19th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: Fancy dress for 1830

The Halloween run-up purple and black dress from last week was very divisive.  You either loved the dress, or hated it.  One thing you did agree on though: the fringe was not good.  Perhaps my anti-fringe stance has influenced all of you after all!  The pro-black and purple-ites won a slight victory, bringing the rating in at 6.7 out of 10

Last week I gave a taste of the season, and I promised a proper Halloween Rate the Dress for this week, but when I came to pick something, I realised what a mistake my promise was!  How was I ever to live up to last year’s Victorian Batgirl?  How was I ever to find something else that was said ‘Halloween’ so clearly, that was from a different period (because the whole point is variety), and that wasn’t so historical that the costume would make no sense from a modern perspective.

So I thought about the timeless trends in costuming: things that make Halloween costumes Halloween costumes, and it boiled down to three things: scary, sexy and cross-dressing.  Last year we covered scary and sexy, so this year we’ll look at the one that is left: crossdressing.

With a little sexy thrown in.

Yep, crossdressing goes back a long time, and even happened in those periods that we think of as very prudish, like the early Victorians.  Here is a suggestion for fancy dress from August 1830:

Fancy Ball Dresses from La Belle Assemblee, August 1830

We are going to ignore the woman in crazy ethnic peasant dress on the right, and focus on her companion on the left.  Let’s take a closer look:

Fancy dress for August 1830

Yep.  That’s definitely a woman.  In man’s clothes.  In fact, I think she is supposed to be a soldier.  The saucily tilted tricorn hat, frogged vest, blue jacket, white pantaloons, and red sash certainly give that impression.  Among others.

So, does everyone love a girl in uniform?  Or is sexy cross-dressing tacky and unattractive in any era?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10

ETA:  As people are having trouble seeing the soldier uniform, here are a few examples that might help you visualise it:

An illustration of French gendarme uniforms in 1830:

Garde Royal uniform, 1830

A 1940s costume from the Powerhouse.  100 years, and still very similar!

Soldier fancy dress costume, 1943-44, Powerhouse

And check out this page of French military uniforms



  1. ellipsisknits says

    Hmm, I don’t think I would have ever understood what the costume was (or even that it was a woman dressed as a man, not a man dressed as a woman) without the explanation. So, significant points off for clarity/accuracy/actual soldierness.

    But, I really like the execution. Very whimsical and certainly costume-y. Apart from the strange gathered waist, I think it’s flattering, and I’d enjoy wearing it or seeing it at a costume party. You know, apart from the fact that nobody would have any idea what I was dressed as.

    6/10 on the whole.

  2. I definitely got the whole solider cross-dresser vibe from the picture, but I just don’t know how I feel about the overall look. I mean, it isn’t ugly, it isn’t pretty, I don’t think it is particularly sexy, and on the whole it jus sort of looks like a costume that was put together by throwing on random things from the closet. Which is fine to make an inexpensive costume, but doesn’t inspire me to give it a large score. I do like the hat though. The hat totally makes the costume.


  3. I like the color scheme, but I don’t feel like these pieces go together. The bodice is not masculine in the least, and the sleeves are a tad more manly, but they mostly remind me of an 18th century riding habit. The trouser-type item does look like something a man (albeit a 17th century sailor) would wear. And then it all ends with little dainty shoes. So, prettiness: 9, logic: 4, but since this is just a lighthearted costume, I’m willing to be forgiving: 7/10

  4. Jenny Wren says

    Is that a 19th-century “sexy Halloween costume”?


    And I agree with ellipsisknits: the drawstring waist is bizarre. I mean, if I squint I can just about see the soldier, so it’s not really a very good costume. 3/10.

  5. Daniel says

    That’s bonkers and really rather marvellous- I could see Vivienne Westwood reproducing this exactly in the mid-’90s or John Galliano doing this exact outfit in the late ’80s. The more I look at it the more I love it. It’s really quite racy by the standards of its time, amazing. I can’t imagine it would look sexy in reality, but in the engraving, it is certainly saucy and very ooh la la, especially with the coquettish hat, the corsage and the trailing scarlet sash.

    And SO interesting to me with my special interest in the history of trousers for women, too. Absolutely fascinating!! I’ll have to rate this a 9/10 for sheer fantasy.

  6. Stella says

    I like sexy cross-dressing, but this example is tacky and unattractive, and like Jenny Wren I had trouble guessing it was a soldier costume. I look more like a soldier on any given casual Friday (army pants are comfy and conveniently provided with many pockets). So no, not a very good costume. Also I’m going to have to deduct points for the horrible and distinctly non-military neck ruffle and weird wing things on the jacket.


  7. Ahahahahah! It’s the 1830s equivalent of “Sexy Soldier”! Note that you can actually see her ankles, the curves of her behind and her substantial thighs. This doesn’t mean much to us, but in that time period, this was heart-stoppingly revealing. And Victorian men, er, liked large thighs: racy Victorian reading often notes, breathlessly, that desirable damsel characters had “the fullest thighs I’d ever seen.”

    I don’t think this is successful overall, but I’d happily mug her for that hat and that corset/waistcoat. Between that and the sheer chutzpah of it all, 6/10.

  8. I agree that I can’t quite figure out what she is supposed to be, but the outfit is pretty darn cute, irregardless. I’ll just vote on that and pretend she has an interesting story to tell behind it.

    Ten out of ten.

    • I came back and stared at it a while, but all I’m seeing is a circus performer…

  9. I love it. I love how the break of the soldier jacket is opened out and dropped off the shoulder, while what would have been a discreet jabot has become a full on ruffled neckline. The aesthetic of the drawing is a little odd in the trousers, but I can see what fun they would be. Love the jaunty little hat too. All the elements of the soldier’s costume are there but resized, warped, moved and remolded to accommodate the busting out of a woman’s figure and style. It is to my eye quite a cheeky and masterful reinterpretation – not like today’s silly ‘sexy pirate’ type costumes that are really all about being tacky.
    9.5 out of 10 because I reserve .5 of disapproval of the drawing style. 🙂

  10. Elise says

    I like it. I think it’s fun, and I love the 1830s damsel takes on a uniform look of it. 8/10, because the pants look like karate gi pants. What gets a 10? The ‘ethnic’ peasant dress. I feel guilty–is it really un-PC? I like it.

  11. Anita says

    In Experiments in Elegance blog article “1830 Fancy Dress Mystery”, which addresses this very picture, costumes in La Belle Assemblee are found to be entitled: “A Lady in Sailor’s Costume”, and “Costume of a Swiss Peasant”. (http://experimentsinelegance.blogspot.com/2011/04/1830-fancy-dress-mystery.html)
    Real sailors’ outfits are there: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_Sja1do5Id0g/SdDz0NPGq0I/AAAAAAAAC7E/trlvcITeIUg/s400/Verdiermarine.jpg

    (Sorry, if web addresses are not allowed in comments or will post corrupted, but maybe all will be O.K.)

    So, in the fancy “sailor” dress could be seen the mix of details from different real uniforms, transformed in lady’s ball dress. I like this fantasy dress much more, than today’s explicit “sexy” costumes.


  12. I can’t quite decide how I feel about this! I think it’s successful at what it’s trying to be – feminized soldier uniform – I got that right away. But I guess I always feel that if you’re going to cross-dress, you might as well go all out… so the full split skirt/pantaloons thing and the ruffly blouse don’t quite work for me. (I realize that at the time, this was shocking enough and the lady probably *couldn’t* have worn trousers proper, but still.) I think it’s cute, and she definitely gets points for sheer nerve, but I don’t love it.

    Maybe a 7.5 for this one.

  13. I love it. Though I can see soldier, the ensemble also put me in mind of a sailor–though it may be my 18th century sensibilities leaking over, the pants look like slops and the hat looks like sailor’s hats–flatter than a tricorn, with a round brim (here, with the feminine additions of a more rakish than usual tilt and a giant bow). Then again, the red sash and gloves indicate “officer” to me rather clearly. Perhaps it’s simply meant to be a military mashup. Regardless, I love it–is the perfect spin of feminine on traditionally masculine elements. Not easy to do without looking mannish or tacky. 9/10. Point off for a slightly awkward waistline–trying to meld a lady’s waist with the highish-waisted soldier’s uniforms of the period didn’t quite pan out.

    By the way, rating the hat on those French gendarmes and quite nearly begging them to consider a retroactive uniform reissue. Really, guys? Are you expecting people to just keel over laughing at your silly hats and thereby avoid violence?

    • Apparently the soldiers hated them too. It’s probably the whole reason the French army wasn’t so swell for the rest of the 19th century!

    • Well, I see now I’m not exactly alone – I overlooked Stella’s rating somehow; but my rating would actually be zero if it were allowed… it simply does not work for me, does not look good, neither feminine enough nor masculine enough, it seems somehow unfinished, the overdone upper part does not go with the very simple, almost undergarment-like bottom; and that hat is just WRONG.

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