Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Dressing like Dickens's Dolly Varden, c1870

Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Isabella reporting,

Fashion is always on the hunt for inspiration, and often that inspiration comes from popular culture. In the 1970s, the movie Annie Hall sent women borrowing neckties and over-sized trousers from the men's department, 1950s brides wore Juliet caps inspired by Shakespeare's heroine, and the Twilight books launched the pale skin and smokey eyes of vampire chic in the early 21st century.

This is hardly new, of course. A favorite character from a Charles Dickens character inspired a flirtatious fashion craze with an 18th century flair in the 1870s.

Dolly Varden is the winsomely pretty daughter of a locksmith in Dickens' 1839 historical novel, Barnaby Rudge. Set in 1780 against the background of the Gordon Riots,  the book is not one of Dickens' most popular today, but 19thc. readers were captivated by Dolly: "a pretty, laughing girl; dimpled and fresh, and healthful - the very impersonation of good-humour and blooming beauty."

What's surprising, however, is that Dolly's style of Georgian clothing didn't become a fad when the book was first published in 1839, but after Dickens' death in 1869. Among his belongings that were sold after his death was a portrait, right, of the character painted by Dickens' friend, the artist William Powell Frith.

This image sparked new interest in Dolly, and dressmakers and milliners happily obliged with their own interpretations. An overdress with full, looped-up skirts similar to a Polonaise, layers of patterned fabrics and ruffles, and an exaggerated hat tipped low over the face were all features of the style, and offered plenty of room for individual taste.

Women dressed in Dolly Varden attire seemed to have been everywhere, inspiring popular songs and dances (like the cover of the sheet music, lower left) as well as the expected satires. The somewhat melancholy young woman in The Fireplace by James Tissot (never an artist to miss an opportunity to paint extravagant bows and ruffles) wears a spectacularly striped version, Georgian dress as interpreted by the Victorians.

Yet in the fickle way of fashion, the craze was short-lived. By the late 1870s, Dolly's role as a style-setter seems to have passed - but there's no denying she had her fashion moment, no mean accomplishment for a fictional character.

Upper left: The Fireplace, by James Tissot, c1870, private collection.
Right: Dolly Varden, by William Powell Frith, c1842-9, Tate.
Lower left: Sheet music for the Dolly Varden Quadrille, published in Philadelphia, 1872.


sherinf said...

It lived on, in South Africa, anyway, as a kidney shaped, frilly skirted dressing table known as a Dolly Varden.

Anonymous said...

Dolly Varden is also the name of a kind of trout in the Western US. Seems like it was named after the fashion.

Annette said...

Thanks for the added information on dress selection as a personal choice based on literary themes, theatrical, romantic, whatever an individual can find, purchase or borrow. Makes great reasons for looking at famous people-WOMEN especially. 1956-Arizona-PINK or CHAMPAGNE HAIR color was the vamp for older women, and of course waves. Wow! Pink, red blue high lights into days singers is that the same. Oh if Marie Antoinette had not been executed, those wonderful ideas of hers and her stylist would have made more "head lines." And the gossip writers would have an extended means to the end. Outlive the FRENCH REVOLUTION. Just send Louis 16th and his Marie Antoinette to NYC.
Surely I am out of mind with this rampant excessive fashion blog-splurge of words not comprehended. Who cares! old lady atk

Anonymous said...

More on the Dolly Varden trout name:
The first recorded use of the name "Dolly Varden" was applied to members of S. confluentus caught in the McCloud River in northern California in the early 1870s. In his book, Inland Fishes of California, Peter Moyle recounts a letter sent to him on March 24, 1974, from Valerie Masson Gomez:

My grandmother's family operated a summer resort at Upper Soda Springs on the Sacramento River just north of the present town of Dunsmuir, California. She lived there all her life and related to us in her later years her story about the naming of the Dolly Varden trout. She said that some fishermen were standing on the lawn at Upper Soda Springs looking at a catch of the large trout from the McCloud River that were called 'calico trout' because of their spotted, colorful markings. They were saying that the trout should have a better name. My grandmother, then a young girl of 15 or 16, had been reading Charles Dickens' Barnaby Rudge in which there appears a character named Dolly Varden; also the vogue in fashion for women at that time (middle 1870s) was called "Dolly Varden", a dress of sheer figured muslin worn over a bright-colored petticoat. My grandmother had just gotten a new dress in that style and the red-spotted trout reminded her of her printed dress. She suggested to the men looking down at the trout, 'Why not call them "Dolly Varden"?' They thought it a very appropriate name and the guests that summer returned to their homes (many in the San Francisco Bay area) calling the trout by this new name. David Starr Jordan, while at Stanford University, included an account of this naming of the Dolly Varden Trout in one of his books.

Katy Williams said...

Looks like she might have started the Bustle fashion, which lasted far too long!

Fashion Witness said...

If you haven't seen The Way to Wear'em: 150 Years of Punch on Fashion, by Christina Walkley, treat yourself to a copy. It's a scholarly costume history focused on (copiously illustrated with) fashion cartoons from Punch magazine. There's a Dolly Varden influence in at least 2 cartoons from 1869-70, although the emphasis is on the shortness of the skirt, the Grecian Bend, and the ridiculous amount of false hair necessary to balance the bend. I find the social content embedded in old cartoons very helpful. (I wrote about it here:

About the Dolly Varden look not being adopted in the 1840s: I couldn't help thinking of James Laver's "Laver's Law"
which says that a fashion is "ridiculous" 20 years after its time, "quaint" 50 years after its time, "charming" 70 years after its time, and "romantic" 100 years after its time -- which may explain the time lag in Dolly Varden fashions.

I love your posts and have to avoid the temptation to follow every breakfast link! Wow.

Anonymous said...

We had "Dolly Varden" cakes when i was growing up ( in Australia with a doll atop a big skirt cake

ZipZip said...

Am glad to see you all picking up on the Dolly Varden craze, and the the commenters have added some lovely details to the story.

In 2008 I became fascinated with the fad and did several months of research on it, watching it blossom and wither in popular culture and advertising.

The whole thing is a wonderful reflection of the 1870s, and scholars could have a field day with its reflection of a high point in social climbing, capitalism, fashion conformity, you name it.

While a bit outdated, the blog post "A Brief History of the Dolly Varden Dress Craze" that resulted chronicles it, poetry, intrusions into novels, and all. See

How I'd love to have another go at the topic, this time with better data tools at hand.

Very best,

Natalie in KY

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Loving all these other Dolly Varden manifestations, from trout to dressing-tables to snack cakes! Who would have guessed a Dickens character would linger so long in the popular memory?

Natalie, I'd love to read your post, but you accidentally put the link to this blog post instead, not your own. Could you please add it?

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