Need a costume idea? Fear not: Fancy Dresses Described, or What to Wear at Fancy Balls, has you covered. This comprehensive guide, published in 1887 and written by Ardern Holt, outlines in exhaustive detail hundreds of outfits appropriate for all manner of fancy dress balls (what we would today call costume parties), tackling everything from historical and literary figures to the elements and seasons and beyond. Here are a few of our favorites.
In its basic form, this dress—long for an adult, short for a child—should be made of tulle, have several layered skirts, and be white over white or blue over white. Since you’re going as air, the idea is to be as light as possible—at least before you layer on the additional adornments. “The lower skirt is dotted about with silver swallows and other birds, the upper edged with silver fringe or lace, and covered with silver bees and a variety of insects,” Holt writes. (The insects "may be, if preferred, of their natural colours, the birds of gorgeous plumage.”) The bodice, described as “low,” should be likewise trimmed, “a silver-spangled scarf loosely thrown across.” Completing the outfit is the headwear—“a veil attached to the head with silver butterflies; marabout feathers”—and the shoes, which should be satin and have silver butterflies on the bows.
If you’re afraid that a number of girls may show up at the fancy dress ball wearing this basic Air costume, Holt has also laid out the guidelines for “a newer and more original rendering,” comprised of a short, blue satin skirt that is painted red toward the waist and adorned with a windmill on one side and a balloon on the other. Other ideas: “The low blue bodice draped with grey tulle, forming the tunic, but starting from a gold brooch in the form of a face; crimson embroidered waist-band, bellows and horn hanging from it; birds nestling in the tulle. Head-dress, a gold weather-vane.”
Like Air, the costume makes use of multiple layered skirts: First, a short black underskirt with Roman letters in gold along the bottom; then a white skirt with old English letters in ruby velvet; the third and final skirt is blue and covered with black velvet letters. Holt advises that the bodice should be black velvet and low, and the lady should don a blue cap with “Alphabet” written on the band. (Another option is “a battlemented crown, a letter on each.”) Spice up your costume with “aigrette of goose-quills ; birch rod and primer as chatelaine.”
But those are more like suggestions than guidelines; Holt stresses that the costume “may also be made in any coloured silk, satin, cotton, or tarlatan, and the letters printed on the more substantial materials.” What’s more, any evening dress can be turned into this costume “by wearing a belt across bodice, a band of black velvet round the throat, and high cap all adorned with letters; or carried out as follows: Black tulle evening dress, silver letters stuck on spirally; huge A, B, C on train ; large black fan with A, B, C upon it; the same on shoes; the vowels on velvet round the neck; black capitals on the handkerchief.”
Mermaid costumes are so last year. Go as a full-on aquarium instead! This costume is comprised of a “fashionable evening dress of blue and green tulle, trimmed with marine plants and ornamented with fish and shells, the octopus on one side of the skirt; veil of green tulle; hair floating on shoulders. Bodice trimmed with seaweed and coral; ornaments, silver fish and coral.” Another sea-themed costume: Holt’s “Gem of the Ocean,” which is “taken from the anemone tanks of an aquarium.”
Sure, you could go as Monopoly, or maybe even Operation, but what’s the fun in that? Instead, dress as one of the oldest board games for two players. The bodice of this dress should be made of maize satin, and the first skirt should be short and trimmed with black velvet and gold braid. The upper skirt should be “cut in deep points alternately cerise and black satin” to evoke the backgammon board, and “bordered with gold braid.” Accessorize with a velvet necklet, enamel dice earrings, a cerise satin cap, and a cup for dice “suspended by gold cord from waist to hold handkerchief.”
Another, more elaborate version of the costume features a full, short skirt of ecru satin, “bordered with circles of red and white satin appliqued on with gold braid to simulate the pieces of the game.” Costumers should include “a small plaiting of lace let in between points of alternate red and black satin falling from waist, with a gold tassel at each point.” The bodice should be low and made of squares of black and ecru satin, and shoulder knots should be made of white, crimson, and black ribbon. Wear a hat resembling dice, and don’t forget “a pocket, formed like another dice ... at side of skirt; red fan, shoes, and stockings, with buckles; black gloves.”
And if lawn games is more your thing, Holt has you covered there, too—simply suit up as Badminton or Lawn Tennis!
5. Bee, Busy
Set aside that cookie cutter “Sexy Bee” costume in favor of its 19th century predecessor. Craft a short skirt of black and gold striped satin. The stripes should be about 8 inches wide, “and over each, a double box plait of black or yellow tulle. The skirt may be edged with a fringe of tinsel balls.” The lowcut, sleeveless bodice should be made of gold plush and edged with gold balls. Place the wings, which are made of “black tulle, stretched on wire, veined and spotted with gold spangles” at the center of the back. Top off your costume with “a small cap imitating a bee's head with eyes and antennae” and carry in your hand a gold wand “surmounted by a miniature bee-hive.”
Maybe you don’t want to be a busy bee. Maybe you want to be a regular bee. Holt has you covered there, too. Make similar skirt, but switch the bodice to black velvet striped with gold, “made as a deep cuirass” (in the style of the armored chest plate that soldiers wore), “or as a coat, with tails having the markings of a bee.” Add long sleeves and gloves, and make your wings out of “yellow gauze bordered with gold, or of white gauze veined with gold.” Complete the outfit with a “black velvet cap to imitate the head and antennas of the insect, or formed as a large bee; black high-heeled shoes with yellow bows; yellow and black striped stockings.”
The hornet (above) is costumed similarly, but don’t confuse any of these with the Wasp. Though it has a similar dress, “but the stripes are more decided. Velvet and satin or plush are suitable materials. It is sometimes rendered with a skirt of puffed green tulle and bands of black velvet at intervals.”
6. Canal, Suez
It’s safe to say that you’ll be the only person at the Halloween party rocking a costume dedicated to an artificial waterway opened in 1869. Here’s how to do it, according to Holt: “Long flowing robe of cloth-of-gold, with waves of blue satin bordered with pearls; under-skirt of red satin embroidered in Egyptian designs. A gold key at the girdle; Egyptian head-dress of pearls, turquoise, and diamonds; girdle of roses and lilies.” You might also consider a nametag, so you don’t have to explain to people what you are all night long.
7. Carrier Pigeon
You might think of them as nothing more than rats with wings, but pigeons have their admirers—among them inventor Nicola Tesla, and probably the soldiers who received messages carried by the birds during wartime. (In fact, after World War II, 32 pigeons were presented with the Dickin medal, which honor the works animals do in wars.) To honor these goofy-looking but noble birds by dressing as one for Halloween, wear a white tulle skirt over a satin one, and craft a tunic in the shape of wings; cover it with white feathers. Place a pigeon (presumably not a live one) in your hair and on your shoulder. Complete your costume with a “band of red ribbon across bodice from right shoulder to under left arm, with letter attached; letters falling from feather fan; head-dress, cap like pigeon's head.” You can also go gray instead of white, and craft a bodice entirely of feathers, “the draperies caught up by pigeons, and the edges bordered with feathers … Pigeons in the hair. A letter suspended from the waist by a red ribbon.” You’ll probably need to kill a lot of pillows to make this one happen.
8. Champagne Bottle
Also appropriate for New Year’s Eve, this fancy dress is comprised of a black velvet skirt and a cuirass bodice made of gold satin with black sleeves. On your head, wear “an old gold and green satin cap with rows of gold braid, a large white satin label on front of skirt, printed with ‘Jules Mumm, Rheims. Very dry,’ or any suitable label.”
Create this costume using a white tulle veil and evening dress with “clouds of rose-coloured tulle draped over it” and “rays in silver cloth radiating from the waist.” Powder your hair in gold. Place a gold sun “above the forehead” and “butterflies on the shoulders.”
This is a costume for those who are low on time, really bad at crafting, or simply lazy: “White silk evening gown with crimson striped tablier and train. ‘Daydream’ embroidered on the sash.”
This costume, probably inspired by a character in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is comprised of “a rich gipsy dress in yellow, black, and scarlet satin, made short, trimmed with coins and gold braid,” with “a sash of gold tissue tied about the hips, a tambourine carried in hand.” And don’t forget the coins: The bracelets above and below your elbow should be “united by coins; stay-bodice with coins and gold braid; gold net with sequins; ornaments, sequins.” You can also wear a loose black jacket with a yellow blouse and a red skirt, as shown.
If you love trains, this elaborate costume is for you. The back of the skirt is stiff, steel-colored satin, edged in black velvet and “showing a series of rails in steel braid”; the hem should be “edged with a row of movable wheels, which must turn at every movement of the wearer.” The front of the skirt, meanwhile, is made of black velvet, striped downward. The cuirass-style bodice should be steel-colored. Place a “miniature steam engine in flowing hair, with grey feathers issuing from the funnel,” and wear “wheeled skates for shoes.”
13. Footwoman of the Future
Minus the powdered hair, this costume would look right on just about any steampunker: “Black satin quilted skirt; maroon double-breasted tail-coat, brass buttons; black waistcoat showing beneath the jacket in front, and lace ruffles; hair powdered; tricorn black and gold hat; gold-headed cane in hand.”
14. Gold Mine
Holt had gold on the brain: In addition to “gold,” “shower of gold,” “golden hen,” and “golden idea,” he suggests a gold mine costume consisting of a “dress of white and gold brocade or tulle, made as a fashionable evening dress, trimmed with sequins; a painted panel let into one side, with a sketch of a gold mine.”
This one is for people truly devoted to their gym routine: Create a short gown out of red velvet, and festoon the bodice and skirt with “trapeze, dumb bells, parallel bars, and other gymnastic paraphernalia … and introduced as ornaments.”
Long flowing cashmere dress, with loose low bodice and pendent sleeves; scarf draped on shoulders; round the skirt a band, half blue half gold, with the hours upon it; the hair flowing; a crescent coronet of gold. Veil of spangled tulle; gold armlets and necklet; sandals.
17. Jack and Jill
Finally, a couple’s costume! Jack should wear “a smock frock and round felt hat.” Jill, meanwhile, should have “a flowered cotton bodice and tunic, over a short petticoat; small shawl; poke bonnet, or Dorothy hat.” Both should carry pails. For good measure, embroider “Jack” and “Jill” on your respective pockets.
18. Joan of Arc
Be a vision in the costume for this 15th Century warrior—just not the kind that Joan herself said she experienced. First step: Procure a suit of armor, complete with helmet, plume, mailed feet, and gloves. Once that’s out of the way, create a white, plaited cashmere skirt and a red cloak. Another option is to dress as Holt says Joan did when she appeared at the coronation of the French King: In a skirt and tunic of blue satin, “spangled with fleurs-de-lys; silver helmet with white plume; coat of mail, mail on arms, gauntlets, feet encased in long boots; sword with cross on hilt, and shield; the hair floating on shoulders.”
Worried about where you can find armor? Don’t fret: Holt says it can be “silver, burnished steel, or what is called scale armour. But it can also be made by cutting out in strong brown paper the various pieces required, copied from any illustrated history, or from Knight's Shakespeare, pasted over with silvered paper.”
The difficulty in assembling the costume today might be finding enough actual photographs to festoon yourself with. (I hope you have a printer!) Holt suggests “a green silk dress trimmed with tulle of the same shade.” Around bouillonnes, or puffs, in the skirt, nestle in a row of photographs. Next, drape a silk scarf across the skirt “with medallion photographs at intervals, all bordered with green galon; the bertha of the low bodice fastened at the front, back, and on the shoulders with them; a cap in the form of a lunette, with cartes-de-visite” (a small type of photograph). A long green veil is optional.
20. Press, or Newspapers
If you’re interested in this costume, better start stocking up on newspapers now: The costume is fully made of it. “The skirt consists of box-plaited illustrations from the papers, coming to the waist, with portraits and names of newspapers pasted across here and there.” The bodice should be in the “bertha” style, exposing the shoulders, and have scarlet velvet bows. Stick quill pens, and ink-bottle, and sealing-wax in your hair—”it has a much better effect than would appear, and has been a favourite dress at Fancy Balls,” Holt reassures.
This costume is all about the poppies, which are a symbol of sleep. Start with a straw-colored ball dress, “wreathed with poppies”. Top it off by powdering your hair and wearing “a cap in the shape of a poppy turned upside down and worn on one side … or a wreath of poppies.”
22. Sour Grapes
We’re not sure what distinguishes this sour grapes costume from a regular grapes costume—perhaps your facial expression? Create a maize sateen dress covered with grapes “cut out from chintz and appliqued on.” Wear a muslin cap covered with grapes on your head, and place “bunches of artificial grapes on the low square bodice and elbow-sleeves, and in the muslin apron turned up and forming a lap.”
You could also call this costume a vanity. The dress is white muslin dress over pink calico; the bodice is long-sleeved, low (and filled with a handkerchief called a fichu) and trimmed with lace. Suspend a looking-glass from the waist, “with brush, combs, scissors, etc.; powder-puff in hand; cap, like pincushion, stuck with pins; ribbon epaulettes, with scissors, etc., attached.”
24. White Cat
Take your Grumpy Cat costume to the next level with Holt’s instructions: Make a short, white skirt of cashmere, silk, or satin, and edge it with white fur or swansdown. The bodice can be low and square or a high jacket, and trimmed with fur on the back. “From the shoulders hangs a loose white fur mantle,” Holt writers. “Head-dress [is] a cap of white fur, like a cat's head, with ears and red bead eyes; round the neck either a red collar and bells, or a red collar with the words ‘Touch not the cat but with the glove.’” Powdering your hair is optional, he says, “but it looks better.” Wear “high white satin boots bordered with fur, and long gloves edged with fur, hanging at side.” Have a kitten perched on your shoulder and carry a “fan painted with cat.” (Yeah, we're not quite sure what that means, either.) Prefer to go as Alice in Wonderland's Cheshire Cat? Holt recommends wearing a coat of chinchilla (and make sure to smile big!).
Also known as "Moulin a Vent," this is a short costume made of pink satin, "with low yellow satin bodice and white stomacher" (a triangular panel in the front part of the bodice), "laced across with two shades." Powder your hair, and get ready to add windmills: Put one on your head as a head-dress, place one on your left shoulder, put windmills on your shoes, wear them as earrings, and paint them on your gloves. Wear "a bow at neck, windmill depending."
“Many balls are now given at our seaports, where the dresses of the ladies are supposed to represent yachts,” Holt says. Today’s ladies may attain this look by wearing “scarves carried across the bodice denoting the name, such as the Sivallow, the Raven, and so on. Sometimes a white tulle gown is simply draped with flags and the burgee; or if American or other vessels are meant, the national flag falls from one shoulder.”