The Cost of a Fine Lady
The Groans of Husbands.
If any one doubts that we live in the Age of Toys—at an epoch when taste runs more than ever before in the way of articles of embellishment and luxury—he must entertain that doubt at a distance from this metropolis. Indeed, we know not exactly where he will be able to “lay the flattering unction to his soul,” since even the small villages and incipient settlements in the country take their air from New York, and follow as nearly as possible in the footsteps of those who follow the Parisian setters of fashion. The taste or fancy obeys, too, the law of all propensities and habits, of being stimulated by gratification to larger demands. We have been growing steadily in this respect for a dozen years, and now reach a stature in extravagance that enables us to look over the heads of most of our transatlantic neighbors, and take to ourselves the proud consciousness of outdoing them in almost everything.
Look at the dresses of our ladies; observe them in the ball-room or at the opera; or at a simple home reception. That opera shawl is worn by a poor man’s wife; it is merely an imitation of ermine, with chenille [sic] fringe of pink, white or blue, yet it costs twenty-eight dollars. Observe the dress of the lady in the private box, of blue chene silk, with uncut velvet flounces, painted with rich clusters of flowers, and fringed with silk; she paid, last week, $120 for the dress material, besides $20 to her mantua-maker. The India cashmere shawl she has thrown off so carelessly, cost fifteen hundred dollars. The lady near her wears one with a scarlet centre, for which her husband, who has since advertised his goods as “selling off under cost,” paid $1200 to the importer. Her dress is of brown silk with fringed velvet flounces in a tartan plaid pattern; she purchased it some time since for ninety dollars, and it was thought a bargain. She and her friend are going to a party after the opera. Their head-dresses are “very simple,” –one has a head-piece composed of imitation pearls and delicate white ostrich plumes, mixed with bows of scarlet velvet ribbon looped with pearls, and chenille; there is a fall of white blonde lace upon it; the bandeau across the back of the head is also of mock pearls, and the ends of the ribbon are about half a yard in length. The price was only twelve dollars. The other has a bandeau of black velvet, wound with gold cord, and a fall of guipure lace; a bunch of golden grapes and leaves at the sides is mixed with red velvet flowers, and the streamers are of black crimson velvet ribbon.
If you go to the morning reception of one of the ladies, you will probably find her attired in a blue chene silk, with flounces of “dead velvet” flowers; its price unmade was $110. At a party given by one to her fashionable friends, she would wear a dress of white Montante silk, with a border a yard deep of brilliant flowers, wrought in velvet or satin, with the rich tints of their summer bloom—the waist and sleeves trimmed to correspond; this “love of a dress” was got for one hundred dollars unmade, and was a Christmas present from a relative. A friend of hers, who wears a white silk, brocaded with gold in waving figures, and paid for the material $150, feels some self-complacency in her evident superiority.
The bride, who is receiving the compliments of her visits, wears a scarf of Point d’Alencon that cost her father $1,500. The Valenciennes flouncing, a quarter of a yard deep, on the dress of one of her friends, is worth $100 a yard. Her mother wears a cape of Point d’Aiguille without ground, for which Stewart charged her $160; and her sister a collar and sleeves of Point d’Alencon, of which the price was $150. The elderly lady, who is giving her a word of advice about her future life ,wears a collar of flat point lace, with raised flowers, wrought in the most delicate needle work, for which she gave forty dollars, and thought it a bargain. Another young lady sports flounces of Point d’Aiguille at $70 the yard; and dangles from her gloved fingers a point d’Alencon handkerchief exquisitely worked in buttonhole stitch, with a centre piece of a few square inches of linen cambric, for which her papa gave a check for $200.
Her aunt has one in French work, richly and heavily embroidered, that was only ninety dollars. Her cousin wears a white taffety silk dress with three flounces ornamented with broad wreaths in satin or gorgeous flowers—cost $85. Or would you study the tastes of our ladies on a fine day in Broadway! You will see, perchance, a cape of Russian sable from Genin’s at sixteen hundred dollars; or one of Hudson Bay sable at half that sum, or down through several gradations to $200, with victorines and cuffs to match from $85 to $200, in addition. In the evening again, you may see the latest importation of luxury in a Turkish scarf of muslin, embroidered with a gold and pink silk, worth $100, with dress to match, bought for $150, spangled with stars of gold, and having a wreath of delicate embroidery at the bottom. The handkerchief that matches this costume is wrought in a heavy pattern of silver and gold, representing birds of paradise and flowers, with a centre of linen cambric, and was “thrown away” at twenty dollars.. The head dress, which cost the same, is a barb, embroidered with silver, gold and colored silk. The fan is of white chene silk, painted with wreaths of flowers, and finished with heavy silk fringe. This was only fifteen dollars, and is so recently imported that it is not yet in the market. Its peculiarity is that it can be slipped up to the end of the handle, and expanded in a parasol at the owner’s pleasure.
If you have a fancy for jewelry you may easily count up a fortune on the persons of our belles. That set of diamonds, consisting of necklace, bracelet, brooch and ear-rings, is worth $8,500. The pearl set which adorns the maiden of sixteen, cost $1,845. The sprigs represent the buds of the cotton plant. The gold and diamond bracelet pap bought at $1,800; it is superbly set in black enamel and gold—now the favorite setting. The one with the stone cameo representing a Grace holding a delicate wreath over her head, is worth $1200. But the prettiest device is one mama selected on Broadway the other day; quite new! It is a massive gold rattlesnake with glistening scales of diamonds, sparkling like imprisoned sunshine. It may be worn as a girdle, or a necklace, or in five folds around the wrist as a bracelet. On the top of the head is a cluster of large diamonds; the eyes are brilliant rubies, and the sharp teeth are of gold. The price of this captivating creature was but $800. You may see a superb necklace of eighty-seven diamonds in gold festoons, that cost $1,300; and that fashionable bracelet of broad green enamel, bordered with diamonds, representing bows of ribbon confined with braided bands, studded with brilliant gems, was bought at $1500. The set of large sapphires, with diamonds clustering around them, confined by a rope of chased gold, was $2,140. The diamond ring which sparkles on that lady’s finger, of five and a half carats, is worth $1500; and the ear-rings set in black enamel, $1600 the pair. You may see, also, a new style of necklace, formed of a network of black enamel and diamonds, with pendant shafts of gold headed with gems; the price of this, with a corresponding brooch, was $1300 The set of larger diamonds are worth fifteen thousand dollars. The prevailing fancy this winter has been for coral sets, exquisitely wrought. Look at that magnificent rose colored set, representing Cupid embedded in flowers, and birds in the ear-rings hovering over the rich clusters of blossoms. Its price was $550.
You have perhaps seen B.’s gold tea set—consisting of tea urn, tea and coffee pots, sugar bowl and cream pitcher, with twelve cups, saucers, and spoons—for $15,000. Or the gold dinner set, with fish, crumb and pie knives, preserve spoons, fruit basket, grape scissors, sugar tongs, and eighteen knives and forks for only $1,000. We do not yet use gold very generally, but if you take tea with Mrs. A__, she will show you a new tea set of six pieces worth $800—which was hung on her Christmas tree, and point you to a silver epergne with four branches, for the centre of her table, that cost $600; you will have water or lemonade handed you in a tankard and goblet of richly chased silver, on a slaver to match, of the finest workmanship, representing vintage scenes—price $335; and before you leave, the lady will ask your admiration for her last present of two paintings on porcelain—one representing Rubens’ Children, the other by Corfalis—a Festival of Artists—for which the connoisseur is to pay $325.
Smaller articles of luxury are on the same scale. The fish knife and fork used at a dinner, with full length figures of bacchantes on the handles, were not purchased under $85; the crumb-knife with a chased horn-of-plenty for the handle—for $45. The plum cake at the wedding party you attended last week—weighing 75 pounds—with its frost work ornaments six feet high, cost $100; the pyramid, 3 ½ feet high, with classic figures supporting the roof of a temple crowned with wreaths of flowers, $50; meringues in baskets and other attractive forms, $15 each, the boned turkey in jelly, pedestal and all, $15. Your imagination will supply the innumerable articles that must accompany and keep in countenance these elegant trifles.
It will thus be seen that fashion and society in our city, require expensive aids, and embellishments. Ladies are beginning to complain of the enormous taxes levied on “position and advantageous connection;” their husbands have groaned long under the burden. One tells us she is compelled to forego parties though she loves them dearly, and is well fitted to adorn and enjoy them; she really cannot afford to spend two hundred dollars on a dress and its accompaniments, and must, therefore, give up the pleasure. Another who has lightened her purse and oppressed he heart to be splendid, is half sick with chagrin, because another has eclipsed her in extravagance. Many who really have no wish to cramp their means and beggar their children for such empty triumphs, complain that their friends will drop them if they are not magnificent, and that cold shoulders are turned on any thing in the way of a shawl and dress under $500, or an inferior set of sables. There is certainly no doubt that profuse expenditure in dress, furniture and living, is made the test of respectability and the passport to society in our city. The veriest booby or the silliest woman, who can shine in what money can purchase, may command respect denied to worth, excellence and talent, when allied to moderate means.
This is not as it should be. We do not object to the toy mania when it does not break the limits prescribed by nature and reason. Let the rich spend their wealth in luxuries, trifles and in superb decorations, and let others admire the gewgaws if they choose; but let not the better riches of mind and heart be less prized—infinitely superior as they are. Let such of our dames as can afford to indulge their tastes be magnificent; but let the “public opinion” that would exclude from society those who can not afford more than simple elegance, be crushed out of existence. It is unworthy of republicans—unworthy of Christians—unworthy of intelligent beings.
Alexandria [VA] Gazette 21 January 1857: p. 2
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Strong words, indeed, when everybody knows that the whims of the upper classes give employment to the poor even though the rich may be a trifle careless in paying their bills to impoverished seamstresses. The expensive caprices of the aristocracy also give those less fortunate something to read in the papers on wet afternoons. This article, for example, on “The Cost of a Curtsey,” telling of the expenses attendant on being present at Court, and this one, on “Where that $10,000-a-Year Dress Allowance Goes” must have inspired much amusement and a hearty thankfulness among the working classes that they had not the worries and cares of the wealthy.
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.