“While Mary brushed my pistachio silk carriage dress, Mama tugged the laces of my corset as tight as they would go. She grunted and I groaned, and we souned like the giant hogs I’d see at the zoo–except that, rather than play in the mud and eat to my heart’s content, I was forced to sit daintily in the parlor without lunch. For two hours. With my mother for company.”
- Chapter 7, Something Strange and Deadly
Back in 1876, fashion was (like today) something that women took very seriously–especially women of high society and wealth. From their underthings to their purses, rich women had everything customized to fit their bodies. Of course, custom-made or not, all those layers quickly became miserable in summer heat.
Additionally, unlike a modern gal (who can wear the same outfit all day long), a lady of 1876 was expected to change for each her daily activities. Lounging around her home required a different gown than walking or hosting guests, and dinner had its own set of gowns–to say nothing of the ball gowns or summer dresses. And of course, no outfit was complete without accessories. One needed hats, fans, parasols, gloves, jewelry, and the list goes on. It should come as no surprised that it was almost impossible for a lady to dress herself without assistance.
Oh, and we mustn’t forget the hair! Not only did it need to be elaborate and tightly pinned, but oftentimes, women supplemented with “hairpieces”. These hairpieces weren’t so different from modern-day extensions, except that this hair came from real women–usually women from lower classes in need of money.
What was the purpose of all this fuss and frill? To land a husband, of course, and in the 1870s, the trends was toward an almost caricatured female form. Tiny (read: unnatural) waists thanks to corsets, enormous bottoms thanks to bustles, and as much lace and primp as a single girl could squeeze onto her person.
Fashions came from Paris, though Americans certainly put their own spin on things. Typically, women would read journals such as Harper’s Bazar or Godey’s to find the latest style, and they would bring these designs to their seamstress–or try to make the gowns themselves.