Where that $10,000-a-year Dress Allowance Goes: 1903


Designers Get a Large Price for Their Work and “Copyrighted Hats” Are a Fad—Cost of Being in the Swim.

Ten thousand dollars a year for gowns alone is a bagatelle to the London society woman.

Some women can “just manage” on a paltry five thousand for the season—the three months of May, June and July—but they are apologetic over so modest an amount. To many persons the phrase “London Season” is more or less meaningless. Not so to the fathers and husbands who have to foot dressmaking and bonnet bills.

With the London society woman to see a gown is to possess it. Especially if its design be original. She will pay any kind of price for the creation to be exclusive—that is, to be made for none else but her ladyship. The purchase of the copyright in a hat is now quite the thing, and it makes the dainty confection—the dream—come rather high. There is a popular belief that women’s clothes do not cost so much in England as they do in America. In a measure, this is true. But this means ordinarily fine or pretty clothes. Not those worn by the best dressed London women.

Everything depends on whether or not the purchaser of London clothing “belongs to society”—that is, goes to everything that’s worth while, and never misses a chance to be in the “little exclusives” that take place in the inner sanctums of gilt-edged sociability.

So many different dresses are required during the London season for the various kinds of functions and amusements that only an adept could keep track of them. New York demands little from its social votary compared to the requirements of London or Paris. Besides the usual court functions in London—which call for the most expensive kinds of clothes—there are hundreds of private affairs that run the cost of dress into big money. There are little and big dinners, balls, concerts, theaters, the opera—garden parties, “race meetings,” morning walks, afternoon drives, teas, luncheons and no end of other “socials” which occur mostly during the months of May, June and July. Each of these functions requires the fit dress, and the dress that fits, to go with it.

When August comes, though the London season is over, the society woman enters upon the “outdoor “ season, which means yachting at Cowes, winding up in a trip on the continent to Homburg or St. Moritz—the Saratoga of Europe. Yachting and watering places require certain costumes, and the fashions in these things are as inexorable as fate. To wear the wrong hat, shoe or dress for any occasion stamps the wearer with rusticity—the one unforgiveable social crime.

During the month of September the social dame who wishes to be strictly “in the swim” must go to Scotland for fishing. Later on, there comes the racing season at Newport, and then another trip abroad—this time to Paris, to see “what’s going” in new fashions for the winter. Country “house parties” come along in November, and then the shooting season is on. So many society women now shoot that it is considered extremely exceptional when one admits that she cannot handle firearms.

After the shooting season society flocks back to London, and there takes up bridge, whist, and the theaters. A few weeks at this, and “they’re off” again to enjoy the mild climate of southern France, and recuperate their wasted energy lolling under blue skies or languidly looked out over bluer water. All of these busy engagements, beginning from May, right through the winter months, require no end of special clothes. As each outfit is but for a year (it would “never do” to be seen two seasons in the same gowns), the London society woman or her husband is in for a pretty neat sum of money for attire.

Taking up the cost of these gowns, it might be mentioned that the least price paid for a really good dinner or ball dress is $250. This sum will only provide the ordinary dress made up of silk, trimmed in hand-embroidered stuff, or with hand-painted chiffon. Many dresses are trimmed with real old lace, which makes them cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000, or even more. For ordinary small functions there is worn what is known as a “little gown,” and it costs about $200. It is more natty in appearance than the dinner gown, and is used at restaurants and gatherings of minor importance.

A woman in London society must have two or three of these “little gowns” and at least half a dozen handsome ones. As two “little gowns” cost together $400, and six fine ones average each $400, we have $2,400 for the fine ones, with an additional $400, which makes $2,80 as a mere starter. As the winter draws on a gown of warm material is required. This is usually of velvet, and never costs less than $300, especially if Paris made—which is usually the case.

For court presentations or other court functions, a “drawing room gown” is required, and this, with its train, never costs less than $500. That is the minimum price. Some court gowns cost $2,000. For afternoon teas special gowns are required. An average pretty tea gown, made up of lace and crepe, runs into something like $130. Shooting jackets and billiard coats for such occasions cost about $75 and $100.

Special gowns are also required for Ascot races, and a fairly attractive “race” gown cannot be obtained from a fashionable dressmaker for less than $200. In summer, a crepe de chine gown, trimmed with lace of fair quality, costs $160 and a summer foulard runs into $100 to $130. Two morning frocks for the summer and two for the winter are among the essentials. Each of these costs not less than $100. An ordinary blue serge dress costs the society woman $120, and a summer homespun $95. An alpaca for summer wear costs about $80 to $100, and a simple muslin, trimmed with lace, runs into $75.

Dress for country life, and Scottish hunting or fishing costs about $40 each and a woman cannot go with less than four and have a decent variety. Very often bicycle and motoring costumes are necessary. One good motoring suit costs about $150, and a bicycle suit about $50; whereas golf and fishing suits cost about $100 each; and the same price is paid for yachting costumes, of which a woman should have three.

As to hats, of course each dress requires its particular head decoration. No decent hat can be bought in Paris or London for less than $20. A hat costing $50 is not at all an exception. The hat bill of the woman with an allowance of $10,000 a year for dress will easily run something like $2,000, whereas shoes during the year will cost another $100.

London women seldom pay less than $15 per pair for footwear. As with the hats, each gown requires its special shoes. In some of the shoes worn with the evening gowns, it is customary to wear diamonds, which decorate the buckles. To spend $50 for the shoes to go with a swell evening gown is nothing to the smart woman. Gloves cost the London woman about $150 a year. Of the cost of the mysterious things which masquerade under the title or “lingerie” there is scarcely any computation. An ordinary silk petticoat costs from $50 to $75, and the underclothing usually runs into something like $1,000 per annum for the mere necessities.

Most women regard the item of furs as matters for separate allowance. Cloaks and wraps seldom cost less than $5,000 a year, and sometimes a woman will give half this amount for some particular piece of fur material made up in a way that strikes her fancy. Sable jackets often cost $250 each, and chinchilla and Russian sables equal amounts.

Hairdressing and manicuring costs each society woman about $500 a year. When all these things are considered, it is easy to see where the $10,000 allowance which many London women get goes to. Sensible women will wonder why it is that London and Paris dresses command such high prices. The reason is because each dress is a species of artistic creation, to produce which the very highest kind of talent is engaged.

The Courier [Evansville, IN] 30 August 1903: p. 7

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil, with her extensive career among the titled and wealthy, is only surprised that the $10,000 figure is not higher. And where was the additional sum for jewels, which might amount to three to five times the dress allowance?

Mrs Daffodil has written before about Mr Vincent, a “fashion artist” and designer of exclusive fashions here. Also about designers Lucile and Poiret, who had very different views of fashion. On the subject of exclusive designs, Mrs Daffodil shares a story that would be amusing, were it not so tragic for the lady involved, about a widow’s “coming-out-of-mourning” gown. One may find out the cost of being presented at Court, here.

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.


8 thoughts on “Where that $10,000-a-year Dress Allowance Goes: 1903

  1. Iva P.

    Loved this article packed with information. I imagine that the sums mentioned here would be staggering in today’s dollars.


    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      They would, indeed! Using some standard tables to calculate the difference in values, one finds that $10,000 in 1903 might be worth approximately $645,000 to-day. Pocket change for some oligarchs….


      1. chriswoodyard Post author

        It is quite interesting how often the complaints of uncomfortable and unhealthful clothing come from gentlemen reformers, rather than the ladies themselves. To be sure there were lady clothing reformers as well, but it seems as though ladies of a certain echelon of society simply accepted the requirements of fashion without a murmur, as some sort of social duty. And, of course, they would have said that fashion gave work to many, particularly impoverished needle-women. Mrs Daffodil believes that a President of the United States–a Mr Reagan, advocated this sort of economic system: “trickle-down economics,” he called it.

        To be fair, corsets, if properly fitted, can be quite comfortable if not carried to extremes. Mrs Daffodil has had the unpleasant duty of brushing the hems of pavement-sweeping gowns with demi-trains. It was one of the least-attractive features of handling the rich wardrobe of a duchess. To-day, of course, couture is scantier, if not cheaper, than that the garments of the professional beauties of 1903. Mrs Daffodil may look askance at them, but the new class of “professional beauties”–the WAGS and television stars–will still insist on absurdly expensive heels and handbags costing as much as a Rolls. Plus ça change…
        Best wishes,
        Mrs Daffodil


  2. Pingback: Dressing on $50 to $200 a Year: 1898 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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