Mimi MatthewsMimi Matthews

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Orange, Pumpkin, and Peach

Individual Collage Images via Met Museum and National Gallery of Victoria.

Individual Collage Images via Met Museum and National Gallery of Victoria.

Unlike popular autumnal shades, such as golds, browns, and burnished reds, the Victorians generally regarded the color orange with disfavor.  Fashion magazines of the day advised against wearing orange dresses, calling the color ugly and claiming that it was unflattering to every complexion.  Even worse, as fashion historian C. Willett Cunnington reports, some believed that the color orange implied “a degree of animal passion which the pure ought not to possess.”  I had not intended to give orange an article of its own, but it’s Halloween today and I can think of no better occasion to showcase a selection of this much maligned—but nonetheless striking—shade of Victorian fashion. 

*Please note: Vivid oranges were generally achieved with aniline dye.  Invented in 1856, aniline dye produced a wider range of color than natural dyes. 

GOWNS

A true, solid orange dress was quite rare in Victorian fashion.  The color was generally viewed as being too overpowering for the complexions of most women.  For example, in his 1870 book Colour in Dress, author George Audsley calls orange one of the colors “particularly to be avoided by the Fair Blonde,” while an 1855 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book declares:

“Orange suits nobody.  It whitens a brunette, but that is scarcely a desirable effect, and it is ugly.”

1867e2809371 depret french silk gown 1 via met museum

1867–1871 Depret French Silk Gown.
(Met Museum)

Does this mean that there were no instances of solid orange dresses during the Victorian era?  Not in the least.  One might see a peach-colored day dress or a warm, pumpkin orange visiting gown.  Bright oranges, however, were usually combined with other colors in the form of stripes, patterns, or trimmings.

1867e2809371 depret french silk gown 3 via met museum

1867–1871 Depret French Silk Gown.
(Met Museum)

Orange was considered to be harmonious with several other colors.  Blue was recognized as orange’s opposite.  As such, Audsley states that blue and orange worn together formed a “harmony of contrast” which could be quite attractive on certain ladies.  Orange could also be worn with scarlet, a flattering combination which Audsley refers to as a “harmony of analogy.”

1865 1875 american silk visiting dress 1 via met museum

1865-1875 Silk Visiting Dress.
(Met Museum)

In addition to the colors mentioned above, Victorian ladies also paired orange with other autumnal shades, such as soft greens, browns, and yellows.  These shades were worn in various combinations, depending on what was popular that season.  According to an 1868 edition of the Gazette of Fashion a “pale shade of orange” mixed with a “light snuff-brown and a pale green” was considered a fashionable combination that year.

1884 house of worth orange silk afternoon dress via national gallery of victoria1

1884 House of Worth Silk Afternoon Dress.
(National Gallery of Victoria)

In choosing complementary shades, much depended on the underlying tones of the orange itself.  As a general guideline, Godey’s advised Victorian women to remember that “yellow-oranges contrast with violet-blue” and “orange-reds with the blue-greens.”  The below dress from 1857-1860 combines orange and gold with a blue train.

1857-1860 Italian Silk and Gold Court Ensemble(Met Museum)

1857-1860 Italian Silk and Gold Court Ensemble
(Met Museum)

Though orange was chiefly an autumnal color, it could also be worn in warmer months, especially when paired with white.  White cotton dresses were often trimmed in orange ribbons, while orange silk evening dresses could feature white embroidery, as seen on the House of Worth evening dress shown below.

1865 67 house of worth orange silk evening dress with white embroidery via 2 kent state museum1

1865-67 House of Worth Orange Silk Evening Dress with White Embroidery.
(Kent State Museum)

Lighter shades of orange, such as apricot or peach, were also fashionable options for warmer weather.  When combined with other shades, like cream, white, or blue, the effect was quite pretty.  The below evening dress is a soft peach with cream lace.

1854 musc3a9e du costume et de la dentelle dentelles de

1854 Evening Dress.
(Musée du Costume et de la Dentelle)

Though one is unlikely to see many bright orange or rich pumpkin tea gowns, pale peach was a popular shade for the tea gowns that came into fashion in the late 19th century.  The below silk tea gown from 1885 is just one example of how delicate these shades of peach could be.

1885 liberty co british silk tea gown 1 met museum

1885 Liberty & Co. British Silk Tea Gown.
(Met Museum)

PARASOLS

According to Audsley, orange and black were harmonious.  This combination—particularly evocative of Halloween—was rather striking and is not seen as often in gowns as it is in Victorian hats, parasols, and other accessories.  In these cases, orange silk or satin was frequently paired with black lace or jet beading.  The below 1860s parasol is orange silk with an overlay of black lace and a carved ivory handle.

1860s silk ivory and metal french parasol 1 via met museum1

1860s Silk Ivory and Metal French Parasol.
(Met Museum)

BONNETS

Fashionable hats and bonnets of every type were often trimmed with orange ribbons or orange flowers in shades ranging from pale peach to pumpkin.  As an 1847 edition of the Ladies Cabinet of Fashion, Music, and Romance reports:

“We have recently seen some decorated with shaded orange ribbons, the shades varying from the deepest to the palest shade of range.”

1890s peach colored straw hat met museum

1890s Straw Hat.
(Met Museum)

Some hats and bonnets were made of orange combined with other colors.  When the shades used were strong, the result could be quite dramatic.  This was particularly true when (as noted with the parasol above) orange was worn with black.  The below hat from 1888 is made of orange silk and jet.

1888 american orange and black silk and jet hat 1 via met museum

1888 Silk and Jet Hat.
(Met Museum)

Somewhat less dramatic were the hats and bonnets made of lighter shades of orange coupled with a softer color, such as blue.  The 1850s capote below illustrates just how becoming shades of blue and orange could be when worn together.

1850s french straw capote met museum

1850s French Straw Capote.
(Met Museum)

Jewelry 

Even those not disposed to wear an orange dress or carry an orange parasol, might adorn their visiting dress or ball gown with a piece of orange jewelry.  Of these, an orange topaz was perhaps the most popular.  The below topaz is from the late nineteenth century and is accented with pearls and gold.

late 19th century topaz pearl and gold brooch via met museum

Late 19th Century Topaz, Pearl, and Gold Brooch.
(Met Museum)

A FEW FINAL WORDS…

There is no one color that fully represents the Victorian era.  However, I hope the above has given you some idea of how orange was used in Victorian women’s fashion.  For a refresher on the shades of Victorian fashion that we have already covered, the previous articles in my series are available here:

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Pretty in 19th Century Pink

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Butter, Lemon, Gold, and Yellow

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Crimson, Claret, Scarlet, and Red

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Cerulean, Mazarine, Navy, and Blues

Shades of Victorian Fashion: Lilacs, Lavenders, Plums, and Purples

In future, I’ll be profiling other popular shades of the era.  Until then, I leave you with the following wise words on color from the 1862 edition of the London Society Magazine:

“Experience, after all, is the best guide for those who have any eye for colour at all, and a little quiet observation upon their friends’ dresses during a morning or evening assembly, will teach them more than whole chapters on the subject.”

Portrait of Emilia Włodkowska by Jozef Simmler, 1864.

Portrait of Emilia Włodkowska by Jozef Simmler, 1864.


Sources

Audsley, George Ashdown.  Color in Dress: A Manual for Ladies.  Philadelphia: George Maclean, 1870.

Chevreul, M. E.  The Laws of Contrast of Colour.  London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1861.

“Choice of Colors in Dress; Or, How a Lady May Become Good Looking.”  Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1855.

Cunnington, C. Willett.  English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century.  London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1939.

The Ladies Cabinet of Fashion, Music, and Romance, Vol. 8.  London: E. Henderson, 1847.

“A Lady’s Dress.”  London Society, Vol. II.  London: William Clowes and Son, 1862.

Minister, Edward.  Gazette of fashion, and Cutting Room Companion, Vol. XXII.  London: Minister and Co., 1868.

About Mimi Matthews

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Library JournalPublishers Weekly, and Kirkus, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.

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