How to Dress (or Undress) like a Mermaid: 1868 to 1921


The photograph above shows Miss Carruthers of Kingston as “Undine,” the water spirit, in a costume created by Louis Hammondi of Saint John, New Brunswick. Undines did not have fish tails, so one stretches a point by including this charming water-nymph costume.  “Skirt made of watered green French satin with full train, trimmed with puffs of pale green tulle and alternate rows of water grass fringe and lilies, tunic of pale green tulle, looped on each side with large pearley shells and finished round the bottom with sea weed and fringe made of small shells and corals, with clusters of dew drops. Here and there in the dress could be seen large dragon flies; bodice of green satin, trimmed to match the skirt. The most conspicuous part of this costume was the headdress. A large shell rested on top of the head with a wreath of water lilies. The whole costume was almost enveloped in pale green tulle, dotted with small shells and dew drops.” St. John Daily News 24 February 1876. Quoted in Magnificent Entertainments: Fancy Dress Balls of Canada’s Governors General 1876-1898.

A story is going the rounds of the press that at a late Parisian party, one of the lady guests appeared in a mermaid costume—naked to the waist. On being requested by the hostess to throw something over her shoulders, the guest departed in a rage. Helena [MT] Weekly Herald 9 July 1868: p. 2

Unique Costuming at a Recent Fashionable Fish Feed.

New York, April 17. A fish dinner has been the fashionable novelty of the week. It had numerous predecessors during lent at a restaurant where, in fancy or reality, the chef is wondrously expert in cooking fish. It has been considerable of a fad to get up parties to dine at this place, where astoundingly high prices helped the exclusiveness of the indulgence. The feasts have been curiosities of cuisine and cost, but this one is regarded as a climax. Not only was the menu unique, but so also was the costume of one of the belles who graced the occasion. The private dining-room was turned into a bower of bright green, with seaweeds in profusion and quaint embellishments of shells, while borrowed pictures of pisciculture and water completed the aquatic decoration. However, it was in one of the elaborate toilets that a clever conceit was most remarkably carried out. The wearer was a pretty girl and belonged to a distinguished family. Her hair was loosened and embellished with sea-grass, a necklace and bracelets were pearls and coral; the sleeveless and low-cut corsage was delicate pink satin, shading off into the green of draperies fashioned in artistic imitation of a mermaid’s lower half. The scaliness of a fish was imitated by means of beadwork, the skirt was narrow, and a short train was shaped like the tail of a fish. The design had been realized by a famous man dress-maker [Charles Frederick Worth?] but the girl got credit for the original idea, and is, consequently, socially famous. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 18 Apr 1886: p. 9.

A certain beautiful Russian princess [Princess Zenaide Yusupov ?] residing in Paris went last week to the theater. Her costume was of sea green satin in the skirt, the corsage was of darker green satin covered with green crystal spangles overlapping each other and with little balls hanging from them now and then. The sleeves were of dark green velvet and the whole reminded one of a mermaid, for with every movement the green crystal shook and caught the light like scales of a fish. Omaha [NE] World Herald 19 January 1890: p. 12

“A Real Mermaid Frock”

[in article about actresses’ gowns on the London stage.] The most remarkable dress, however, was one worn by Mrs. Sam Sothern, another American. This was a mermaid costume made in Veronese green satin cut in the conventional lines of the DIrectoire. The swathing body was meshed in an overdress of black resembling the scales of the mermaid. A tailed fringe completed the effect which was further accentuated by a twist of the train around the feet and ankles. New York Times 18 October 1908

A Green Mermaid Gown Worn Coronation Week.

An American woman stopping at the Savoy on the Thames Embankment during the Coronation festivities appeared at dinner one evening in a sea green gown that attracted tremendous attention. This gown was worn at two important balls and received the name of “Lorelei” gown. It was also called the “Mermaid” frock. … Over the foundation of shimmering sea green crepe meteor which clings in sinuous lines about the figure is a heavy and also clinging tunic of net made of tiny cut steel beads strung on silk. The inverted V of darker green fabric in the skirt accentuates the clinging effect of the gown and emphasizes the peculiar mermaid effect. A little fish tail train at the back is weighted with steel fringe and this fringe also trims the transparent sleeves of pearl and steel embroidered net. Not only the lines of this clinging and steel weighted gown, but its wonderful shimmering green color made it the sensation of the evening whenever it appeared. Canton [OH] Repository 9 July 1911: p. 25

Mermaid Costume Startles Atlantic City

Atlantic City, N.J., June 3. The mermaid girl was the sensation of the formal opening of the summer season here today. Attired in a beach garment of silvery texture, cut short as to skirt and low as to bodice, with hosiery simulating fish scales to match [!!], she formed a striking picture.  San Diego [CA] Union 4 June 1917: p. 1

Mermaid Frock Startles English

London. Dame Fashion has been having a confab with Father Neptune and the net result is decidedly “fishy.”

One of them is the mermaid frock, which is a close-fitting affair entirely composed of pailettes which overlap one another in the approved fish-scale style. These pailettes are of iridescent shades of silver, green and blue. No trimming or ornament of any kind is worn with the frock and corsets are doffed so that the sinuous mermaid effect is complete.

Another fishy fad is the girdle composed of painted sea-shells. With this is worn a head-dress of similar design; or maybe, of tinted pearls. Riverside [CA] Daily Press 18 April 1921: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:

The credulous 19th-century public flocked to see “mermaids” at dime museums such as Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid,” the unholy alliance between a shaven monkey and a fish tail. More attractive sirens were a popular motif in the fine and decorative arts. For how such impostures were perpetrated, please see this Haunted Ohio blog post on “A Maker of Mermaids.”

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



2 thoughts on “How to Dress (or Undress) like a Mermaid: 1868 to 1921

  1. Pingback: Book Fairy Fancy Dress Costumes: 1899 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

  2. Pingback: In Lieu of Champagne: Mrs Daffodil’s One-Thousandth Post | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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