#MyrtleMondays: What are you wearing for Halloween?

This may not surprise you, but Hallowe’en has always been my favorite holiday! I love the spooky atmosphere and decorations, and I especially love to dress up. The modern observation of Hallowe’en, with its trick-or-treating, hadn’t evolved yet in the Victorian era, but our 19th century ancestors loved fancy dress and masquerades, at all times of the year. Let’s have a look at some splendid Victorian costumes!

Alva Vanderbilt dressed in “Venetian Renaissance” costume for her fancy dress ball in 1883 (Her interpretation of the theme is somewhat… liberal.)

The Gold Standard in Victorian Fancy Dress has to be New York Gilded Age socialite Alva Vanderbilt. As an effort to break into New York’s elite, Mrs. Vanderbilt threw a lavish masquerade ball in March 1883. The cream of New York society appeared in sumptuous costumes, all trying to outdo each other in theme and detail. A professional photographer was on hand to capture the guests in their fanciful finery, and you can see their costumes, and read more about the party, at the Museum of New York City.

A selection of costumes from the Vanderbilt ball, including Mrs. Vanderbilt’s sister-in-law dressed as a hornet.

Another sister-in-law, Alice Vanderbilt, dressed as an electric light (a costly novelty at the time), complete with light-up prop. Her gown was designed by the House of Worth, dressmaker to the rich and famous.

Fancy dress wasn’t just for the elite, however. Fashion magazines marketed to the middle class featured costumes all throughout the century.

The New York Public Library has this 1869 fashion plate for children’s costumes in its collection. The caption helpfully identifies the costumes: fly, butterfly, flower girl, reading, and jockey.

Sometimes, to a modern eye, it’s not always totally clear what the costumes are meant to represent. This French fashion plate depicts a Tulip, a Butterfly, a 17th century Naturalist, a French Peasant, and an 18th century pastry chef. (Notice to the Public: I will give extra candy to any 18th century French pastry chefs who show up at my door.)

This 1860s fashion plate is one of my favorites: the woman in the middle is dressed as a ship! Complete with rigging and cannon ports!

Just like today, there were trends in costumes. Clown costumes (or Pierrots) were wildly popular, judging by this Pinterest collection of photographs spanning several decades.

Not to be outdone, Harlequins and Jesters also had their loyal following:

The Victoria & Albert Museum has this magnificent child’s jester costume from 1864. The workmanship in this piece is astonishing, from the gold trim to the embroidery to the bells to the little cap.

This pair hails from the 1870s

Fairies also had their day:

This is actually a bit later, from the 1910s, but represents an ongoing trend.

Judging by the number of studio portraits, these costumes were Very Special Indeed: parents took their children to have formal photographs taken in their costumes.


Fairies and clowns too sweet for you? How about bats, bugs, and devils?

Well, maybe one sweet bug.

(I can kind of see Myrtle being drawn to this one. The girl’s mother, cropped, is dressed as a clown.)


Or this one? I’m not actually sure what this woman is dressed as, but she looks sort of constable-like to me.

I hope I’ve given you some ideas for a 19th Century-inspired Hallowe’en costume. If your appetite is merely whetted, check out my Pinterest board for loads more period fancy dress ideas.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have costumes to sew! I’m getting ready for a Hallowe’en Myrtle event next weekend (Sunday, October 30) at the Westport Historical Society. If you’re in the Kansas City area, it’s not too late to sign up to join us for games, mysteries, and ghost stories. Click Here for A Myrtle Hallow’s Eve!