Tag Archives: Lily Langtry

Bird-cages and Court Toadies: Some Triumphs of Fancy Dress: 1896

Depicting “The Scotch Mail” and “Covent Garden.”

Some Triumphs of Fancy Dress,

J. Malcom Fraser

With the exception of those held during the carnival at Nice, the balls which annually take place at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, are the most brilliant pageants of their kind in the world. The fact that Europe’s greatest masters in the art of designing vie with each other in their endeavour to obtain the highest pitch of originality and perfection, is a guarantee of the inventive genius that is brought to bear upon those lighthearted gatherings. In short, it is there that the typical ingenuity of Bohemianism is shown to its greatest advantage.

It is interesting to note that a large quantity of the best costumes that are worn either at the Veglione or the Redoute at Nice are supplied by English makers, and worn by the British and American visitors. As an instance in case I will take that of Miss Loie Fuller, who electrified the popular French watering-place on the Mediterranean in her guise of “Mother Goose.” So struck were the Nicois with the quaintness of the headdress—which, by the way, consisted of a beautifully modelled goose, nestling upon a bunch of crimson velvet—that they immediately conceived the idea of reproducing the coveted design as a gigantic centre-piece for their procession. Now, this costume—as, indeed, are all those which are here described—was designed and carried out by Mr. Clarkson, of theatrical fame.

That our balls are not totally devoid of wit and humour may be seen by the hundreds of living jokes which are invariably prominent when popular feeling is directed towards some political act. I have no doubt that there will be at least one dress at the coming gathering entitled the ‘ Maskrugeraiders,” one half of which will represent the celebrated Dr. Jameson dressed in a roughrider’s costume, while the other half will be the same man in convict’s clothes.

Then, again, the costume on which is pinned a placard informing the public that “Tis years since last we met,” and consisting of a gentleman dressed both as a prisoner and a judge, is not without some humour.

The subject of the illustration on the right of the title is distinctly appropriate. In fact, it is named “Covent Garden.” The costume is a veritable walking allegory, and is so designed as to give the onlooker an idea of the various fruits and vegetables that are sold in the well-known market. It was at first suggested that real fruit should be used to decorate the dress, but a little thought showed the inadvisability of this.

The groundwork of the gown consisted of green and yellow silk, covered and draped with papier mache produce of the most expensive description. A large basket filled to overflowing with grapes and strawberries, surmounted by an enticing pine, was symbolised in the young lady’s hat, while the flora of London was represented by a panier of lilies and wild flowers. The green stockings and shoes harmonised with the general colour of the fruits. Although this magnificent dress cost the wearer £30, she was amply repaid for her trouble and expense by carrying off the first prize of a grand piano.

An extraordinary mixture is the costume, which is embodied in the title, called “The Scotch Mail.” This dress gives us an example of the happy-go-lucky—with great emphasis on the lucky —way in which the members of the “profession” are wont to dress themselves for the fray.

About ten minutes to twelve on the night of one of the balls, a young actor rushed into Mr. Clarkson’s, saying that he particularly wished to be present at the Opera House that night, at the same time giving impossible hints as to how he should be dressed.

Nothing suited him, however, and he was about to retire in despair when he happened to catch sight of a bundle of mail-armour that had been returned from Osborne that afternoon. Donning this, he found to his surprise that it was a perfect fit, and when, in an off-hand manner, he picked up an old property postman’s hat, the idea suddenly occurred to the costumier to wrap a plaid and kilt round him with a card sewn on his dress saying that he was—the Scotch Mail.

No sooner thought of than done, and, as a sort of finishing touch, he was supplied with a worn-ou’ rag-bag and a sporran. Nobody was more surprised than himself when, after the ballot had been made, he found himself the happy possessor of the first Ralli car ever presented as a prize, valued at fifty guineas.

Worth but Worthless fancy dress

Some time ago a dress by Worth, costing eighty guineas, was offered for the best lady’s gown. With the habitual smartness of our English designers to seize every opportunity in the shape of a hint, a costume was soon forthcoming, entitled “Worth but Worthless.” This ingenious design was an exact counterpart of the original prize, but instead of being made of silk and cloth it was totally constructed of that crinkled paper which at the time was greatly in favour for the making of lampshades.

The conception of this idea led to some amusing difficulties on the evening of the ball. The gentleman for whom this dress was made was somewhat small and boyish in appearance, which fact lent itself to his better personification of a dame of high fashion. After some little struggle on the part of the attendants to make the wearer’s waist as small as possible, the dress was fitted on piecemeal, great care being exercised that no tear or rent should be made.

When all these difficulties had been overcome, the question resolved itself into how the would-be dancer could be safely taken to the hall. To be crushed into a hansom and there to sit down meant certain and irreparable destruction to the dress that had cost so much anxiety and forethought. There was only one thing to be done, and that was to throw a shawl lightly over the young man’s shoulders and allow him to walk to the hall, leaning on a friend’s arm, which he did.

That he arrived safely is shown by the fact that he obtained the first prize as recompense for the initial cost of two guineas for the making and designing of the dress and for the exceeding originality of the whole costume.

When at the commencement of last year a certain Earl was raised to the rank of Duke, the ill-favour with which his elevation was regarded was made known by the individual who took upon himself the dress of a “Court Toady.”

Clothed in a green material made of woven wool, with two incandescent lights in place of eyes, he resembled an enormous toad. As may be seen from original drawing, a the reproduction of the blue sash — the insignia of a duke — was passed over his right shoulder and partially covered the Royal Arms, which had been worked upon his back, while in his right hand he held a dispatch box and in his left a bulrush. On entering the ball – room the subtle sarcasm of the whole costume was at once perceived, and the judges thought fit to award a bicycle to the happy wearer.


To design a dress that is out of the common, to design one that can be worn with comfort, to combine drollery with beauty, and yet not charge an exorbitant price, is indeed a thing that is rarely done. Yet the example above will show that it has and can be accomplished.

Miss Marie Montrose certainly aided art in appearing beautiful when she wore the dress entitled “Skylights and Nightlights.” This costume was made entirely of blue satin, upon which were painted scenes of nocturnal revelry enacted by various members of the cat tribe in conjunction with mysterious night-birds. The new moon, which was slightly clouded, showed itself upon her bodice, while stars were shining in every position—possible and otherwise. A nightlight rested on her right shoulder, above which the sun seemed to be rising with great reluctance from a mass of loosened hair. A miniature lamp-post was held in the left hand, and was lighted with a small though brilliant electric light—thus completing the exceedingly striking costume that gained a silver coffee set. And yet I question whether the materials used in the construction of this dress cost more than a five-pound note.

Here is an illustration of how a really good idea may spring from an apparently trivial source. One day, during the hard winter of ’94, Mr. Clarkson was walking along the embankment looking at the frozen river. Noticing an indistinct object half buried in a floe of ice his curiosity was aroused, and upon closer inspection he was disgusted to find that the “object” proved to be nothing more than an empty whisky bottle. Picking it up, however, he carried it home with him.

Two days afterwards a decidedly humorous costume was ready for the ball. In point of fact it was the head-dress rather than the costume that was humorous. This consisted of a head impersonating Father Thames, on the crown of which was posed a large frog in the midst of weeds and rushes, holding in one of its fore-feet a reed.

The eyes of this gruesome reptile were illuminated by small lamps. When the wearer of the head-piece turned, the original whisky-bottle came into view, thus explaining the name of the costume, “The Spirit of the Thames.” An appropriate prize was award to this in the shape of a double-sculling boat.

The bird-cage is surely a quaint and ingenious costume, made of pale pink silk, the skirt of which was painted to resemble a cage in which parrots were perched in various positions. Round the upper part of the sleeves were two real cages, in which a couple of stuffed birds were placed; while another parrot, with wings outstretched, covered the front of the bodice. Upon the young lady’s head a live bullfinch was allowed to flutter in its golden house.

The All-Bet Fancy Dress

The raid that was made some time ago upon the Albert Club supplied costumiers with plenty of fresh ideas. One of the best— if not the best—was the one entitled “The All-bet,” which was typified by the individual whose front view was got up to represent a sporting man of the highest fashion, while judicious packages were hung here and there beneath a club notice-board, on which the device “Raid on the Albert Club” informed the uninitiated of the event which the costume was supposed to represent.

The ink-pot and pen on the left shoulder gave evidence of the judicial verdict in the same way as the Indian club showed the Albert’s athletic propensities. Expressive sentiments were scattered here and there, pinned loosely to the costume, such as ” Out on bail,” ” Police evidence,” ” Judge’s decision,” and “The All-bet.”

Very different is the subject of my next illustration. “Peace with Honour” is certainly an appropriate name for the still more appropriate dress that was worn at the Primrose Day ball. The head and shoulders of Lord Beaconsfield were painted upon a yellow skirt, which was tastefully trimmed with primroses. The hat consisted of one mass of the symbolic flowers, as also did the bodice. The primrose-trellised staff, which was grasped in the left hand, completed a costume that cost twenty-five pounds, and succeeded in carrying off a silver coffee set.

In passing, I may mention that the art of designing in England is by no means an unprofitable one; indeed, designers of theatrical and fancy costumes in this country are absolutely the best paid in the world. The sources from which they draw their ideas are practically inexhaustible, as it would certainly take some little time to drain the treasures of the British Museum—to say nothing of the great law cases and Parliamentary disputes that crop up from time to time. In short, nearly every subject lends itself to the cunning of the costumier.

Nor is this all. Sarah Bernhardt.who in herself is a host of ideas, often proves a regular gold mine to designers and perruquiers, though she is extremely hard to please, and will often require ten or a dozen different designs before she is satisfied. Once suited, however, she will think nothing of paying from eighty to one hundred guineas for the design alone.


The costume of a Watteau Shepherdess, that was worn by Mrs. Langtry, needs no explanation, for, although it was simple in the extreme, it was undoubtedly worth the first prize that was awarded it.

A noteworthy incident happened in connection with this dress, however. Mrs. Langtry went into the costumier’s some four or five hours before the ball, and, like the owner of the Scotch Mail, demanded a costume for the dance. A rose silk skirt was immediately obtained on which were sewn a number of golden flowers and leaves. The bodice was hastily put together, and, to successfully finish the effect, it was no difficult matter to obtain a straw hat and a walking stick.

There is interest, moreover, in the fact that the artist who designed the plate has sketched numerous asides for the special edification of the practical costumier. The one shown on the left hand bottom corner of the Watteau shepherdess is a hood that might have been made and worn as an alternative to the hat.

The latter is certainly the prettier of the two, and so Mrs. Langtry evidently thought, for she wore it on two out of the three occasions on which the dress was donned.

During the talk about international peace at the end of December, 1895, a peculiarly appropriate dress was worn by one of our most popular young actresses, called “United Europe.” The young lady’s hat consisted of black and white satin, trimmed with red, white, and yellow feathers, while the gown itself was of black satin embroidered with gold.

On an overskirt of various colours were worked the emblems of the different countries of the Continent. The red, yellow, and black puff sleeves were shaded by large revers of heavily embroidered satin; and, in order to heighten the effect of this most artistic costume, the British standard was borne in the left hand. The white Louis XVI. wig completed what was perhaps the prettiest fancy dress that has ever been worn since the first days of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Pearson’s Magazine, Vol. 2, 1896: p. 655

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: So many ephemeral, topical references that Mrs Daffodil scarcely knows where to start!  “Maskrugeraiders” refers to the disastrous Jameson’s raid in South Africa and Sir Leander Starr Jameson’s subsequent arrest. Mr Clarkson is William Clarkson, noted theatrical costumer, wig-maker, and rogue, of whom we shall hear more of in the days ahead. The Albert Club, a well-known betting centre in London was raided in 1894 by the police for offences under the Betting Act. 109 persons were arrested.

Primrose Day is the anniversary of the death of British statesman and prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, whose favourite flower was the primrose. “Peace with Honour,” was what Beaconsfield secured when war with Russia seemed a certainty in 1877. The phrase was later repeated by the Kaiser and we all know how well that ended.  Mrs Langtry was, of course, the Jersey Lily, actress and close personal friend of the Prince of Wales. Mrs Daffodil has not yet found out the identity of the “court toady.”

It is always amusing to hear about those busy and important people who rush into Mr Clarkson’s at the eleventh hour and expect not only accommodation, but custom work, when all that are left are Pierrot costumes. “Self-absorbed” is the kindest phrase that comes to mind.

For further, fancy-dress inspiration, Mrs Daffodil recommends a perusal of her “Fancy Dress” category, where readers may read of such unusual costumes as “the mutilated sportsman,” “the knitting bag,” and the “Princess Royal’s wedding fan.”

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.


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; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-jersey-lily-137280

A Jersey Lily; Lily Langtry as painted by John Everett Milais, Jersey Heritage; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-jersey-lily-137280

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.