Victorian Fancy Dress: Defined and Described

If you’re an American reader of historical fiction set in the Victorian Era, then chances are you’ve stumbled across the phrase “fancy dress.” And chances are you may have assumed said phrase literally meant the novel’s heroine was wearing a fancy dress—as in a lavish gown designed for high society soirees. And chances are you might’ve suffered great confusion when the novel’s hero arrived, at the same soiree, also donning a fancy dress.

“Why has gruff Lord Deveron suddenly taken to wearing crinolines, and why, in heavens name, do none of the characters seem to notice this odd wardrobe alteration?”

For readers who’ve gawked at a paperback in a similar state of puzzlement, this post is for you. Let’s take the perplexity out of this phrase once and for all!

Victorian Fancy Dress Defined

Hornet Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls” by Ardern Holt. Fifth Edition, Publication Date: 1887.  Publisher: Wyman & Sons London. / Source: Archive.org

Hornet Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls” by Ardern Holt. Fifth Edition, Publication Date: 1887. Publisher: Wyman & Sons London. / Source: Archive.org

According to the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary “fancy dress” is defined as:

a costume (as for a masquerade) chosen to suit the wearer’s fancy. First Known Use: 1770.

Therefore, in the most simplified terms, fancy dress is British for costume. Think Halloween-style-dress-up worn at balls throughout the year rather than on one specific holiday.

In turn, fancy dress balls were like incredibly flamboyant costume parties. Think year-round Halloween festivities with an emphasis on haute couture elegance rather than trick-or-treat shenanigans.

The origins of fancy dress balls in the United Kingdom can be traced to masked balls of the 18th century. Ranging from intimate gatherings to ostentatious events on the elite’s social calendar, fancy dress balls featured dancing, refreshments, and socializing.

Sometimes hostesses asked guests to select thematic costumes—such as fairy tales or France at the time of Louis XV—and other times guests were free to express their own creative whimsy. Indeed, donning fancy dress provided Victorians with a liberating, albeit temporary, escape from the societal boundaries of their everyday life.

Victorian Fancy Dress Described

Amazon Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Thirty Original Sketches for Fancy Costumes: specially drawn, from our suggestions, by R. L. Bööcke” by B. Burnet & Co Artistic and Theatrical Drapers. Publication Date: 1894. / Source: Archive.com

Amazon Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Thirty Original Sketches for Fancy Costumes: specially drawn, from our suggestions, by R. L. Bööcke” by B. Burnet & Co Artistic and Theatrical Drapers. Publication Date: 1894. / Source: Archive.com

Common fancy dress costumes of the period were:

  • Specific Historical Characters—popular choices were Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, and Napoleon.
  • Characters from Myth, Folklore, & Novels—Robin Hood was a favorite along with Ancient Greek Deities and Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
  • Generic Regional Clothing—inspiration was drawn from Turkish, Dutch, Japanese, and others cultures. Though, unfortunately, stereotype exaggeration was often favored above accuracy.
  • Abstract Concepts—such as winter, folly, music, or electricity. Depictions of these concepts varied greatly, according to individual interpretation.
  • Random Physical Objects—such as a champagne bottle, wastepaper basket, or an aquarium. Fancy dress inspired by objects was often the most comical.
“Gentlemen's Fancy Dress: How to Choose it” by Ardern Holt. Publication Date: 1882. Publisher: Wyman & Sons London. / Source: National Museums Scotland

“Gentlemen’s Fancy Dress: How to Choose it” by Ardern Holt. Publication Date: 1882. Publisher: Wyman & Sons London. / Source: National Museums Scotland

Fancy dress costumes and balls reached a height of popularity during the Victorian Era, so much so, that multiple how-to books were written on the subject. Complete with beautifully drawn sketches and detailed lists of required materials, these guides were filled with numerous descriptive ideas for creating proper fancy dress ensembles. With this resource in hand, revelers could recreate the costumes themselves or have it made for them.

Below are links to three fancy dress how-to books from the Victorian Era and a sampling of their sketches. (Read to the end for a Fancy Dress SURPRISE!) 

1) Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls by Ardern Holt. Fifth Edition, Publication Date: 1887.  Publisher: Wyman & Sons London.

Esmeralda Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls” by Ardern Holt. Fifth Edition, Publication Date: 1887.  Publisher: Wyman & Sons London. / Source: Archive.org

Esmeralda Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls” by Ardern Holt. Fifth Edition, Publication Date: 1887. Publisher: Wyman & Sons London. / Source: Archive.org

Magpie Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls” by Ardern Holt. Fifth Edition, Publication Date: 1887.  Publisher: Wyman & Sons London. / Source: Archive.org

Magpie Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls” by Ardern Holt. Fifth Edition, Publication Date: 1887. Publisher: Wyman & Sons London. / Source: Archive.org

2) Gentlemen’s Fancy Dress: How to Choose it by Ardern Holt. Publication Date: 1882. Publisher: Wyman & Sons London.

Crusader Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Gentlemen's Fancy Dress: How to Choose it” by Ardern Holt. Publication Date: 1882. Publisher: Wyman & Sons London. / Source: National Museums Scotland

Crusader Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Gentlemen’s Fancy Dress: How to Choose it” by Ardern Holt. Publication Date: 1882. Publisher: Wyman & Sons London. / Source: National Museums Scotland

Clown Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Gentlemen's Fancy Dress: How to Choose it” by Ardern Holt. Publication Date: 1882. Publisher: Wyman & Sons London. / Source: National Museums Scotland

Clown Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Gentlemen’s Fancy Dress: How to Choose it” by Ardern Holt. Publication Date: 1882. Publisher: Wyman & Sons London. / Source: National Museums Scotland

3) Thirty Original Sketches for Fancy Costumes: specially drawn, from our suggestions, by R. L. Bööcke by B. Burnet & Co Artistic and Theatrical Drapers. Publication Date: 1894.

Night Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Thirty Original Sketches for Fancy Costumes: specially drawn, from our suggestions, by R. L. Bööcke” by B. Burnet & Co Artistic and Theatrical Drapers. Publication Date: 1894. / Source: Archive.com

Night Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Thirty Original Sketches for Fancy Costumes: specially drawn, from our suggestions, by R. L. Bööcke” by B. Burnet & Co Artistic and Theatrical Drapers. Publication Date: 1894. / Source: Archive.com

Music Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Thirty Original Sketches for Fancy Costumes: specially drawn, from our suggestions, by R. L. Bööcke” by B. Burnet & Co Artistic and Theatrical Drapers. Publication Date: 1894. / Source: Archive.com

Music Fancy Dress Costume Sketch from “Thirty Original Sketches for Fancy Costumes: specially drawn, from our suggestions, by R. L. Bööcke” by B. Burnet & Co Artistic and Theatrical Drapers. Publication Date: 1894. / Source: Archive.com

Now for the Fancy Dress SURPRISE—a Regency Fashion Plate of a Danish Fancy Dress costume worn at the Prince Regent’s Fête in August, 1819!

Fashion Plate of a Danish Fancy Dress Costume Worn at the Prince Regent’s Fête, August 1819. Artist: John Bell (English 1745-1831). Hand-colored Engraving. Made in London, England. / Source: LACMA.

Fashion Plate of a Danish Fancy Dress Costume Worn at the Prince Regent’s Fête, August 1819. Artist: John Bell (English 1745-1831). Hand-colored Engraving. Made in London, England. / Source: LACMA.

I was quite excited to find this Fashion Plate because my latest novella, Masquerade Melody, centers on a fancy dress ball hosted by the Prince Regent in August, 1819! *coincidence magic*

Masquerade Melody Which fancy dress sketch was your favorite? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. And for all you historical fiction fans, you’re most welcome to Pre-Order my novella Masquerade Melody which releases on November 1st in The Regency Brides Collection!

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