Fashion, customs and etiquette

by Micheal Williamson

Fashion, customs and etiquette in the mid-Victorian era

This was a period when social class and status were still rigidly defined, although a strong, and increasingly wealthy, middle class tended to have aspirations for advancement and influence. The way one dressed, spoke and acted would strongly indicate ones position in Society and strong religious beliefs would generally enforce and support the need for consistent and respectable behaviour. Today this might seem very restrictive and unreasonable. Even then much more liberated manners were entering the country from America and elsewhere and might be viewed as a refreshing change. In The Duke’s Children the Duke wishes his children to marry within their own class and parentage is important to him. This was a view that was fast becoming out of fashion and it soon became clear that wealth and intelligence could often overcome traditional values. The attractive Isabel Boncassen was to become one of many wealthy American heiresses who were able to enter the highest echelons of British Society. However, they were not always to lead particularly happy lives!

At the higher levels of Society, rank and precedence remained paramount. At any formal dinner, the guests waiting in the drawing-room would be rigidly segregated. The host would lead out the woman of the highest rank and the hostess would be led out by the highest ranking man. These would sit at their right hand. A duchess would precede a countess. A peer would precede a commoner and a married sister would precede her unmarried elder sibling. Titles of equal rank would be arranged by the antiquity of their date of creation. Women, such as Lizzie Eustace in The Eustace Diamonds were allowed to retain their position and title even if they contracted another later marriage of lower rank. This was one of a woman’s few privileges.

Further down the social scale custom and etiquette was, if anything, more pronounced. Wealthy ladies could change dress several times and might, in one day, wear a morning dress, a walking dress, an afternoon dress, a dress for evening dinner and a ball gown for a later engagement. Less affluent individuals might not be able to achieve this but, even so, certain customs were demanded. No ‘lady’ would go out for a walk or for a carriage drive without first pausing to put on her hat and outdoor ‘things’. This might simply be for a walk in the garden.

Death was a frequent visitor to many families of every class and this would entail strict mourning followed by half mourning for set periods of time. At the higher levels of Society this could be indulged in with many variations but, as death tended to come often and infant mortality was high it regularly became the custom for older ladies to wear black or dark colours all the time. Maiden ladies, widows and even relatively young mothers might wear black for the rest of their lives. A new black dress might be used for Church attendance while the more worn out versions would be used for everyday work around the home. Despite this comprehensive dress code, only men were generally permitted to attend a graveside funeral as it was not considered appropriate for women to attend. After marriage it was less common for a woman to display much of her hair at any time and she would normally wear some form of cap when indoors.

The men faced similar restrictions. If they had any aspirations to be considered a ‘gentleman’ they would certainly not wish to be seen in the street in their shirt sleeves or without a hat. This would be a very shameful experience. In Marion Fay the young Lord Hampstead is forced to leave the deathbed of Marion in great distress. His intention is to leave the house but he is forced to return once again to the room to collect his hat. Similarly, when Phineas Finn, in Phineas Redux tries to escape from the bullets of the unbalanced Mr Kennedy in Macpherson’s Hotel, ‘his first difficulty’ is that he has left his hat behind in Mr Kennedy’s room and he feels unable to escape into the street without it!

Many of Trollope’s characters are restricted by a need to observe ‘correct’ and accepted forms of behaviour.