Monday, 21 January 2013

Reenactment Myths - Or things I've been told as fact

Oh to be young and innocent again! :D  I started Victorian reenactment at the tender age of 10 years old, and during the subsequent 20+ years I've been told so many things as fact that I either knew or later found out that were completely wrong.  So I thought I'd share the ones I can remember on here.

1. If you wear your shawl over you're shoulders it means you're a tart

 Queen Victoria - Lady of the Night

TP Hall c.1850

The story of "The Bruce" c.1861-2  Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is one of the "facts" that I believed for years, that shawls worn by ladies were only to be worn around the waist and looped over the arms.  If they headed anywhere near your shoulders it meant that you gained your money via interesting means.  It was only until I started using the internet, and saw numerous illustrations and photos of ladies of all ages with shawls adorning their shoulders that I realised my mistake.  Either that or there are a lot of Victorian prostitutes.

2. If you wear red it means you're a tart.

 Queen Victoria again - no wonder she had so many children!
1856 Charles-Lucien-Louis Muller

 Dress c.1845 - 49 Metropolitan Museum of Art

Another good one, and the reason I was put off making a red dress for many years.  Now if the lady in question has a red light, then that's another matter. Now this nugget of wisdom ties in with the next one....

3. If you wear bright colours it've guessed it... you're a tart!

 I couldn't resist another image of Queen Victoria  c.1856

You know dear, I think I'll wear my black bodice, green skirt and yellow bonnet today.
1856 - Iowa State University Library

An explosion of colour - 1831

More 1830s loveliness - c.1836 Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ballgown c.1865

There does seem to be a bit of a theme going on here.  Victorian ladies only wore carefully matched neutral colours.  Brash or clashing colours = tart.  I've also heard it said that only earthy colours were worn because of the absence of chemical dyes.  I hate to tell these people that until recently in the UK red smarties were coloured by crushed beetles (cochineal) and you should see the bright yellow you can get from onion skins. The first aniline dye "Mauve" was discovered in 1856 with other colours soon following.  Whilst some fashion plates did show earth colours nicely matched with bonnets, just as many showed a complete mash up of colours - the brighter the better.

4. Bonnet ribbons were not cut in swallow tails. 

 Queen Victoria has kept her bonnet tie ends cunningly hidden in most of the images I have of her so here is Princess Alice instead (far left) Taken 26 May 1857


 Not sure if this is a bonnet or a headdress - early 1850s (source Dennis A. Waters Fine Daguerreotypes)

Early 1860s Bonnet (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

 Fancy cut ribbons 1/6 plate daguerreotype c.1850s  (Many thanks to Mirror Image Gallery for permission to use this image)

I love my (not very interested in costume history) husbands response to this, which was surely if they had a pair of scissors and a ribbon some people would cut it other than straight.  Luckily I had already seen evidence of swallow tails  before I went and re-trimmed every bonnet ribbon I own (which are all swallow tailed).  On period photos I have seen bonnet ribbons cut straight, angled, curved, swallow tailed and zigzag.  So ladies go wild with you and cut your ribbons as you please!

5. Victorian ladies didn't wear green dresses 

  Watercolour of Queen Victoria - Winterhalter 1855

 I love this dress - Silk plush Promenade dress c.1855-57 Victoria & Albert Museum

 1856 evening gown (Ye Olde Fashion Tumblr)
1850s day dress (Old Rags Tumblr)

No idea how this one came about.  Not much I can say about it other than it is untrue.

6.Well to do Victorian ladies of fashion did not have dresses made of silk, only cotton.

 Silk dress worn by Queen Victoria on her state visit to Paris in 1855

 Silk dress c.1842  (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

 Afternoon silk dress c.1865 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

 Silk visiting dress c.1845-50 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

 Silk dress c.1857 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Please excuse me while I stop laughing.  This was a snarky comment made at one of my own costumes.  Luckily I was too amused by it to be upset.

 I am very amused

Well that's all the ones I can remember at the moment, though I'm certain I've forgotten a couple.  I hope this has been amusing if not instructive - and remember don't believe everything you're told! ;)



  1. (Here through the link in Historical Sewing's thread.) Wow, those are some bizarre myths. I mean, I collect myths, and those are so much further than I would have ever thought people would believe. Why would wearing your shawl so that it actually keeps you warm make you a prostitute? WHY WOULD THERE BE NO SILK DRESSES? Someone was actually snarky at you for having a silk gown?

    1. I did indeed have someone being snarky at me for wearing my silk tartan dress :D I think the shawl thing came from the belief that only the poor wore shawls for warmth instead of for fashion. So if someone was dressed well, but still wore their shawl over their shoulder, then it must indicate they got their money from illicit means. I must admit i did believe this one for some time, though i was only 10 when I was told it, and those that said it did so with the air of knowing what they were saying :)

  2. Wow! I am amazed at those myths. I can understand the myths about dyes and bright colors and wearing red, but they result from being ill-informed. I have seen many dresses in red, green, and other bright colors, both extant garments and in fashion plates. The other myths, though, seem strange. Well to do ladies did not wear silk! Shawls cannot be worn over the shoulders! Wow.

    Thank you for this post. I have been amused, indeed!

    (I also came here through the link in Historical Sewing's thread)

  3. Thank you, glad you found it amusing :)

  4. That made me chuckle...especially all the queen vic references.

  5. Good old Queen Victoria! What would we ever do without her!?

    "Republics" just do not have the same reference. I mean, who CARES how Merkel, or Sarkosi dress? But to say "The Queen/King does so," has an "authority" that just can not be beaten.

  6. Wow, those are interesting myths! I had never heard them before, but I think I might know where some of them come from (sort of).

    Before the cotton gin was invented, cotton had to be processed completely by hand, and it was grown largely in Egypt and India, where centuries of slave labor in the cotton fields had established the industry there. Consequently, fine imported cotton was expensive, and the sheer embroidered cotton muslins (not like modern muslin) available to Jane Austen and her ilk could be as luxurious and expensive as silk. Not more expensive, and not all cottons, but certain very sheer, fine cottons that we can't get today; they could be made into evening gowns, and worn over a colored silk under-dress, and that wasn't considered an informal thing. However, the cotton gin made growing and processing cotton much more lucrative, so the American cotton industry exploded, driving down the price of cotton cloth. Fancy, fine printed cotton calico cloth remained fashionable, but by the 1840s, the price was considerably lower than silk, and coarser cotton with much simpler tone-on-tone, or two-color printed designs became cheap enough that servants could wear them! Silk never got that cheap; even the "cheap" silks were out of reach for the working classes.

    Bright colors were, and are, achievable with natural dyes, but they were more expensive, using imported cochineal beetle red and murex snail purple, etc. Very bright (chemical/artificial) colors (especially silks) were the new, highly fashionable thing, as you said, and *everybody* wore them, especially because they showed up better in gas light and candle light at evening parties, than the duller colors did. They were more expensive (because more fashionable) than neutrals, so ladies were more likely to wear more of them than the duller colors, but that's not to say that poorer women didn't have accessories in brighter colors, that would be more affordable because they were smaller pieces and required less of the expensive dye. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that that's exactly what they did, being as fashionable as they could within their budget.

    As for the green, that may be a misunderstanding of the "arsenic green" of the period; that's a very specific shade of green -- almost a chartreuse -- and it was very popular because it was bright. There were lots of shades of green, as you have shown, and it was definitely worn. It was also used in wallpaper, and various other products. The museum where I volunteer is currently putting together an exhibit of arsenic green things in our collection, so I've been thinking about that lately.

    I also love all the images of Queen Victoria wearing red, green, etc. If it was good enough for her, then it was good enough for all the ladies!

    1. Thank you for your comment, it was a really interesting and informative read :)

    2. I've read a few books on the arsenic green, many people were poisoned by the dresses. Not those who wore them (or at least, not primarily), but the working class women (from what I understood mostly women, but I could be wrong) who made the fabrics and the dresses. I've read an account by a writer who visited a millenery where the green fabric leaves that were used to decorate the hats and bonnets were arsenic green. He commented on the ill and dying girls who made up the bonnets. So that particular green went out of fashion again.

      The fabrics that were dyed were made by dusting it with arsenic powder, so one swish during a waltz and you give off clouds of green poisonous dust...(Okay, not sure about the clouds, but it sure reads like that when I read descriptions! :P )

  7. About the green not being worn. I think people have gotten that myth distorted, over time. I can remember reading, in a 19th century ladies magazine, years ago, that one should never trim BABIES cloths with green ribbons, "as babies are apt to suck them." I can also remember a cautionary tale, in another ladies magazine, that it was unwise to wear a green ball gown, if one was likely to dance strenuously, and then went on to tell the story of a young lady, who "danced to excess, becoming very hot, which opened up the pores of her skin, allowing the arsenic to then poison her, causing her to fall dead, on the ball room floor." However, even that morbid little tale didn't warn to never wear arsenic green, just not to overdue, while wearing it.