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High fashion!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

One of the things I find so amusing about missed connections is the minute detail men go into when they're describing the women they want to meet. It's a funny little tidbit on how times have changed. I know there are a lot of men who could probably describe with some specificity what a woman was wearing - if she was right in front of him at the time. But these men have pretty impressive memories. For example:

If the lady with purple bonnet and orange trimmings, brown silk dress, large fur cape and muff, who rode up in an Eighth avenue small car on Saturday afternoon at 3 o'clock, and got out at Forty-fourth street and walked down the avenue, would grant an interview with the young gentleman who sat opposite to her, she will confer a favor by sending her address to Angelo, Broadway Post office.

Although the real issue here is, omg, what was she wearing??? A purple bonnet with orange trimmings? Seriously, lady? I'm not in the fashion industry, and maybe I'm wrong (it does happen on occasion!), but this does not sound very attractive. I'd say the reason Angelo here remembers so clearly is because he was temporarily blinded by her headgear, but they really were generally very observant. You see so many ads with men addressing women and describing everything down to their purses. I just don't know many men who could be so observant today.

I can't help wondering if maybe she was a prostitute, to be dressed so flagrantly, but perhaps it wasn't as bright as I am imagining. Besides, I'm not sure Angelo's behavior is completely on the up-and-up. Did he follow her down the avenue? Or was he watching her from the car? Because if she was walking the same direction as the stagecoach, I wonder why she got off when she did. Maybe to get away from this dude who was staring her down across the way?

Eh, it's probably innocent and I'm just reading into it. But I will never get over the purple bonnet with orange trimmings. Wow.

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©2009 Pam Epstein


Unknown September 10, 2009 at 9:33 AM  

This raises a question I have to face quite a bit in Classics - namely, is his orange our idea of orange? You get this a lot with the ancient sources, that they'll use one colour adjective to describe something we think of as a totally different colour - one of the common areas of confusion is purple vs. blue vs. green (and just what shade of blue that adjective we translate as 'cerulean' actually means). So one can always hope that when your advertiser says 'purple', he's referring to something rather more restrained than the imagination suggests..

Matt September 10, 2009 at 6:24 PM  

EXACTLY as Liz says, you have to wonder to what extent the colour names of the time correspond to our knowledge of colours today. I mean, purple, orange and brown sound ghastly together. But a deep burgundy, ochre and a dark espresso colour might actually work... Just sayin'.

Jo September 10, 2009 at 9:14 PM  

@ Liz, I'm afraid it wasn't restrained. When aniline dyes came into wide use in the late Victorian era, the idea of what was acceptable as far as color combinations went got really, *really* strange. My parents had old copies of Godey's, and the bits I read went to far as to say that turquoise and yellow and bright orange could be combined "to good effect" on the same bodice. The decorating manuals from the time were just as scary. The colors were bright, they were more permanent than the mineral and vegetable dyes used then, and you had artificial lighting coming into wide use, which meant the brighter and truer a color, the better.

All I can think of is how incredibly LOUD late-Vic living rooms must've been (before the coal soot got to 'em) with the clashing colors and screaming plaids and so on. It must've been eye-searing.

My great-grandmother had an evening bodice/skirt combo that dates from that time that's a combination of peacock blue and purple. I'm sure it was lovely with her complexion, but even 150 years on, it's hard to look at.

Pam September 10, 2009 at 9:47 PM  

@ Jo - Wow, how cool that your family has kept all this stuff! Thanks for the intel. I'm not terribly surprised at the Victorians' love of color. It was probably the only way they were allowed to have fun (at least, legitimately).

And thanks for the link awhile back!

Unknown September 11, 2009 at 8:13 PM  

@ Jo - OK, so they were loud, but if the fashionable magazines were saying it was OK, presumably the people looking at them thought they were the height of fashion? In which case it's not that the words describe a different colour, it's that we have to get out of Vogue 2009 mindset ;)

Also, I do wonder about the colourfastness of these dyes - how long did it take for them to wash out? Like the drawing rooms and the coal soot, did repeated washing mean that the originally striking combinations were muted after a couple of outings?

Jo September 13, 2009 at 6:13 AM  

@Liz: I don't know for sure how colorfast things were. Aniline dyes were colorfast-er than, say, dyes made from indigo or other plant materials, but there seems to have been a lot of effort on the part of housekeepers to keep colors true. Some of the books my folks collected over the years (Dad has a thing for old housekeeping books) have recipes for cleaning solution that contain what's basically dry-cleaning fluid--benzene, anyone?

Clothes were handled differently, of course, than fabrics in the house. I would think that nicer dresses, worn once or twice a year, weren't cleaned at all (or not more than once a decade, judging from the sweat stains in that dress I mentioned), and I know that trimmings were often removed prior to washing/cleaning more frequently-worn items. Maybe they replaced trimmings as they faded?

What I wouldn't give for a week in late 19th-century England or America, a pencil, and a notebook! (And the appropriate vaccinations and water-purification kit, of course.)

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