I was in a large party supply store a week or so ago looking for napkins. I found them, eventually, after wading through the front two-thirds of the store that was entirely given over to Halloween-related goods, from 15-foot tall inflatable lawn ornaments to every conceiveable costume--for children, yes, but especially for adults. Am I the only one to notice that over the last several years, Halloween has morphed from a children’s holiday to one just as popular among grown-ups? I guess some things never change, because people in the 19th century loved dressing up in outlandish costumes just as much…only they didn’t do it at Halloween.
The 19th century was undoubtedly the century of the costume ball. Their popularity in England probably grew with our friend Prinny, the Prince Regent, who adored “dressing up”, first in military uniforms, then later in Scottish dress as he fell in love with the romanticized Scotland of Sir Walter Scott’s novels…and from there, it was a logical progression to adoring costume balls. A few years later, his niece Victoria was equally addicted to costume balls up until the death of the Prince Consort in 1861, and they remained popular at court (though she no longer participated) and in society at large right into the 20th century. Historical and cultural themes for costumes--dressing up as someone from the past or from a different land--were probably the most usual, especially earlier on, but as you'll see shortly, costumes weren't limited to Queen Elizabeth or romantic cavaliers.
Here are a few costumes from the first part of the century for your Halloween inspiration (a post on the costume balls of the later 19th century would require its own post, as another Prince of Wales, Victoria’s bad boy son Bertie, also loved to play dress-up). Enjoy!
This first one is a "Danish Fancy Dress Worn at the Prince Regent's Fete", from La Belle Assemblee, August 1819:
And a "Fancy Ball Dress" also from La Belle Assemblee, August 1820. Perhaps she was going for the milkmaid look?
The young lady on the left is dressed as one of the waiting women of Mary Queen of Scots in this March 1833 print from The Court Magazine:
I'm not sure what these costumes are supposed to represent, though the one on the right seems to have a somewhat Russian feel, with her vaguely slavic headdress and fur-edged boots (this from a French publication, Petit Courrier des Dames, March 1837):
Medieval themes were popular, as we see in this couple from 1838...interesting to see a male costume, and how a 14th century "gates of hell" surcoat could be adapted to a 19th century corseted silhouette (Journal des Modes):
Last are a pair of costumes from 1838...first, these from La Mode--perhaps a musketeer and a revolutionary?
And last, these "15th and 16th century" costumes, also from La Mode: