SO IT’S 1864 and you have nothing to wear to the tea social. And if your plan is to hop in that buggy for a quick check on the fire sales at TopShop, you’ll probably come up empty-handed. Off-the-rack was a term yet to be invented, and while dressmakers and tailors did a brisk business, you did need to plan well in advance how you would kill it at the soiree. A mohair robe? A silk paletot? Don’t fret just yet—for all of your inspiration could be found within the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the immensely popular “queen of the monthlies,” which by 1860 had 150,000 subscribers.
The September ’64 index from a Godey’s magazine that might have been floating around Pritchett House offers up a rich harvest of information, with topics ranging from their monthly musical column to an essay “Confessions of a Sprit Rapping Medium,” to advice on how to cure a red nose; the treatment of diphtheria by ice; things wanted in a wife; men injured by crinolines; tales of hired help; gradations of mourning; design for an ornamental cottage [with plans], and a motto from the Prince of Wales.
But the crowning jewel of any Godey’s book was its exquisite, full-color tint fashion plates, with accompanying dressmaker’s patterns. Here was where you found the very latest in what was being shown off on the streets of Paris and London. But the creation of any new item, from corset to cape to was no small feat, not to mention expensive—in 1864, Mary Todd Lincoln, a documented Godey’s clipper, set the standard for conspicuous spending, paying $25 for a bonnet, which would be about eight million dollars today.
As for trying not to swoon in a dead faint from the binding weight of your stays and crinolines, well, that’s whole separate entry.