Ribbons and waistcoats and birds on hats : fashion at MusiCB3

The sheet music boxes at the UL are a mine of information about all sorts of things other than music. Many of the illustrated title pages depict the singers who performed the songs,  wearing the fashions of the time. I often think that looking though these would be a fun way of delving onto costume history… here are a few of the most stylish covers.

The Song of the Onion is an exhibition favourite at MusiCB3. With feathers, ruff, shoe roses and sword, it is one of the most flamboyant stage costumes you are likely to encounter, though not especially helpful so far as real-life fashion history goes!


Mr. W.J. Hill in costume for Song of the Onion. A1882.932

Other theatrical costumes might be helpful to those interested in dance history. Kate Vaughan, shown in the image below, was best known for developing a style of dance known as the skirt dance, which was often performed as part of late 19th century burlesque or vaudeville shows. The outfit shown in this illustration, with the long train on the dress, was perhaps designed with this style of dance in mind. The later illustration of Gaby Deslys also shows the importance of costume when it comes to dance.

Whilst the illustrations of theatrical costumes are not necessarily representative of every day clothing, other images show off-stage fashions, which you can often see changing over the decades. The illustrated songs arriving in the library during the 1870s often show the very full-skirted dresses with bustles which were fashionable at the time, whilst the 1880s arrivals tend to depict the slimmer silhouette more fashionable in that decade.

Some songs are directly about the latest fashions, and are illustrated accordingly. We have songs about the Victorian dandy (the ‘dedicated follower of fashion’ of the age), as well as songs about the wackier trends of Edwardian millinery.

Nellie's hat.jpg

The bird on Nellie’s hat. Hedli Anderson collection.

Victorian cycling wear also makes an appearance, with illustrations of men’s cycling outfits. I haven’t yet come across any illustrations of the ingenious cycling outfits for women that were patented during the late nineteenth century, but I am keeping my eyes peeled!


Charley the bicycle pet. A1879.888


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