Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 7 - Street Passengers - Costumes and Customs

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Ladies and crinoline - Riding habits - Complexions - Maiden simplicity - Little girls - Men's whiskers and attire - Night-caps - Bed curtains -  Little boys - Top hats - Few women in City - Office equipment in 1850s - Wafers - Seals - Quills.

BUT the streets were not entirely occupied by traffickers. There were also the people upon whom these gentry preyed and they constituted a motley throng. Of these, the ladies, of course, demand prime consideration. They filled, not to say crowded, the gaze in a manner unparalleled at the present day: for did not crinoline abundantly close up any spots accidentally left vacant by beauty? As the 1860s approached, hoops attained marvellous dimensions and were affected by all classes alike, the extra-ordinary fascination afflicting maid as markedly as mistress. I once entered a rather crowded omnibus with a relative: when about to pay the fares she paused and looked round wonderingly - for I had disappeared. I was not far off, however: only concealed by the inter-arching of the crinolines between which I had nestled. When ladies had to sit close, as in a train or bus, or pass through a narrow doorway, something had to bulge, and hoops perforce became ovals. Croquet was, I believe, originated or revived in the crinoline age - another instance of how hoops had seized imaginations. Of course, little boys had naught to say in the matter - they had hoops of their own - and I, having never known anything else, saw nothing strange in the mode, probably believing that ladies were made that way.
    The Empress Eugenie was supposed to be the High Priestess of crinoline, and her portrait was repeated ad nauseam in the fashion-plates of the Illustrated London News [-73-] and other instructive publications. Paris claimed to be the centre of light and leading in all pertaining to female dress, and the British ladies certainly acknowledged her Worth. And then the flower-wreathed bonnets and their dexterously knotted ribbons! And the mantles and Paisley shawls! Well might Venus and Juno, scrutinising Camberwell from Olympus, envy their mortal sisters.
    Did the ladies escape the pot-hat? Breeches they scorned with the scorn of the kilted Highlander arrayed in all his tartans - and more; for would they have anything to do with the swelling Turkish trousers insidiously introduced by Mrs. Bloomer of the U.S.A., and after her technically called Bloomers ? No! But at the other end of the scale they were not so obdurate. A pretty face is often shown up by a topper, and so when Beauty went a-riding and something that would stick on decently well while cleaving the whirlwind on the back of a frisky mare seemed imperatively necessary, she most sweetly unreasonably adorned her chignon with a high silk-napped cylinder. A contrast indeed to the "pork-pie hat and neat little feather" which she often affected when walking out.
    There was no riding astride although it was whispered that the immodest maidens of Mexico and other benighted regions were addicted to the practice. Side-saddles and return to the long clothes of babyhood were the rules. The riding-dress of the 1850s invested the courtly old Spanish tradition that ladies had no legs with a certain suggestion of plausibility. And please don't mention smoking.
    But, laugh as we may about crinolines and their funny appurtenances, middle-class ladies of that period are entitled to our respectful admiration on at least one count - they but rarely indulged in rouge, powder, lip-salve and kindred abominations. Vanity bags were unknown. It was not because such things were undreamed of, for those who went to see high-bred dames on their way to the Queen's Drawing- room receptions - a not unpopular amusement - found opportunities for discerning, as the carriages slowed up and waited their turn in the Mall, that such intolerance was far from universal with the fair sex: it was rather that the vast [-74-] majority disdained such trickeries. Manoeuvres of the kind were considered essentially French and unworthy of English womanhood. "Whited sepulchres," the tinted Venuses were sometimes called. So when one met a devotee of the paint-pot it was natural to class her as either a Queen or a quean, a Duchess or a drab. Extremes met at the dressing-table, if nowhere else. But credit must be given to the sex in other ways. Single girls wore few jewels, and their dresses, although flounced and bulgy, were usually of simple material. Real flowers were worn in the hair. Artlessness was the note struck. Per contra, they liked ear-rings, and the necessary piercing was sometimes held to be good for the sight.
    And on yet another count may the fair Victorians claim. Their costumes may have been absurd, but in one respect the dresses were eminently sensible - they had pockets.
    Little girls had bulky frocks, too, larger than those worn by children of recent years, and when they displayed stocking it was invariably white. Black and coloured hose didn't come in, I think, till the early 1870s. But not all showed stocking, for some - although the style was dying out in the mid fifties - wore white drawers that descended below the knee and often terminated in frills. In this way girls could sometimes boast of more in the way of unmentionables than youths of equal age, for boys, until five or six, usually wore petticoats without corresponding sheathings. With their crinoline frocks and long drawers comical little dames those girls seem to me now, although at the time I accepted them as matters of course, products of Nature like their mammas. They used to curtsy, too- a very graceful custom, now only to be met with, I believe, in Scandinavia. Girls were then mannerly rather than mannish. It was not their fault that they were overdressed.
    Gentlemen, after the middle 1850s, began to grow long beards and whiskers, the consequence, it was said, of our men being allowed to cultivate their hirsute adornments in the trenches before Sebastopol. Lord Dundreary "weepers" were common. Shop-walkers who couldn't grow them were not much in demand. Men wore cut-away coats, waistcoats, [-75-] and trousers which ultimately assumed the peg-top form. As the ladles' dress expanded from the waist downwards so the men's diminished. Had it not been for this saving compensatory action Romeo could not have approached near enough to give Juliet his arm. Dancing had to be standoffish even to the most jazzuistically inclined. With the aid of the peg-top things fitted together in jig-saw fashion. For a period waistcoats and trousers were made of the same pattern and colour, the coat usually being of darker hue. Black velvet jackets were not uncommon for indoor use. Capes and cloaks frequently replaced overcoats, and neckties and watch-chains - always single, these last - were often more gorgeous and massive than those we know.
    In the early fifties old stagers continued to wear the Georgian stock, a stiff band of black silk made with or without a set bow in front and fastened behind by strap and buckle. They were mostly worn without collars and kept the chin permanently at "attention." Old officers thought the Army would go straight to the devil when stocks were abolished from the rank and file. The Prince Consort long adhered to the stock. Trousers were provided with buttons at the bottom of the legs and kept in tension by straps under the boots. So straps as well as boots had to be cleaned after a muddy walk. Turned-up trousers would have been a curiosity indeed; and it was a point to keep those garments as creaseless as possible.
    Night-caps were still affected by many of the older folks, notwithstanding that beds in good houses were often protected from draughts by curtains that were not merely ornamental, but were actually made to draw. Feather-beds were not uncommon, and bedsteads were often surrounded by valances. I had no experience of warming-pans. We are prone to think our ancestors sturdier and more accustomed to rough it than our own degenerate selves, but in truth, in some ways, they were very much the reverse. Night-caps, curtains and hangings were no doubt useful when fogs and hurricanes invaded castles through unglazed casements, and the intrepid knight hung his helmet on the peg from which he took down his night-cap, but people [-76-] in the 1850s were only beginning to perceive that times had changed. I am pleased to say that our own father was not one of the coddlers: he banned all these feeble luxuries.
    Little boys were usually miniature copies of their dads. They were breeched late, and until that happened wore petticoats. The sailor suit, modelled on the naval uniform of the period, with short jacket, white bell-mouthed trousers, clasp-knife hanging by a lanyard, and straw hat - a very much uglier get-up than the natty sailor costumes boys and girls of later generations have known - was often worn. When I was breeched my first suit was all snuff colour, and I managed to slash the trousers the very first day with a penknife given in honour of the occasion. Glorious ceremony, that first breeching! Parents, uncles, aunts, united in lining the virgin pockets with silver and sundries. Little boys in winter were muffled in long woollen comforters, but for little girls these seemed to be regarded as superfluous. A stage of preparation, perhaps, for the low necks and pneumonia blouses of later times. Boys of a larger growth wore tunics with belts, usually with snake-shaped clasps, and Inverness capes. Peaked caps with chin straps were greatly in evidence; peakless caps with tassel on top were, I think, dying out in the 1850s.
    The pot-hat was imperative for all City men, and for their clerks, porters, and door-keepers. My father had an office in Broad Street, which we boys occasionally visited, usually on festive occasions such as the Lord Mayor's Show, when our presence was not calculated to clog the wheels of commerce to any great extent. It was from a window of this domicile that I, on more than one occasion, looked out on literally a sea, or rather mightily flowing river, of silk top-hats. Those who wore them not were scarcer than those who do to-day. Ah! where are all the stove-pipe wavelets of that interminable river now? And there was no relief from an admixture of women. There were no female clerks, no typists, no waitresses. Before Cannon Street and Broad Street stations were opened and enlivened the intervening streets with an interchange of passengers, the fair sex was also a rare sex in the City except, perhaps, [-77-] in the vicinity of St. Paul's, where a draper or two had already established themselves. London City was then indeed an Eve-less Eden. Verily times have changed!
    Having mentioned my father's counting-house - how musty that once familiar term smells! - I may say that it contained matters scarcely to be matched in Broad Street offices of to-day, such as boxes of many-coloured wafers; sealing wax galore, and seals with ebony handles; ink-wipers made of circular flaps of cloth of different diameters and tints fastened together at the centre; quill pens; penknives really intended for use as such; a cabinet with secret drawers. We always brought away some of those gaudy wafers. Items such as these continued in use by Government Departments until quite recent years. People used to joke about the cross-nibbed and spluttering quills- suggestive of the "fretful porcupine"- supplied by the Post Office to its patrons; and a good joke it was until you took up one to write with - then it lacked point.