Crystal Palace Exhibition, 1851
Hello again! My name is Kristin Skinner, a graduate of the Smithsonian Associates-George Mason University Master’s program in the History of Decorative Arts. Some of you may remember my posts for the #SMITHSONIANat8 James Smithson’s Holiday Birthday Ball. I had a lot of fun finding ways to incorporate period styles into modern dress, and I’m here to give some more hints for dressing for the fair! For the next few weeks I will be posting about different world’s fairs and how to find ways to add a little period flair to your attire.
To begin, I’d like to post about what is considered to be the first world’s fair, The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, or the Crystal Palace Exhibition, held in Hyde Park, London, from May 1st to October 11th, 1851. Organized by figures such as Henry Cole and Prince Albert, the driving force for the fair was to showcase British industrial innovations, including the fair’s famous Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton. The building was decorated by Owen Jones, a proponent along with Cole, Albert, and other supporters, of Design Reform.
So what did visitors wear to the fair? We can get an idea from period renditions of the fair as well as an overview of English fashions of the 1850s. For this post as well as the subsequent posts, I will focus on a general overview of styles that would be easy to incorporate into modern dress.
Women’s dresses, with larger sleeves coming into fashion, consisted of full skirts with many flounces achieved by wearing petticoats. The mid-1850s saw the wide use of crinoline to be worn over a supportive cage, which achieved volume without the weight of the former layering of petticoats. Dress reformers introduced bloomers, ankle-length with lace trim and worn under the skirt, which was novel to the period, and protested the corset. Bonnets covered center-parted hair, gathered in a bun or side coils. Women also wore cape-like jackets as well as paisley pattern shawls. Such shawls were meant to imitate the Indian cashmere shawls, which by the early 1800s were being machine made in Europe due to the invention of the Jacquard loom in 1801. The town Paisley, located in Scotland, became a center for these machine-woven shawls.
Men’s dress consisted of coats, which could be frock coats or tailcoats, waistcoats, and tight trousers. Waistcoats could be colorful, showcasing the popularity of tartan and other popular designs. Large bowties were tied around the high collar of shirts. Bowler and top hats were worn, with muttonchops and moustaches following Prince Albert’s example.
So how can you incorporate some period style into your look for the night? Ladies could imitate full skirts by fashioning petticoats, which will give the full appearance without having to worry about cages—the aim is to add some period flare, don’t worry about being completely accurate (unless you want to!). Wear your petticoat under a long dress paired with a shawl. For the shawl, you could get a paisley print yardage from a fabric store, cutting it to the length that you prefer.
Men could bring some period style to their look by fashioning facial hair like Prince Albert, or by matching a blazer with tight trousers with a plaid (in the spirit of tartan) shirt (or a waistcoat!) and larger bowtie. A bowler or top hat would also be a great addition.
For more ideas (such as footwear and accessories) and history that for the sake of brevity I didn’t include here, see my Pinterest board.
See the following sources for more information:
And don't forget to buy your tickets to A Night at the World's Fair with SMITHSONIANat8! How are you going to add period flair to your attire?