"One’s sense of fashion is tailored to their beliefs. And a well-dressed thought, just like a well-dressed man, will always strike a lasting impression." Lord Chesterfield
Late 19th-century Dress Code
La Belle Epoque was a time of bright optimism. Both science and industry strode forward at dizzying paces, rekindling people’s hope and confidence in the future. Peace lasted for many years, and the belief that progress and welfare would accompany Europe onwards to more glorious and joyful days flourished everywhere.
This carefree attitude was mirrored by the clothing of the more respectable social elites, where refined clothes, designed specifically for different social occasions, were the norm.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, women’s fashion is characterized by fancy, elaborate skirts, often obtained through the overlay of two different kinds of fabric, curled and draped. The cut is straight in the front and unnaturally puffy and voluminous on the back.
This peculiar effect was made possible with the help of bustles, wore just above undergarments and resting on the hops. In the last ten years of the century, however, a shift towards a simpler, more natural outline for the feminine body seals the quick decline of such contraptions. Skirts become more snug, fitting close on the sides and widening towards the end with a typical bell shape, more easily obtained by thick, dense fabrics.
The upper part of day outfits does not allow for glimpses of cleavage. Collars are high and stiff, while sleeves are long and puffed up around the shoulders. The range goes from simple blouses and coats to refined, dainty bodices, embellished with lace and ribbons. Dressing for the evening, however, women show off plunging décolletés and short sleeves that bare the arms, with long gloves worn for modesty. In the last decade of the century, women’s clothes designed specifically for sports make an appearance in the streets, such as culottes, trouser skirts, and puffing trousers wore underneath short skirts, useful to move through the city with a bicycle.
At the end of the century, men fashion prescribed three-pieces suits, either from a uniform kind of fabric or “broken up” by contrasting colors and patterns, accentuating trousers and vests. Shirts, white and with rigid collars at formal events, can be switched with striped patterns in less elegant occasions. Ascot and ties are commonly worn around the neck, while bow ties are much rarer.
When practicing sports, such as golf, cycling or hunting, knickerbockers could be worn instead of long-legged trousers, combined with long socks or high boots and sports jackets. The main evening attire was the tailcoat suit — named after the signature, long-tailed, black jacket — although less formal occasions allowed for the tuxedo as well. The latter is similar in appearance to modern models, worn with a black tie. The preferred kinds of overcoats were knitted or calf-length.
People hailing from lower social classes wore outfits that mimicked the lines of those worn by nobles, albeit simpler, made by rougher fabric (cotton was common instead of silk), with less voluminous cuts which intended to save materials and money. Darker shades made cleaning much easier.
Among the servants of prominent families, people intended to be seen by the public, but with a lower rank than butlers and housekeepers — for example, waiters and waitresses — had to wear a uniform. For women, it’s a black or similarly dark - colored dress, an apron with a white bib and cap or a small crest, often decorated with lace. For men, it’s a dark, formal suit, with short front jackets with tails at the back, and a white bow tie. The housekeeper and butler are free to wear normal clothes, as long as the outfits are dark and formal.
The staff of Keystone is preparing a certain number of historically appropriate aprons for men and women belonging to this class. These aprons will be provided to all the DOWNSTAIRS characters, as they perform the actual work required by their social position.
How to create a suitable costume
Don’t be scared, now. Putting together a plausible costume for this particular age is not as difficult as it may seem, especially if you follow some tips.
Remember that accessories are key elements of your costume and will strike a lasting impression. Even the simplest of outfits will give off a well-aged, fin de siècle aura if you refine it with the right details. Hats and gloves for going out during the day are a must for women. Unless your character is a teenager, your hair should always be tied back (and let’s be honest, few things break immersion like loose, modern cuts). Go crazy with jewelry, umbrellas, maybe belt-hung satchels and fans for the evening, even feathered ones. As for men, a top hat or a bowler hat — even straw hats for informal, open-air occasions — accompanied with a pair of gloves, a pocket watch or a walking stick will do just fine. If you have a chance to pull off the thick mustaches and\or the pointed goatee typical of this decade, feel free to go for it and remember that your hair should be combed with a side part.
A distinctive silhouette, for women at least, is another detail that can immediately make a difference in giving off a historically appropriate impression. Adding volume under your skirt so that it doesn’t stick to your legs may be of help. An underskirt — in tulle or whichever fabric you prefer, it will remain unseen — will immediately transform a 1970s hippie skirt in a nineteenth-century gown. A corset worn underneath the bodice would be equally useful, especially when wearing evening dresses.
But where should you go looking for suitable items?
A vintage market could be a nice starting point. 80s blouses often have a Victorian feel to them, and short female jackets from the early 2000s look pretty much similar to corresponding apparel from the previous century. Ankle-Length skirts can be found in shops that sell Tyrolean - style clothes and in countless steampunk online shops. The same websites can be useful for men’s jackets or top hats.
Grandma’s hats, from the '40s or '50s, can be found for 5 to 10 euros in flea markets or eBay. Embellish them with some feathers or a bow and they will be perfect for La Belle Epoque. Look for models that won’t fit snugly around the head and favor those that can be worn gently resting on top of it. Hairpins will be helpful to keep your hat in place while you play.
Bustiers and corsets can be found online as well, with a wide variety of budget available. Slats usually range from lighter and more flexible, made in plastics, to stiffer, metallic ones. Should you opt for the latter, we recommend wearing the corset at home for a few hours to get a feeling for it, and to avoid discovering it too uncomfortable during the larp.
Inspirational images for Keystone
And now, let yourself be inspired by the gallery and start imagining your costume...
Remember that if you don’t have the time or possibility to assemble a dress for your character yourself, you can buy your outfit of choice on online websites following the suggestions above, or contact a local craftsman. One last recommendation: please, be careful to avoid excessively “off topic” costumes. Keystone doesn’t aim to be a meticulously accurate historical reconstruction… nonetheless, it would be funny to see Reinassance ladies or eighteen-century nobles wandering around la Belle Epoque. Should you have any doubt, feel free to ask on the main event’s Facebook page.