Flattering by Gaslight: Fashion Advice for Nineteenth Century Ladies

The Ball by Julius LeBlanc Stewart, 1885.

The gas-lit ballrooms of the mid- to late nineteenth century weren’t as flattering to some colors as they were to others. For example, the 1897 edition of Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms warns that pale shades of yellow became “muddy in appearance by gaslight,” while shades of rose simply disappeared. Similarly, most shades of purple, as well as darker shades of blues and greens, were known to “lose their brilliance in artificial light.”

As a result, nineteenth century ladies often selected ballgowns and evening dresses in gaslight-friendly colors. Shades of red—like crimson, cardinal, and scarlet—were beautiful by gaslight. Pale blues and pinks could also be quite flattering, as could combinations of bright yellow and white, or pink and white. Additionally, the 1886 edition of Peterson’s Magazine reports that Charles Frederick Worth’s “peachstone-brown” was “a good gas-light color.” While the 1870 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book describes one color—verd Nile—as “the new gaslight green,” said to be “a favorite hue with blondes.”

British Ball Gown, ca. 1875.
(Met Museum)

Fabrics adorned with colored gilt or foil accents were another option for gaslight-friendly evening dresses and ballgowns. According to the 1866 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book:

“Another very attractive style of evening dress is of white tarlatane, powdered with stars or dots of gilt or colored foil—red, green, purple, or blue. The effect is exquisitely light and beautiful, either by day or gaslight.”

Glittery accents were generally quite effective by gaslight. These accents weren’t limited to the fabric or trim on a lady’s evening dress. They could be jeweled hair ornaments, sequined fans, or even diamond-studded flowers. The 1884 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book reports:

“The last novelty of the season is to wear artificial flowers with diamond centres, simulating dewdrops. This is charmingly effective, more especially by gaslight.”

1830-1840 Diamond Butterfly Hair Pin
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

Many ladies actually preferred gaslight to daylight—for obvious reasons. In S. Annie Frost’s 1873 short story “Gaslight vs. Daylight,” a lady (Dora) readying for a ball with her friend (Corinne) explains to her young cousin (Daisy) why gaslight must always be preferable for a party:

“To be frank, my dear little innocence, Corinne and I make up rather better for gas than for sunshine. Late hours, balls, operas, concerts, and other entertainments, leave their marks upon the complexion, and the sun is most impudent about exposing such ravages.”

Of course, the story ends as a reflection on authenticity vs. artifice. Daylight-loving Daisy, manages to ensnare Dora’s beau, Oscar. The final lines:

“But,” she said, half-wonderingly, “I thought you loved my Cousin Dora.”

“Not I. Gaslight belles may do to admire, but for a wife, Daisy, give me the pure, fresh face that does not shrink from the daylight.”

London, Pall Mall; and Saint James Street by John Atkinson Grimshaw, c. 1880-1889.

Choosing a gaslight-friendly ensemble could be a tricky proposition for the nineteenth century lady. Even so, I think many of us would prefer the challenge of gaslight fashion to that of finding shades suitable for 21st century office fluorescents. What do you think?

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.

Sources

Frost, S. Annie. “Gaslight vs. Daylight.” Godey’s Lady’s Book. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1873.

Godey’s Lady’s Book. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1866-1884.

Hill, Thos. The New Revised Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms. Chicago: W. B. Conkey Company, 1897.

“Hints Upon the Doings of the Fashionable World.” Godey’s Lady’s Book. Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1881.

Peterson’s Magazine, of Art, Literature, and Fashion. Philadelphia: Charles J. Peterson, 1886.

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Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
1 year ago

Lighting is always a challenge, as anyone who has ever dealt with white balance on their camera will testify. Gas lighting is kinder than the harsh [and often flickering] assault of fluorescent lighting.

Gaja
Gaja
1 year ago

The British Red Ball Gown is too good.

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