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The New Black

January 8, 2008

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I was flicking through a copy of the victorian journal The World of Fashion for the year 1837 and gazing at all the beautiful hand-coloured fashion plates, which are a riot of pinks and blues and yellows and just about every colour under the sun. And then I got to July… July 1837 saw the death of the then King of England, William the Fourth and the journal prints the order for Court mourning:

COURT MOURNING

Lord Chamberlain’s Office, June 20.

Orders for the Court’s going into mourning on Thursday next, the 22nd inst., for his late Most Gracious King William the Fourth, of blessed memory, viz. :-

The ladies to wear black bombasines, plain muslin or long lawn linen, crape hoods, shamoy shoes and gloves, and crape fans.

The gentlemen to wear black cloth, without buttons on the sleeves and pockets, plain muslin or long lawn cravats and weepers, shamoy shoes and gloves, crape hatbands, and black swords and buckles.”

The journal’s correspondent responsible for relaying the Paris fashion clearly felt that there was little he could contribute that could add any value and that it might perhaps be a little cruel to taunt English readers with tales of their Parisian counterparts swanning around in Rosebud pink taffeta and peacock brocade. So he shrugs his shoulders of the whole business:

“As the General Mourning for our late lamented Sovereign would render out usual details of the Modes de Paris useless this month to our fair readers, we present them in its stead with an account of what at present occupies the whole attention of the Parisians, namely, the magnificent trousseau of the newly married Duchess of Orleans, and a description of her Royal Highness’s apartments….”

[The Princess Helen of Mecklenburg Schwerin had just married the Duke of Orleans, heir to the throne of France, and a lot of column inches were devoted to her. The Victorians seemed to have looked to such beautiful “celebrities” to set the direction of fashion in the same way that we do today.]

Although nowadays black clothes are looked at as being as close to chic as just about anything, there clearly wasn’t a Victorian equivalent of the Little Black Dress and most readers would have been pretty miffed to be plunged into black, especially in July.

(Strangely, the magazine didn’t think of just printing the black dress colour onto the page along with the rest of the design, and as I look at these plates I imagine that I can almost hear the crazed screams of glee of the woman who would have been employed to laboriously tint each plate by hand, as plate after plate got the BLACK treatment…)

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