Tag Archives: aesthetic dress

The Velvet Coat: 1883

oscar wilde velvet coat

The Velvet Period

A Notable Season in the life of Every Young Man.

A couple of old fellows were standing in front of the Plankington House, smoking five cent cigars, one evening, when a young fellow passed along with a velvet coat on, and before he had got out of sight, an old fellow about sixty years old passed the same place, and he had on a velvet coat. One of the two old fellows knocked the ashes off his cigar, and said: “It catches them all, sooner or later.’ ‘

“What do you mean?” asked the other, as he borrowed his friend’s cigar to light his own.

“Why, the velvet coat period,” said the first man, as he took his cigar back, and puffed on it to keep it going. “Every man, some time in his life, either as boy or man, sees a time when he thinks the world will cease to revolve on its axis if he does not have a velvet coat, and he is bound to have one if he has to steal the money to buy it. It is bad enough for a boy to have the period come on, but it is infinitely worse to escape it in youth and have it attack a man in middle life, but it always hits them, some time. Now, you wouldn’t think, to look at me that I ever had the velvet coat fever, but I had it once in its most violent form.

“About twenty years ago, at the time of the oil excitement, I made a little money in oil, and I got to thinking how I could show how I was no ordinary son of man, and all at once it struck me that a velvet coat could do it for me, and 1 had a surveyor measure me, and had a velvet coat made. I was anxious to have it done so I could put it on and go around among the boys, but when it was done and had been brought home, I all at once lost my grip, and could hardly get up courage to put it on. I let it lay for a week, until my people got to making fun of me about being afraid to wear it, and finally I put it on and wore it down town after dark. Only a few people saw it, and I went home feeling satisfied that the worst was over. What I wanted was to have the community get accustomed to it gradually.  After a while I wore it to my office on days that I was to be busy, so I knew I wouldn’t have to go around town. After the boys in the office got so they could witness my coat without going behind a partition to laugh at me, I concluded to wear it on the street.

“Well, there was an organ grinder with a monkey, out on the sidewalk, when I went out, and the beastly Italian had on an old velvet coat, like mine, only soiled. The monkey was jumping around, picking up pennies, and all at once he saw me. I shall never forget the expression on that monkey’s face. He seemed to take me for his master, and clearly realized that his master had procured a new coat without asking the consent of his little brother. There was a look of pain, as though the monkey felt hurt that such duplicity had been practiced on him, and then the monkey would look at the clothes in which he was dressed up with contempt, and then he would look at my coat with envy. I never felt so sorry for a monkey in all my life. I could stand it to hear strangers say, as I passed by, ‘What fool is that?’ but to see that poor monkey grieve over the style I was putting on was too much, and I resolved if I ever got that coat home I would put it where it could never be seen again. The organ-grinder became alarmed at the actions of the monkey, and jerked on the chain, causing the monkey to tum a back summersault, and the poor animal came up standing in front of his master. He looked at him, and seemed to be at once reassured, and to feel that the apparition was only a horrid dream, and then he looked over his shoulder toward where I had stood, to make sure, and there I was in all my glory. Then the monkey was mad and began to make up faces at me, and I got out of there and went home, with shouts of the monkey’s audience sounding in my ears, and I took off that coat and gave it to the man that took care of my horse, and I never see a velvet coat, either on a boy or man, but I think of what a confounded fool I made of myself in my Oscar Wilde days. If you have a boy, teach him to go through the velvet coat period young, and he will thank his stars.’–Peck’s Sun.

The True Southron [Sumter, SC] 6 November 1883: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: “Oscar Wilde days,” indeed. Mrs Daffodil has known two gentlemen who went through a velvet coat period: one was an elegant professor of French, whose students all sighed for him; the other was a fair young man with the pale tresses and long nose of a borzoi. The garments are undoubtedly becoming to their owners, and young ladies seem desirous of petting them, but too often a velvet coat brands a young man as “artistic,” with all the opprobrium so frequently directed at that species by doting Papas. Still, many gentlemen remember their velvet coats fondly. Mrs Daffodil appends a poem of nostalgia for such a garment:

My Old Coat

Mortimer Collins

This old velvet coat has grown queer, I admit,
And changed is the colour and loose is the fit;
Though to beauty it certainly cannot aspire,
’Tis a cosy old coat for a seat by the fire.


When I first put it on, it was awfully swell,
I went to a pic-nic, met Lucy Lepel;
Made a hole in the heart of that sweet little girl,
And disjointed the nose of her lover, the earl.


We rambled away o’er moorland together,
My coat was bright purple, and so was the heather;
And so was the sunset that blazed in the west,
As Lucy’s fair tresses were laid on my breast.


We plighted our troth ’neath that sunset aflame,
But Lucy returned to her earl all the same;
She’s a grandmamma now and is going downhill,
But my old velvet coat is a friend to me still.


It was built by -a tailor of mighty renown,
Whose art is no longer the talk of the town;
A magical picture my memory weaves
When I thrust my tired arms through its easy old sleeves.


I see in the fire, through the smoke of my pipe,
Sweet maidens of old that are long over ripe;
And a troop of old cronies, right gay cavaliers,
Whose guineas paid well for champagne at Watier’s.


A strong generation, who drank, fought, and kissed,
Whose hands never trembled, whose shots never missed;
Who lived a quick life, for their pulses beat high,
We remember them well, sir, my old coat and I.


Ah, gone is the age of wild doings at Court,
Rotten boroughs, knee-breeches, hair-triggers, and port;
Still I’ve got a magnum to moisten my throat,
And I’ll drink to the past in my old tattered coat.

Modern Merry Men: Authors in the Lighter Vein in the Victorian Era, William Andrews 1904

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.

The Rational Dress Show: 1883

"The Bicycle Suit" 12 January 1895 Photo-engraving of ink drawing Punch, p. 23 Courtesy Athenæum Club Library London Bicycle, sewing machine -- it's all technology Scanned image and text by George P. Landow

12 January 1895
Photo-engraving of ink drawing
Punch, p. 23
Courtesy Athenæum Club Library
Bicycle, sewing machine — it’s all technology
Scanned image and text by George P. Landow



(By Our Fair Correspondent.)

In the Hall of the Prince is a Show—stuffs and chintzes—

(O Maidens of England, pray list to my song!)

For all there displayed is a warning that Ladies,

In matters of dressing, are terribly wrong!

I thought my new bonnet, with roses upon it,

And tasteful costume, was complete, I confess.

But now I ‘m reminded my eyes have been blinded

To all the requirements of Rational Dress!

We look at the models—they puzzle our noddles—

Regarding them all with alarm and surprise!

Each artful costumer revives Mrs. Bloomer,

And often produces an army of guys.

The costume elastic, the dresses gymnastic,

The wonderful suits for the tricycle-ess—

Though skirts be divided, I’m clearly decided,

It isn’t my notion of Rational Dress!

See gowns hygienic, and frocks calisthenio.

And dresses quite worthy a modern burlesque;

With garments for walking, and tennis, and talking,

All terribly manful and too trouseresque!

And habits for riding, for skating, or sliding,

With “rational” features they claim to possess.

The thought I can’t banish, they’re somewhat too mannish,

And not quite the thing for a Rational Dress!

Note robes there for rinking, and gowns for tea-drinking,

For yachting, for climbing, for cricketing too.

The dresses for boating, the new petticoating,

The tunics in brown and the trousers in blue.

The fabrics for frockings, the shoes and the stockings,

And corsets that ne’er will the figure compress.

But in the whole placeful there’s little that’s graceful

And girlish enough for a Rational Dress!

‘Tis hardy and boyish, not girlful and coyish—

We think, as we stroll round the gaily-dight room—

A masculine coldness, a brusqueness, a boldness,

Appears to pervade all this novel costume!

In ribbons and laces, and feminine graces,

And soft flowing robes, there’s a charm more or less–

I don’t think I’ll venture on dual garmenture,

I fancy my own is the Rational Dress! 

Punch Vol. 84, June 1883

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: “Rational Dress” (and much hangs on what one thinks of as “rational”) was an easy target for critics with its lack of corsetry, its mannish bloomers, and its association with both the stoop-shouldered Aesthetic Movement and the more rabid Suffragettes.

The “Rational Dress Exhibition” of 1883 was held at Prince’s Hall, Piccadilly, arousing much curiosity from the public and hostility from the press. It emphasised health and “hygiene” and sensible clothing for sport. All well and good, but what the press (and Punch) most deplored was trousers for women. For example, this London correspondent:

I deeply regret to announce that the question of “rational dress” for ladies is again inflicted upon a suffering public by the misguided ladies who want, and apparently must have, a separate visible covering for each leg. Lady Harberton, whose maiden name I believe was Legg, is at the head of this deplorable movement, and has actually lectured upon it at St. James’ Hall before a large audience. The Rational Dress Society is represented at an exhibition of hygienic dress and sanitary domestic appliances and decoration, where the divided skirt is seen in all its horror, together with dresses for boating, tricycling, lawn tennis and other pastimes which in every other country but this are considered unfeminine. In the exhibition there is a gallery for ladies only, the mysteries of which no male eye may explore. Doubtless the ridiculous and futile agitation will fizzle out, owing to the natural disinclination of the majority of women to make guys of themselves and the equal disinclination of the men to have anything to do with women who wear visible trousers. New York Herald 3 June 1883: p. 15

A visitor to the exhibition described this suit, which, in view of its description as garb for mountain-climbing, seems the height of irrationality.

Another dress, the like of which is said to have been worn by a Mrs. King, of Brighton, when climbing the Alps, is a daring affair indeed. Rather loose knee breeches of black satin (not Knickerbockers) are surmounted by a black satin kilted flounce about a foot long, which is the only visible semblance of the time-honored female skirt; the bodice is a sort of bob-tail coat affair, and there is a waistcoat and neck-tie of cherry satin, long black silk stockings and low-cut shoes with red rosettes. The Times [Philadelphia, PA] 10 June 1883: p. 8

Mrs Daffodil has previously written of dress reform here and here. She is thankful that she is free from the need of any dress reform whatsoever. Her clothing is functional, well-suited to its purposes, and hygienic, thanks to the well-trained laundresses at the Hall.  Perhaps the dress-reformers so interested in hygienic dress merely need to find a laundry able to cope with the soil from a ladies’ rugby scrum or an Alpine ascension.

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.

Mrs Jenness-Miller, the Apostle of Culture in Dress: 1890, 1894

One of Mrs Jenness-Miller's creations. From The New York Library Digital Collection

One of Mrs Jenness-Miller’s creations. From The New York Library Digital Collection


Mrs. Jenness Miller Entertains a Large Audience of Trenton Ladies

Association Hall was again crowded yesterday afternoon with an assemblage of ladies who had gathered to hear and who listened delightedly to the apostle of culture in dress. Mrs. Miller appeared in a princess gown of old rose brocade satin, with Watteau back and side draperies. She advocates dress improvement, not dress reform. The old reform was offensive and inartistic. She spoke of the relation of women and their dress, of the Syrian women and their costumes, of the peasant women and how their lives are in harmony with their apparel.

Women ask, can these changes be made? Yes, and with less trouble than the ordinary changes of fashion, and Mrs. Miller cited the wonderful changes in dress made in the past thirty years. In the age of the hoop skirt women appeared as animated pyramids. Next was the pancake age, then the kangaroo with hump on back and hands in that fashion. Then came the pancake fashion with the skirts tied back, displaying the entire form. That style was worn by saint and sinner alike and was not considered vulgar.

The next style was the Hottentottish bustle, when the greatest changes occurred. The principal reason for desiring and advocating a change of dress is to make a better race of men and women. Had the speaker the training of the coming generation of girls, she said, there would not be so many invalids. The specialists’ signs might be taken down from Maine to California. What we need is that mothers of the coming race shall have freedom of the vital organs according to the laws of nature. To accomplish this, moral courage is necessary, but in that respect most women are deficient. We are too prone to follow a leader and care too much for public opinion. Mrs. Miller then illustrated the fashionable pose and caused much laughter.

Nature provides curved lines while fashion, on the contrary, converts them into angles. Art must be true to itself and not to fashion. Art has no novelties, the human figure never changes, it is always in proportion. The women who contemplate this change need not expect to appear better at first; there will be a transition period in which they must exercise and learn to pose correctly.

Then Mrs. Miller appeared in a street costume of tan silk, trimmed with heliotrope velvet and lace. The skirt had box plaits inserted in the seams and presented a very graceful appearance. The waist was fastened on the shoulder and under the arm. Being asked how she fastened the dress, she showed a new device which is quite novel. On the shoulder seam, around the armhole and on the underarm seam, was sewed a cord, into which the hooks could be easily fastened, without the inconvenience of looking for the eyes.

While in this costume, Mrs. Miller explained her manner of dressing and the undergarments she wore, viz., a union suit, a divided skirt of pongee silk, supported by low neck waist of the same material, and occasionally an equipoise waist without bones.

The next dress she wore was her girl’s dress, of which she is particularly fond. It was made of pale pink China silk, with Grecian border on skirt. There was a plain fitting foundation with several rows of shirring around the waist, the upper part being full and loose allowing much freedom for the raising of the chest and the expansion of the ribs. This dress is suitable for a miss or a woman of thirty years. Mrs. Miller then illustrated the ungraceful position in which many women site, having the waist line totally obscured caused by sitting on the spine. Then the rolling movement of the body was given, which, if properly exercised, places the vital organs in their proper relations, and with a regular diet will greatly improve the health.

Development of the throat and neck is desired by most ladies, but all are not aware that by tight lacing the floating ribs are compressed and necessarily push the neck bones into prominence. The two beautiful curves of nature of sacrificed for the waist line.

The fashionable woman of the period is a series of bulges that were not seen in the Venus of Milo. Upon asked her weight, she replied: “One hundred and fifty pounds in sheets and Turkish baths.”

Conventional summer dress was Mrs. Miller’s next theme. The material was an olive green lace-striped silk, with dark green velvet, lace, and gilt braid for trimmings. The dress was draped to form an overskirt which Mrs. Miller said breaks the long graceful lines and renders it unbecoming.

The rainy day costume consisted of a navy blue waterproof serge. The skirt reached halfway between the knee and the ankle; the waist consisted of an ordinary Eton jacket and silk vest. Leggings completed this outfit. In winter equestrian trousers, which furnish protection from cold and rain, are worn. Here Mrs. Miller related an amusing incident which indicated the difficulties a woman experiences in stormy weather:

A poor working woman with a bundle, baby and an umbrella in crossing a gutter was obliged to hold up her dress and in this attempt turned the little one upside down, which at first amused the speaker, but which afterward she regarded as a very pitiful sight, which showed the absolute necessity for a reform in rainy day costumes.

Many women consider the short skirt vulgar, and raise their skirts in crossing the street and display an array of underwear which is quite immodest. “I believe in legs,” said the speaker, “I am sorry for the people who have limbs.” The Almighty gave us legs as well as the men and they are not ashamed of them. Why are there so many moral cowards? We must have the courage of our convictions. When asked if the skirt could not be worn a little longer, Mrs.  Miller replied that it would not be artistic and that more foot would be visible than leg, making the foot appear much larger.

Mrs. Miller believes in plenty of pockets and thinks that man’s superiority began with them. The next costume was an evening gown. It was a combination of rose satin and brocade, trimmed with ribbon, and as she was in a great hurry to conclude her address she removed her dress before the audience and put on her maternity gown. It was a princess dress which could be unlaced and enlarged by means of a cord inserted in one of the darts and another one across the front below the waist line. A Grecian drapery was fastened over it and made a very appropriate gown. Trenton [NJ] Evening Times 5 May 1894: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: As may be obvious from this article, Annie Jenness-Miller [1859-1935] was a dress-reformer and popular lecturer. Her “improved” gowns were often made of exquisitely rich materials by European couture houses to her designs. Illustrations of her improved fashions are less the greenery-yallery favoured by aesthetes and ridiculed by  Punch, and more conventionally fashionable garments, which appear a bit blousy around the waist without a corset. She lectured around the world, except in Britain, where no agent would book her lectures and where the British public, ever conservative, refused to adopt her divided skirts. She was a prolific writer and published her own magazine, first titled Dress, but later called The Jenness-Miller Magazine. One might suggest that she enjoyed the limelight and controversy arising from her choice of crusade. Certainly Mrs Jenness-Miller had her critics: 



To the Editor of the New York Times:

To be a successful reformer one must be able to demonstrate in one’s own person the perfect confirmation of one’s theories. A homely woman might as well attempt to change the order of the universe as to influence her sex on the subject of beauty.

The success with which Mrs. Jenness-Miller, the dress reformer, has met is due not to a mental capacity in the last unusual or to any very original ideas, but entirely to the fact that she is a rather handsome woman with a fine figure, and her gowns are artistically beautiful. So far as physical well-being goes, Mrs. Jenness-Miller does, indeed, make a charming illustration for her lectures. Inadvertently and unconsciously, however, she contradicts herself when she tells her audience that divided skirts, chemilettes [a union suit meant to replace corset and petticoat], spiral garters, and the like will affect the honesty, truthfulness, and general uprightness of the race. If Mrs. Jenness-Miller really believes this, how does it happen that she, who has lived, so to speak, in these moral elevators—divided skirts, chemilettes, spiral garters, and the like—for the past five or six years, regards it as perfectly honest to sell tickets at $1 each, or $5 for a course of seven lectures, advertising seven different topics, and to make the third lecture of the course simply a repetition of her first, with fifteen minutes at the utmost devoted to the advertised subject?

Mrs. Miller’s wit cannot be listened to twice without a feeling of ennui. Her hits at man’s curiosity, suspenders, and legs, the unwinding of petticoats on a windy day were amusing when first hear, but fell decidedly flat the second time. Nor was her lecture sufficiently profound for even the dullest not to grasp her meaning in one hearing. Obviously it escapes the mind of this charming woman that although she herself has reached such a high plane in the march of progress as to call legs by their proper name and wears divided skirts, the rest of the world cannot rashly venture to put so great a strain on their mental powers as to listen to these thought-burdened theories twice in so short a time.

Mrs. Jenness-Miller by no means confines herself to the reform of undergarments. Our watches are attacked! In the first lecture, according to the watch which millions of unreformed people are stupid enough still to regard as nearly veracious, the fair lecturer greeted her audience at 11:25, and at 12:35 by the same timepiece she was gone. Yet this Venus of Reform calmly and positively declared that she had talked two full hours. When some one in the audience demurred she smilingly remarked: “Women never realize how time slips by when they are looking at pretty gowns.” We must acknowledge that if chemilettes make truthful men and women the watch had best hide its face forever.


New York Times 30 March 1890

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.