Accidental Fashions: 1870s-1905

Princesse de Lamballe, Anton Hickel, 1788, Lichtenstein Museum, Vienna

Princesse de Lamballe, Anton Hickel, 1788, Lichtenstein Museum, Vienna

Princess Alexandra in a porkpie hat, 1860s

Princess Alexandra in a porkpie hat, 1860s


By Grace Aspinwall

Feminine fashions are strange things. They come and go fitfully. and are freakish and unreasonable and mysterious: some of them are deliberately planned by fashion-makers, who earn their bread and butter by beautifying or making ridiculous the women of the age; but in many cases fashions are established by mere accident and the history of these accidents reads like a romance.

Every one remembers how the snood of ribbon wound carelessly about the coiffure became the fashion when that exquisite and unfortunate beauty, the Princesse de Lamballe, having lost her hat while hunting. took her long blue silk garter and bound it closely about her flying locks, tying it with a bow at the side.

She looked so exceedingly lovely when the hunt was over that all the other envious women straightway tied blue ribbons about their coiffures, and the fashion was started which to this day has prevailed at intervals. But the sweet, modern girls who bind up their locks so fetchingly with ribbons never in the least suspect that they are following an accidental mode that originated a century and a quarter ago with a garter.

Another fashion in hair-dressing which started purely by accident was that of the bang. or fringe, as it is always called in England. The Princess of Wales. who is now Queen Alexandra of England, was the unwitting originator of the bang.

It was created in the late seventies when coiffures were exceedingly elaborate and a great deal of “frizzed” hair was worn. The exquisite princess was in the full prime of her loveliness, and, as she always delighted in elaborate coiffures, she used to have a great deal of “frizzing” done.

Her maid was dressing her in a hurry one day for some occasion for which she was in danger of being late. The maid in her haste used much too hot an iron and burned off a great mass of the princess’s front hair. It was directly in front, and left the hair about two inches long.

The maid was terror-stricken; but the princess, true to her birth and breeding. merely bit her lip a little, and then, smiling gaily said: “Trim it into an even fringe and I will wear it that way. There is nothing else to do, and it really does not look badly so.”

The maid trimmed the burned locks evenly with the shears. and the princess went forth with an entirely new arrangement of hair, one that was without precedent in all history. She looked so distractingly lovely with her queer little straight fringe of hair on her forehead that within a few hours hundreds of women in court circles had slashed off their locks, and lo! the bang was an established fashion that has prevailed with more or less continuity straight down to the present day, and at the beginning of its vogue had a popularity no other mode has ever known.

This same charming princess set the fashion of wearing close-fitting jerseys, which was such a rage in the eighties. She used to be very fond of fishing. and while in the country unexpectedly went on a fishing expedition. Not having suitable clothing for the occasion, the princess sent her maid to a little shop to buy some sort of coat to take the place of her tight gown. The maid brought back a man’s small, closely knitted jersey, very long and shapeless.

Queen Alexandra, when Princess of Wales, wearing a nautical costume.

Queen Alexandra, when Princess of Wales, wearing a nautical costume.

First Aid to a Good Figure.

Any one but the ingenious princess would have thought the garment impossible: but not so this stylish. adaptable woman who had a genius for dress. She held up the long, shapeless garment, which was about six inches wide, and laughed merrily over it. and when she appeared ready for the fishing she looked like a sylph. The tight jersey, stretched over her truly beautiful figure, revealed all its bewildering loveliness —arms and graceful bust and slender waist all showing oft’ to amazing advantage.

She wore it over a short silk petticoat. and it gave her an idea which on her return to London she immediately had carried out. and the whole fashionable world responded to the charm of the fashion that she thus created. The tight-fitting jersey, revealing with complete frankness every line and curve of the figure, enjoyed popularity for a period of ten years, and was “the rage” for over six years. Like the bang. it was utterly different from anything else ever seen in the history of fashion.

Princess Alexandra in a porkpie hat, 1860s

Princess Alexandra in a porkpie hat, 1860s

The little scrap of a hat which came into being in the late sixties. which the English later named quite appropriately the pork-pie hat, was made fashionable accidentally by that singularly beautiful woman. the Comtesse de Castiglione, who was said to be the loveliest of all the lovely women of the Second Empire.

The countess had been out in the country near St. Cloud, on a sort of court picnic in the forest there. Everybody in the party had been very gay, and the gayest of all was the countess.

She had her little dog with her, a young King Charles spaniel; and. while the countess was amusing herself, the puppy amused himself by chewing off the wide brim of her leghorn hat. He left only the little flat crown, with its trimming of roses.

The countess treated the accident with the utmost gaiety, and declared she would wear the hat back to Paris just as it was; and, true to her word, she perched it at a rakish angle on the front of her elaborate coiffure and entered Paris so.

All who saw the beautiful woman of title immediately fancied that a new fashion in hats had arisen. and they straightway ordered just such tiny chapeaux to be made. No one was more amazed than the countess herself when she saw the result of her escapade, and she was reluctantly forced to wear a style which she did not care for at all, but for which she was involuntarily responsible. The Empress Eugenie, who was always jealous of her, refused to wear the tiny hats; but they had a great vogue in spite of this, and in England they were the rage for over two years.

Not Empress Eugenie, but a reasonable likeness of the Garibaldi

Not Empress Eugenie, but a reasonable likeness of the Garibaldi

The Empress Eugenie was responsible for more fashions probably than any other woman in history, but she planned them deliberately and made them the mode. There were a few things, however, that she created accidentally, with no idea of sending forth styles for the world.

One of the most famous of these accidents was that of the “Garibaldi.” which was a vivid orange-scarlet flannel jacket. which became suddenly the fashion. and was worn with great favor in England and America.

The empress was one day in the royal nursery, playing with the prince imperial. She became greatly absorbed, as this was the only time for perfect freedom that the empress ever had, and she used to “let herself go.” and, for a time, forget her cares and troubles, and the pomp and circumstances of court life.

The two got into a regular romp at playing soldier, and the empress playfully declared that she was a British soldier, and. seizing a piece of scarlet flannel that lay on one of the royal nurses‘ sewing-baskets, threw it about her shoulders, tucked it under her arms to resemble sleeves, and thus simulated a British redcoat.

Soiled Gown Set a New Style.

One of her intimate ladies in waiting came in during the affair, and, seeing the empress flushed and exquisitely beautiful, and wearing what she thought was a brilliant scarlet morning jacket. went immediately and had one made, and told all her friends to do likewise. The fashion took like wildfire, and, as Garibaldi was just then the European hero and always wore a red flannel shirt, it was straightway named for the Italian patriot, and the empress herself afterward greatly favored the fashion and wore over her cambric morning gowns a scarlet Garibaldi.

Empress Eugenie and Her Ladies, Winterhalter, 1856

Empress Eugenie and Her Ladies, Winterhalter, 1856

Another of the empress‘s famous “accidents” was that of decorating ball frocks with roses or other flowers, caught carelessly here and there about the skirt. She had just received from the imperial dressmaker an exquisite robe of the sheerest stiff white gauze, trimmed with lace. Some state affair was to take place at the Tuileries that evening.

The gown was an exquisite creation with lace frills and many flounces. As her women were dressing her before the mirror, the empress upset a large bottle of dark-colored perfumery on the dressing-table. It splashed in great blotches over the dainty, gauzy skirt, and left marks in several places. For a moment she was in despair. When she had planned a certain gown for an occasion she could never be reconciled to the wearing of any other. It looked as if the gown was hopelessly ruined, and it was one that had particularly pleased her, as it set off her singular loveliness to perfection.

Quick as a flash, an idea came to her, and from a vase of roses on the table she seized a number of the blossoms and, stripping the stems and leaves from them, directed her maids to loop up the soiled flounces and lace, and over each looping to pin a beautiful great rose. They were thus scattered here and there about the skirt in a charmingly careless fashion that was very beautiful. The empress was delighted; she went to the ball in a kind of gown that was immediately copied, and scattered roses and festooned flounces became the mode.

A Jersey Lily; Lily Langtry as painted by John Everett Milais, Jersey Heritage;

A Jersey Lily; Lily Langtry as painted by John Everett Milais, Jersey Heritage;

Mrs. Langtry, years ago. unconsciously set a fashion which has become an established form for arranging the necks of evening gowns—the V-shaped décolletage. It was when she first went up to London from the island of Jersey as a young bride. She was very poor and had but one black gown. Her beauty was so compelling and wonderful that some English society women took her up. They invited her to dinner, but she had no evening gown. She said nothing, however, but with the scissors clipped out the sleeves of her one black gown, slit down the bodice back and front, and turned it away in a deep V, thus revealing the most beautiful back and the most beautiful throat and arms that the world has ever seen. The display was generous and her beauty was dazzling. She created a great sensation and no one dreamed that her gown was not a professional creation.

The next evening she was invited again to a great reception, at which the then Prince of Wales was present. He was instantly charmed, and so eager were people to see the new beauty that they stood on chairs and pulled each other’s clothes in their utter forgetfulness of propriety, From that moment the V-shaped décolletage became the mode, and the island beauty was named the Jersey Lily.

The Scrap Book, Volume 9, May, 1910: pp. 702-704

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Modern royalty avails itself of “stylists,” and this sort of happy accident is rare. Popular singers and denizens of “reality television” are more apt to set the style, albeit generally a vulgar one. Still, royalty has its imitators: the tabloid press breathlessly reports on where the Duchess of Cambridge purchased a particular frock and how much was paid for it, as well as where Prince George’s sailor-themed jumper may be had. It all has rather a commercial flavour, like what is called “product placement” in the advertising profession.

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 “Accidental Fashions: 1870s-1905

  1. rybka56

    Can you please tell what your source is for the anecdote about the Countess de Castiglione and the origin of the pork-pie hat?


    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      It appears in the article called ROMANCES OF ACCIDENTAL FASHION By Grace Aspinwall found in The Scrap Book, Volume 9, May, 1910: pp. 702-704. (You will always find sources at the end of the articles on this blog.) Aspinwall does not give her sources for the anecdotes she relates.



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