Fashion And The Social Set


October 21, 1990|By Carleton Jones

The common impression of a lady's role in the 19th century is that of a retiring creature who was only too glad to take to the background.

But by the late-Victorian period, women, at least in high social circles, had actually taken the stage away from their husbands. Never before had clothes been so lavish, workmanship so fine or shopping so much fun.

It was all noted in the newspapers in wealthy cities. Sometimes front pages of major urban papers carried detailed lists of what was worn by every single guest at an exclusive or ceremonial event. It was like a continuous coronation ceremony in which shoals of gorgeously dressed women were the maids of honor.

Trains, veils, gloves and glittering appliqued gowns were the rule at these social exercises. Coiffures were upswept, and tiaras were obligatory for the wives of millionaires.

"More capes than ever are shown and of more stylish shapes than ever," wrote a fashion reporter after gazing on the smart shops of Baltimore's Lexington Street one early fall afternoon in 1890.

"The headgear for the coming winter is beautiful to behold," the reporter continued. "Nearly every hat has velvet strings and abundant trimming in the shape of plumes, miniature tips, birds, passementerie [applied dressy borders or designs] and lace, put on with slight variations from the summer styles."

Colors were an essential part of the style system even then. French blue combined with black or beige, solferino with a suggestion of heliotrope and old rose, turquoise, blue and fawn colored are among the most favored" of current hues, the fashion reporter wrote.

The top new fashion colors of the 1890 season were a sort of cornflower tint called clairveaux, and aubergine, the eggplant color that is back in style in 1990 women's shops.

What sort of places did the gorgeously dressed women of 1890 frequent? Where could they go to be seen?

The new and gorgeous Rennert Hotel at Saratoga and Liberty streets was one stage for the social parade. Its elaborate dining and social receptions, with hefty, six-course dinners, must have been a trial in a day when every woman wore tightly laced skirts, except when expecting a blessed event.

An important stage outside of Baltimore was the White House. Though Washington's social scene seemed a mixed bag to wealthy Baltimoreans, the White House and its hostess were viewed as important style setters by even the grandest of the Mount Vernon social queens.

A ticket worth fighting for was President and Mrs. Benjamin Harrison's "New Year's levee" on Jan. 1, 1891. For the first time, the White House would show off its new, all-electric lighting system (backed up, nervously, by new gas jets). The ladies at the levee gazed at the brightly and electrically lit walls of the Blue Room and considered the new setup "highly becoming to their complexions."

Mrs. Harrison wore a Baltimore-made gown, all jeweled net with a train. She had fetching light-brown gloves and her outfit "gave herself and her friends unlimited satisfaction," a Washington correspondent related.

At the end of January, the Baltimore social set and the fashionable would make an appearance once again -- at a formal concert delivered by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Ross Jungnickel. Fur wraps were draped over the box rails at the Academy of Music, fans fluttered at intermission, and diamonds flashed with reflected light from the stage when the lights went down.

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