18th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: 18th century Wild Man costume

wild man co

Last week’s Rate the Dress was a natural-form day dress in palest blue and silvery ecru.  To no-ones surprise ever, the rosette bows festooning the lower front bodice of the dress were not popular.   You deemed the rest of the dress both boring and fussy. It didn’t score a single 10/10 rating.  The ratings, like the dress trim, mainly slid to the bottom of the rating heap.  Overall ‘Whirlpool: The Dress’, as Rachel dubbed it, managed a paltry 6.6 out of 10.

Moving on: it’s time to look at a historical fancy dress for our annual Halloween Rate the Dress!

Before there was Tarzan, there was Hercules, Bacchus, and Wild Men: all costumes involving animal skins, and greenery.  Variations on the theme date back to the ancient Greeks & Romans, (and possibly earlier).  Wild Man costumes were popular throughout the Middle Ages.  In the 18th century the wild man idea became linked to a romanticisation of nature and untouched society.  Thanks to the Swedish monarchy’s fantastic habit of keeping their clothing, we have an extant 18th century Wild Man costume to rate.  This outfit was worn by Karl XIII of Sweden as a prince.

This wild man costumes features an with ivory silk jacket-bodice (presumably to create the impression of a bare chest) joined to a draped ‘skirt’ painted in leopard spots and faced in vivid red silk.  The look is finished off with a bear skin (complete with claws!) and garlands of oak or grape leaves.  It’s a considerably safer costume (literally) than the straw-and-tar Wild Man costumes of the 14th century Bal des Ardents.

Both grape leaves and leopard (or cheetah) skins were associated with Bacchus.  However, the bear skin suggests a more generic wild-man look.  The outfit might have been for a masquerade, or an amateur theatrical or dance performance.

Both entertainments were immensely popular amongst the upper classes in the 18th century, and the decadent Swedish Royal Court  of the 1770s was no exception.  Karl’s sister Sophie Albertine is shown with a masquerade mask in one of her portraits.  Karl himself was known for being a rather good dancer.  His stocking clad legs would be nicely displayed under the draped skirt of this costume (which may or may not have been worn with breeches underneath).

What do you think?  Would this wild man costume have stood out?  Would have been a striking figure at a masked ball, or in an theatrical performance?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10  



  1. As a “wild man” costume, well…no one in this century would see it as even remotely “wild.” But I think it’s lovely. The white sleeves go well with the green foliage garlands and the crimson lining of the leopard “fur.” The “bear” skin cape provides a dignified, if over-the-top touch.

    8 out of 10.

  2. Claire Payne says

    Oh deary me! I can’t even bring myself to allot a single point to this, not even for effort. Where to begin! It is quite possibly the tackiest period costume I have ever seen. Fancy dress or not, one would expect a royal to have more taste. 0 out of 10 from me. Now I need a cup of tea to recover from the fake leaves, paws and leopard print. Lawks!

  3. Tracy W. says

    Am I the only one who thinks that it looks like the leopard skin is still bloody from being ripped from the cat’s body? This is rather disturbing. The rest is actually kind of cheesy fun. I especially appreciate the fact the entire costumes built on top of what looks like a rather dressy suit jacket.


  4. Hayley says

    I can’t believe that royal seamstresses made this ghastly outfit. All those skills and resources to hand, and they came up with this??? It looks like something I’d whip up in an afternoon from the clearance table at Spotlight.

    That leopard print is cheap, did they use a potato to print the design on? And the leaves…. just mid-green drill cut into the same shape with scissors. The ‘bearskin’ looks like an oblong of brown velvet.

    I was hoping for tasteful embroidered leaves, picking out the veins and hues of green. And surely the King had an actual bearskin to use?


  5. Tracy Ragland says

    I think it’s a hoot! It doesn’t bother me that the production values are low…it’s a costume and not haute couture. 7/10

  6. Daniel Milford-Cottam says

    It’s an interesting one. I’d love to see how it was assembled, what kind of headdress was worn, etc. I actually think faux bearskin is just fine here because it’s obviously meant to be moved around in and I’m not sure why it’s such a horrible, disgusting, scorn making, nasty-smell-face-inducing thing that this was actually done on the quick and a bit “on the cheap” – it’s a sodding one-off costume, even Worth basically catered to the demand for fancy dress costumes by flinging a ton of random drapery and nonsenses onto premade basic bodices and skirts!

    I’m giving this a 7 out of 10, because it does exactly what it’s there to do, it’s functional, it’s quite practical and ingenious, and I see no reason to look down on it for any of those reasons.

    • There’s a little more information about this costume in an exhibit catalog from Livrustkammaren (the Royal Armoury), “Riddarlek och tornerspel – Tournaments and the Dream of Chivalry”:

      “Jacket of white atlas, laced in the back. Skirt sewn on, from brown silk with painted leopard pattern, lined with cerise colored taffeta. Green silk leaves across the chest and around the waist. Inside of sleeve marked “Hertig [=duke] Karl”.

      “It is listed as “A Wild Man’s Costume” in his estate inventory, which also lists a pair of matching trousers from “Couleur de chaire” atlas, and a cloak of brown flannel fastened over the chest with two bear’s paws and lined in the same taffeta as the ‘skirt’. A pair of silk boots and a pointed cap decorated with oakleaves completed the costume. In Hilleström’s painting of Diana’s feast (1778), duke Karl is depicted as Nessus, leader of the fauns, in this costume.” (my translation)

      There’s a very poor photo of that painting at https://digitaltmuseum.se/021046500623/karusell-vid-drottningholm-1778-dianas-fest , with duke Karl in his costume on a horse in the right side of the painting. He was 30 at this time, and became king 30+ years later, after his two elder brothers.

      The costume was intended for a sort of theatrical performance, and probably looked striking from a distance. If it had been intended for a masked ball instead, where it would’ve been seen close up, I think they would’ve put more work into it. Imagining it in a period play, I’ll give it 8/10.

      • Thank you SO much for all the additional information! That’s wonderful to have – especially the painting!

        One tiny correction. Karl was king not after his two older brothers (he was second eldest), but after his older brother, Gustave III, and Gustave III’s son (Karl’s nephew), Gustave IV.

      • Deanna says

        That’s fantastic! Thank you so much for sharing this.

  7. Deanna says

    Oh! 10 for being so FUN! I’m just tickled thinking of King Karl XIII in this!


  8. Rachel says

    So this is not only a Wild Man, but a kingly Wild Man. I can kind of see it too – the “bearskin” is rather like a royal mantle, and the placement of the garlands remind me of those fancy royal sashes (my vocabulary is letting me down here). Even the fall of the “leopardskin” adds to the Henry VIIIish bloomer vibe the costume gives me. I hope he wore it with a really big garland around his head.

    It all looks very neat for a Wild Man though, down to those tidy buttons that’ll keep his sleeve nice and snug. I see how it’s supposed to be like a bare chest, which explains the close fit, but would looser or tattered clothes have been too unseemly? Even for a Wild Man? It reminds me of the sort of Cinderella costume where her dress is only patched and “tattered” in the most aesthetic way possible. But that’s the fun of a costume – whatever you’re dressed as, you can idealize it, so this is a very orderly, regal, tidy Wild Man, which may exactly what its wearer wanted.


  9. SueAnne says

    I’m not sure that there are words for how bemusing I find this costume. The claw arms are a nice touch, and I, like Daniel, am very curious about the head gear worn with this outfit. I’m sure this stood out at the party.
    Also, I confess I’m laughing that, while we’ve been complaining about flower/bow placement on the fronts of outfits recently, this costume would have possibly been an acceptable portrayal of fig leaf imagery, but instead used leaves as trim in other ways.

  10. In the jungel the mighty jungel….. First, I was not sure if it looks cheap. Why a King won’t wear real fur? His team would have sources for skins. But it is a costum! Would you invest a lot of money, craft skills and time for a costum which was maybe only weared once? No, it’s the same today.
    10/10 for the idea and the look.

  11. Kathryn says

    Yeah, I am completely entertained by this. It may not be the finest workmanship in the land, but it’s pretty decent. Especially compared to a lot of the costumes one can buy off the rack or off the internet today (shudder).

    Also, I adore the lovingly handpainted ‘leopard’. I find it pretty convincing actually-as someone who works in theatre, I know it would totally read as leopard from 15 feet away. Also, those spots probably took a good long time to do-they represent quite a number of hours, actually. And they look like they’re painted on silk, after all. This isn’t a cheap, slapped-together garment at all in my estimation.

    And, of course, the bear claws. Hilarious. I hope he had a lot of fun the night he wore it.


  12. Carly says

    I love it. I love the vented (is that what they’re called with the buttons at the cuff?) sleeves on what’s supposed to be a “Wild Man” costume. It’s such a stark contrast between civility and wild man.


  13. This is fun. The “fig leaves” would flutter as the King dances, and I suspect he would have to be very careful about how he managed those claw hand with a partner. For some reason I find the leopard “tunic’ utterly charming. It’s really sort of proto-Disney. 7 of 10

  14. Julie W says

    I love that this still exists. It is amusing and wonderful.

  15. Tegan says

    I think it’s adorable. Even my husband heard the description of this and needed to see it :)) I think the leaves are marvelously tacky and I LOVE the “bear skin”. Both the gloves and the part thrown over the shoulders. It also wouldn’t look that out of place now – it reminds me a lot of frat toga party dress in how obviously fake it is.

    10/10 it does what it says on the box and does it well

  16. I love this so so much, mostly because I love the use of animal prints in 18th century menswear. 10 out of 10!

  17. It’s just too ridiculous… it reminds me of the “zone front” women’s bodices (whatever they were called in period), and the buttons, and the “slap something topical on it” nature of it…
    It probably would have stood out, but I’m not entirely sure it would have been in a good way. Still, I rather admire the sheer guts of it. Just not enough to rate it very highly. 6/10

  18. nanny norfolk says

    Well it’s fun & that’s what Fancy Dress is all about also only the rich could indulge.
    10 /10

  19. Lylassandra says

    I had no idea one of these still existed! How super fun! I find it charming, and like everyone else, I hope he had a great time wearing it. 10/10, would do the Monster Mash in.

  20. Bridget says

    OMG when I first glanced at this for a few seconds I thought it was modern! I could easily imagine a frat boy wearing it. The buttons on the sleeves were the first thing I noticed that indicate it’s not modern. The frat boy’s version would have the nude top and sleeves in a stretchy material.

    To be honest, wild man/Tarzan costumes to me only ever look silly. If the wearer is very muscular and tan(like someone living outdoors would actually look), then maybe it would be kinda sexy. Otherwise though it’s just silly looking to me. This costume definitely included.

    But on the other hand, in a theatrical production, at a distance of 15 feet or more, it would be more convincing. And if it were used at a fancy dress ball, I have to ask myself, is it fair to pick on it for being a bit comical? If you can’t wear a silly, absurd outfit at a fancy dress party, then where can you? So even though I am not in love with this costume, it feels wrong to judge. I have seen fashion plates and photos of Victorian/Edwardian fancy dress costumes that were definitely intended to be whimsical or comical. Especially in an era where eccentricity in dress was less acceptable, I imagine costume balls were where people could have fun with their dress. The standards would be a bit different.

    And as far as the “cheapness” of the costume(not real fur, etc.), I can agree it looks a bit tacky to my eyes. But for me, that’s part of the charm of it, imagining an 18th century prince doing the equivalent of going to Party City and picking something out he thought would be fun to wear for a night(I know, obviously a little more work was put into the costume than that). It gives me a feeling of connection to the past that I really enjoy, like this series of Victorian photos I once saw of a couple, and in the first picture they have stone faced expressions typical of photography of the time, but in the others they can’t keep a straight face and are cracking up. It’s a reminder of the common humanity we share with our ancestors. Their lives seem so different from ours, but in some ways they were just the same. I really love that about learning history, that feeling of connectedness with humanity past and present.

    Sorry for the long comment. Don’t know if I expressed myself well there at all. I’m giving this a 10, not because I think it is perfect aesthetically, but because of the pleasure it gives me to imagine the fun its wearer may have had in it.

  21. Stephanie says

    It’s a bit underwhelming, even as a theatrical costume. There’s nothing to catch the light or to give the costume depth when seen from a distance. And it bothers me that it isn’t a real bear skin, or even a very convincing replica. I grew up in Alberta, Canada, and have lived in northern Norway. Real bear skins were not hard to come by in either place in the second half of the 20th century and I’m quite certain that an 18th century Swedish royal could have put his (or his tailor’s) hands on one easily. A real skin would be subtly reflective and would give both visual and actual weight to the costume. As is it says school play costume to me. 3/10

  22. It greatly amuses me and makes me laugh, so I give it a 9/10. Mainly because like other commenters I’d love to see the headpiece.
    So much fun.

  23. Charlie says

    This costume blew my mind when I first saw it, and I have loved it since!

    I think we have a tendency to over solemnise the past, and this costume completely challenged my preconceptions. Bridget said it excellently above, re: the empapthy that items like this evoke with our ancestors. As silly as it sounds, it’s like the moment in childhood when you realise that the past was not in black and white as it looks in photos, but just as vibrant and beautiful as the world we inhabit now.

    Appearance wise; it’s such a fun costume, and I love the mixture of textures and colours (especially the leaves)! The haphazard look only adds to the appeal.


  24. Charlie says

    This costume blew my mind when I first saw it, and I have loved it since!

    I think we have a tendency to over solemnise the past, and this costume completely challenged my preconceptions. Bridget said it excellently above, re: the empapthy that items like this evoke with our ancestors. As silly as it sounds, it’s like the moment in childhood when you realise that the past was not in black and white as it looks in photos, but just as vibrant and beautiful as the world we inhabit now.

    Appearance wise it’s such a fun costume, and I love the mixture of textures and colours (especially the leaves)! The haphazard look only adds to the appeal.


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