Today’s post is written by Sally E. Svenson:
“You have not got to hunt for the best dresses in a crowd,” observed an English society journalist in 1890. “They will always make themselves seen.” What fashionable women wore became a prominent aspect of British society reporting during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, when nearly fifty new magazines aimed at women entered the British market. Describing such garments required skill. “It is not everyone who can carry away the memory of thirty dresses in her head,” noted one critic, and only the most brazen journalists stooped to taking notes at social events, including the hapless reporter satirized by the British humor magazine Punch in 1900.
A few journals supplemented textual descriptions of the fashion statements of aristocratic clotheshorses with rough line illustrations, among them Queen and Lady’s Pictorial, unashamedly snobbish weeklies that chronicled the doings of high society. The artists assigned to the task made no effort to capture individual likenesses, but sketched gowns on near-identical, mannerist figures with wasp waists and tiny heads.
Among the women whose clothes attracted press scrutiny at this time was American-born Lily Hamersley, who was from 1888 until his death in 1892 the second wife of the eighth Duke of Marlborough, head of the Churchill family. Lily had a sure sense of style, and her choices reflected the expense, thought, and workmanship that went into the making of a fashionable woman of her period. She did her part in upholding the English stereotype of American women as better dressed than their British counterparts (as did her sister-in-law Jennie Churchill, who spent far beyond her modest means on clothing and was singled out by New York’s Town Topics as the most modishly attired woman in London in 1898). What Lily wore accounted for a considerable portion of the “news” that appeared about her in the press, particularly in the years between 1895 and 1900 when she was married to her third husband, Lord William Beresford, an old friend of the Prince of Wales. Coverage began with Lily’s April 1895 wedding, when Queen provided its readers with a sketch of her wedding dress–of delicate pearl gray brocade patterned with satin roses over a petticoat of white moiré trimmed with Brussels lace. Her matching Louis XVI coat with diamond buttons and gauntlet cuffs of rare antique Point d’Alencon lace opened over a waistcoat of the same material. On her head she wore a gray velvet bonnet embroidered with pearls and trimmed with pale gray ostrich plumes, a white aigrette, and white violets. The hat was fronted with a small white lace veil.
In August 1895 Lily was one of twenty-two women attendees at the Dublin horse show whose gowns made up a full-page display in Lady’s Pictorial. On this occasion Lily appeared in a dress of dove-colored “undressed cloth” with sleeves of rich dove silk embroidered in a unique design in white terry velvet. Her bonnet, again a subject of some scrutiny, was of crinkled violet straw, trimmed with white stock gillyflowers and an upstanding fan of black ravenswing feathers.
Ball gowns deserved particularly close observation. A May 1897 volume of Lady’s Pictorial featured nine gowns worn at Mrs. Harry Oppenheim’s smart flower ball, to which each female invitee had been asked to come dressed as her favorite flower, sending buttonholes of the same blossom to three gentlemen of her choice. Lily “scored a complete success” in a white satin gown trimmed with tall stems of pure white trumpet lilies up the skirt and on the bodice, which was finished with chiffon and slender lines of brilliants. The look was completed by the addition of a pale-green sash. The ball’s hostess attired herself as a basket of poppies.
The most systematic and detailed fashion press coverage was given to what was worn at Court Drawing Rooms–the extravagant afternoon receptions held several times a year at which eligible women, each wearing the obligatory evening dress baring neck and arms, were introduced to Queen Victoria and the Court. Indeed, reportage of these events often amounted to little more than a compendium of the attendees’ toilettes. In May 1898 Lily, who was singled out by the Aberdeen Journal as “hardly ever” going “to the Drawing Room without wearing one of the most notably beautiful dresses at Court,” chose for the occasion a gown of ivory satin, its skirt and bodice ornamented with Tuscan embroidery in a rich design of orchids outlined with Strass diamonds and finely-cut steel beads. Her nine-foot train was of lily-leaf green satin brocaded in a design of lily branches and lined in pale blue.
Women’s magazines provided readers of the late nineteenth century with fairly accurate images of contemporary fashionable dress through their preoccupation with the clothes worn by women of the aristocracy. What’s more, they did so in color, thanks to the combination of sketch and written narrative. Fashion aficionados of today who appreciate Victorian dress still applaud their contributions.
By Sally E. Svenson, author of Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854—1909): A Portrait with Husbands