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.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.