Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ladies at Home: A Peek at Victorian Wrappers

For those of you reading/receiving this post for a second time, we're sorry. Blame our Google overlords for screwing up and deleting the initial post.

A long, long time ago our friend MM (now going by the name of MCM84) had a question. A very specific question. He was interested in Scarlett's wrappers. The movie features a variety of wrappers, the book mentions them on more than a few occasions, without offering further details about their style and color, so why not write a post about Scarlett's homewear? Easier said than done. Since clothes you wear at home have never been the most glamorous of items, fashion magazines of the time tended to bypass them in favor of the more elegant street dresses. We did our best to dig out stuff, however, and this is what we came up with.

The key to understanding Victorian wrappers is understanding their function. When were they supposed to be worn and who was supposed to see them? We get our answer from Florence Hartley's Ladies' Book of Etiquette, Fashion and Manual of Politeness, a book that first appeared in 1860, but was revised and republished over the years; our edition is the 1872 one.  Wrappers were supposed to be worn in the morning, before morning calls, when ladies were attending to their household duties. This explains the need for durable fabrics, that could be washed frequently, as Hartley explains at length:
"MORNING DRESS The most suitable dress for breakfast, is a wrapper made to fit the figure loosely, and the material, excepting when the winter weather requires woolen goods, should be of chintz, gingham, brilliante, or muslin. A lady who has children, or one accustomed to perform for herself light household duties, will soon find the advantage of wearing materials that will wash. A large apron of domestic gingham, which can be taken off, if the wearer is called to see unexpected visitors, will protect the front of the dress, and save washing the wrapper too frequently. If a lady's domestic duties require her attention for several hours in the morning, whilst her list of acquaintances is large, and she has frequent morning calls, it is best to dress for callers before breakfast, and wear over this dress a loose sack and skirt of domestic gingham. This, while protecting the dress perfectly, can be taken off at a moment's notice if callers are announced." 
--from Florence Hartley, The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, Fashion and Manual of Politeness
Wrapper from Godey's Lady's Book, 1866

But, if this was their function, were wrappers then designed solely for the eyes of the lady's family and house servants? Strictly speaking, yes. Well-bred ladies were not supposed to receive wearing their wrapper. But Victorians were nothing if not overly fond of elaborating  their etiquette rules to contradictory heights. While it was not polite for a lady to receive visitors in her plain wrapper, it was even more impolite to keep them waiting while she changed into a suitable outfit (which, depending on the lady's tastes, could take some time). So if one had unexpected callers, it was considered acceptable to excuse oneself and greet them in a wrapper. Moreover, it was impolite to wear very elaborate dresses in the morning, so ladies were encouraged to avoid the danger of overdressing by donning an elegant wrapper, meant to button to the waist and show the white underskirt from there down:
"DRESS FOR MORNING VISITS A lady should never receive her morning callers in a wrapper, unless they call at an unusually early hour, or some unexpected demand upon her time makes it impossible to change her dress after breakfast. On the other hand, an elaborate costume before dinner is in excessively bad taste. The dress should be made to fit the figure neatly, finished at the throat and wrists by an embroidered collar and cuffs, and, unless there is a necessity for it, in loss of the hair or age, there should be no cap or head dress worn. A wrapper made with handsome trimming, open over a pretty white skirt, may be worn with propriety; but the simple dress worn for breakfast, or in the exercise of domestic duties, is not suitable for the parlor when receiving visits of ceremony in the morning."-
-from Florence Hartley, The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, Fashion and Manual of Politeness
La Mode Illustree, 1867.
Godey's Lady's Book, 1856

What this meant was that wrappers were never plain, shabby garments never to be seen  by the world, not even the ones that were worn solely for breakfast. They were meant for a more informal and intimate but still semi-public  space and, as such, their patterns followed the trends for proper dresses, if in a more subdued style and different fabrics. When bustles became popular, wrappers were cut to either resemble a small bustle in the back or to be able to accommodate one. They favored bright colors and patterns and were meant to be worn with slipper of embroidered cloth or, in the summer, black morocco.

Godey's Lady's Book, October 1864

One example of a beautiful  and very ornate Victorian wrapper you can see below. You're strongly encouraged to visit this page to see more pictures of it and read the detailed description. It is easy to envision Scarlett in this style of more lavish wrapper, isn't it?

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