Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls is a 19th century fancy dress manual, filled with creative, sometimes surprising, fancy dress costumes. Basket of daffodils, a pack of cards, the Suez Canal, a comet, and the eighteenth-century are just a few of the disguises suggested in this entertaining book. Fancy Dresses Described went through multiple printings in the 1880s and 1890s, a testament to its popularity. Author Ardern Holt also wrote a companion volume for men titled Gentleman's Fancy Dress: How to Choose It. Equally popular, though with less compelling illustrations, Gentleman's Fancy Dress was also printed in multiple editions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Unlike today's Halloween costumes, fancy dress wasn't worn to celebrate a specific holiday. Instead, fancy dress was worn at parties and balls, which were held throughout the year. Hosts sometimes asked guests to select thematic costumes, such as fairy tales, or France at the time of Louis XV. Whatever the theme, donning fancy dress offered attendees the opportunity to (temporarily) step outside the societal and sartorial boundaries of their everyday lives. Many revelers made their own costumes, while others purchased or rented their fancy dress. Rental houses offered short-term rentals at reasonable rates, and stores offered ready-made costumes for purchase. Ranging from intimate gatherings of close friends or family, to large public entertainments, fancy dress balls featured dancing, refreshments, and socializing.
Whether or not you'll be wearing a Halloween costume this year, be sure to browse through this 1887 edition of Fancy Dresses Described. Though many of the costumes would be considered culturally insensitive today, others are a refreshing counterpoint to the current plethora of "sexy" Halloween costumes. Next year, let's hope for a resurgence of costumes with unique themes like spelling bee, ice queen, the ghost of Queen Elizabeth I, Monte Carlo (the red and black costume pictured below), and folly.