Fashion by Accident: 1877

Gustave Caillebotte Paris Street; Rainy Day 1877

How We Get Our Habits

Things that are novel are liable to be regarded as nice. Once accepted, no man can tell how long they are going to remain. A good many years ago, a married couple, of noble tendencies— we refer to their birth—were descending a stairway, in Paris. The lady was dressed quite simply. The gentleman blunderingly stepped on her dress and tore the same from her waist in the rear. The lady hit him savagely with her parasol, breaking the handle of that article.

“What shall we do now?” she said, with a sob.

“I’ll tell you, my dear,” he replied, with that cheerfulness and adaptability to circumstance which married men know so well how to assume quickly. “Drop your shawl to your waist, so covering the rent, and there you are.”

“How ridiculous!” she replied, shedding tears copiously. “I shall look like a fright. I shall never dare to appear on the street again. You wretch! I shall be the talk of the whole town.”

“It cannot be helped, I am afraid,” remarked the gentleman, ruefully. ” We must get home somehow. And really, my dear, I think the dress will look quite nicely. It will be a novelty, anyhow.”

“My new silk!” exclaimed the lady, wringing her hands. “It will be utterly spoiled. The skirts will sweep up unutterable filth. It will be loaded with mud, and nutshells, and straws, and little sticks, and dust, and everything. You abominable person! You have ruined me forever.”

“I hope it is not so bad as that,” said the poor man, trying to smile. “But, see here, my dear! I am as unfortunate as you. Observe how ridiculous you have made this hat. You have battered it out of all shape with your parasol. It looks—it looks like a section of a badly-used stove-pipe. I am ashamed to be seen on the street with it.”

“And the parasol!” continued the lady. “The stick is broken off nearly up to the shade. I dare not go out without it, but it looks so absurd that I shall be the laughing-stock of all we meet.”

The couple were a long distance from home. The ludicrousness of the situation finally overcame their timidity and vexation, and they laughed. This put them in such a good humor that they became bold. Marching out to the street, they went on their way looking as if nothing had happened. People stared at them curiously. But they were known and respected, and there were no smiles and no questions. The ladies of Paris occasionally look around for a back view of the ladies they have passed. It is a custom peculiar to no other part of the world. In this instance the backward glances were numerous, but by no means alarming.

“Why, look at the Countess’ dress!” was the general remark. “It sweeps the walk at least a yard in her rear. How sweet! The folds of the dress fall so gracefully! It is evidence that there is no stinginess in the Countess’ family. It shows that art will have its way regardless of expense. It is the consummation of grace. And observe the Countess’ parasol! The shade is down to the tip of the Countess’ nose. There’s utility for you. What is a shade for but to keep the sun off? What is the use of a yard of stick? It is an unnecessary weight and it serves to let the sunshine in under the shade. It is the sweetest and best of parasols.”

The Count had no less reason to be happy.

“By Jove!” remarked the gentlemen who looked at him. “The Count’s hat is a stunner this time. Looks as if it had been accidentally elongated. That’s art. Studied carelessness, you know. Seems to be stiff, too. That’s art. Seems to have a superfluous amount of vacuum; but what’s a hat unless you have enough of it? Wonder where the Count got it? His own invention, probably. Just like him. Nobody knows how to dress tastefully equal to the Count. It is the hat of hats. It is the brightest and most artistic and most valuable hat that ever came from the maker’s.” This was centuries ago. A week after the event all Paris had a peculiar parasol, and likewise the trail and the stove-pipe hat. Since then they have traveled all over the world, and, dear children, they are with us yet. We stepped on one of them a moment ago. Our hat was banged with another of them, as a result, sufficiently to make another fashion in that article. But, alas! we are not a Count.

Chicago [IL] Tribune 16 December 1877: p. 11

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Happy accidents, indeed!  It takes supreme confidence, (not to say arrogance—no doubt bequeathed with the coat of arms and the strawberry-leafed coronet to those of noble blood) to turn wardrobe blunders into fashion triumphs.  But noble blood does not have a monopoly on this confidence a la mode:

One of those lucky girls who can turn their mistakes into victories is said to have originated the fashion of wearing ribbons belts twisted so as to make a point in the center of the back. Dressing in a hurry, she drew her belt carelessly about her waist and hastened down to breakfast to be greeted by her dearest enemy, before she had traveled half the length of the hotel dining room, with, “Oh, Adele, dear, your belt is twisted right in the middle, don’t you know! Run back and straighten it before Mr. __ sees it. He is so critical about little matter.

“Don’t you think it gives a nice pointed effect?” demanded Adele, catching sight of her reflection in a friendly mirror, “I do!” and she marched serenely to her seat, and after two days of wearing her belt twisted, the other girls agreed with her. As for the critical Mr. __, for some reason, of which possibly Adele has the secret, he seems curiously indifferent to the dearest enemy nowadays, but Adele is very kind to her.

The Courier-News [Bridgewater NJ] 29 August 1889: p. 4


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 anecdote

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s