlhood no dresses are happier than those of the early 19th century to 1830, and the inventions in trimmings through this period were prolific in beauty and lightness of style.

Analysis of the many fashion-plates and original dresses of this period will well repay all interested in beautiful needlecraft and dress design. The arrangement of frills, insertions, gathered effects, applied forms, and tasselled or buttoned additions, will be found full of beauty and novelty, especially in the dresses of white embroidery. Plates XXIII and XXIV (see pp. 218-231) give some happy examples of this time.

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Plate I.—Boots and Shoes from the 14th to the 19th Centuries.

  1. Charles II.
  2. James II.
  3. William and Mary.
  4. George II.
  5. George III., 1770.
  6. George III., 1760.
  7. George III., 1780-1800.
  8. 1870-1880.
  9. William and Mary.
  10. 1680-1700.
  11. 1680-1702.
  12. 1750-1775.
  13. 1580-1625.
  14. 1710-1730.
  15. Henry VIII.
  16. Semi-Clog, 1780-1800.
  17. Henry VIII.
  18. 1778-1795.
  19. Late 15th Century or early 16th Century.
  20. 1500-1540.
  21. Late 14th Century to middle of 15th Century.
  22. 1530-1555.
  23. 1535-1555.

A word on the most condemned flow of fashion during the Victorian era. There are many dresses of real charm to be found amongst the mass of heavy styles which must not be overlooked in studying design and style. Even the crinoline dress, when treated with the exquisite silk gauzes, as Fig. 3 in Plates XXXI and XXXIII (see pp. 270-282), was as alluring as any woman could wish, and the original design of the jacket in the latter figure, with its richly embroidered, long-skirted front cut short at the back, arranged itself perfectly on this type of undersetting. There was notable refinement of effect and beauty of proportion in many dresses of the sixties, as exemplified in Fig. A, Plate XXXII (see p. 279), the waist being set rather high, and the very full skirt carried back by the crinoline being held thus with its cross ties.

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