Christmas Scenes: Choosing your dress for the ball

A Christmas Ball:

Phoebe Junior by Mrs Oliphant  


published 1876

[Phoebe is discussing with her mother what to wear for a ball]

“Green is the complementary of red. If you want to bring out my pink [complexion] and make it more conspicuous than ever, of course you will put me in a green dress. No, mamma, dear, not that —I should look a fright; and though I dare say it does not matter much, I object to looking a fright. Women are, I suppose, more ornamental than men, or, at least, everybody says so; and in that case it is our duty to keep it up.”

“You are a funny girl, with your theories of colour,” said Mrs. Beecham. “In my time, fair girls wore greens and blues, and dark girls wore reds and yellows. It was quite simple. Have a white tarlatan, then; every girl looks well in that.”

“You don't see, mamma,” said Phœbe, softly, suppressing in the most admirable manner the delicate trouble of not being understood, “that a thing every girl looks well in, is just the sort of thing that no one looks very well in. White shows no invention. It is as if one took no trouble about one's dress.”

“And neither one ought, Phœbe,” said her mother. “That is very true. It is sinful to waste time thinking of colours and ribbons, when we might be occupied about much more important matters.”

“That is not my opinion at all,” said Phœbe. “I should like people to think I had taken a great deal of trouble…What I incline to, if you won't be shocked, is black.”

“Black!” The suggestion took away Mrs. Beecham's breath. “As if you were fifty! Why, I don't myself old enough for black.”

“Black would be a great deal the best for both of us. It would tone us down,” said Phœbe, decisively, “and it would throw us up.”

“But for you, a girl under twenty, my dear—”

“Mamma, what does it matter? The question is, am I to look my best? which I think is my duty to you and to Providence.”…

The consequence of this solemn appeal was that both the Phœbes went to Mr. Copperhead's ball in black; the elder in velvet, with Honiton lace (point, which Phœbe, with her artistic instincts, would have much preferred, being unattainable); the younger in tulle, flounced to distraction…


comments: The justification for this as a Christmas entry is slight: there is some controversy over who can come to the ball, and the author ends up

‘but still it was Christmas, and all the newspapers, and a good deal of the light literature which is especially current at that season, persistently represented all the world as in a state of imbecile joviality, and thus, for the moment, every objection was put down.’

--which is a typical sudden sharp remark from Mrs Oliphant, and as true now as it was then. (Another Oliphant book featured in last year’s Xmas entries, with a similar strikingly contemporary note)

And anyway, obviously I had to take the chance to find some pictures of dresses.

Mrs O mentions styles of 20 years ago, so although the book is sometimes described as set in the 1860s, I am putting it in the 1850s. I loved this discussion of colours for ball dresses for young ladies, and was amazed to find Phoebe is going to wear black.

Life was obviously much less dramatic in London than in the USA – in the Bette Davis film Jezebel (1938), her character’s life is ruined (as are the lives of some other people) because she wears a scarlet dress to a ball in New Orleans in 1852.

I have a strong objection to the moral framework of Jezebel – it is deeply misogynistic – but I did enjoy this comment in the Wikipedia description:

The film demonstrates that the North could have avoided the Civil War had it simply waited for the Southern hotheads to kill themselves off in duels.

But Jezebel is an argument for another day. It is clear that Phoebe’s choice has quite a different effect:

And the consequence of this toilette, and of the fact that Phœbe did her duty by her parents and by Providence, and looked her very best, was that Clarence Copperhead fell a hopeless victim to her fascinations…

The ‘point lace’ that Phoebe would have preferred is being contrasted with needle lace, and I looked this up and read about the differences, and it really wasn’t worth passing on in my important view.

The book is a bit too tied up with snobbery, and trade, and who is infinitesimally more important or less classy than another, and the social importances of religion. There is an attempt to point out that some of this is ridiculous, but in my socialist opinion this doesn’t go far enough. But it is still a most enjoyable read. I absolutely loveMrs Oliphant.

I found these wonderful 1850s gowns at the NYPL, though no – not seeing young women in black balldresses.

And was reminded by a comment below that tarlatan was always a subject of interest on the blog - see this post, with a link to another. 

There have been two previous posts on this book, including the Hideous Mourning Jewellery post, and I have also featured Mrs O's masterpiece (of those I have read so far), Miss Marjoribanks


  1. Nice to see another mention of white tarlatan, which I think has come up previously when talking about Meg's ball dress in Little Women, among others. I wonder when it stopped being popular - maybe post war when synthetic fabrics were new and exciting?

    1. Yes! I have added a link above in fact after seeing your comment. When I was posting it I thought 'tarlatan! I haven't dealt with the tarlatan!' but the moment went by, glad you reminded me. Yes, your analysis sounds convincing. It was still in Noel Streatfeild books of the 30s.
      OK, just did an Ngram search - peak mentions in 1870s, then slow decline, dropping off in the 60s, with a slight rise in recent years. I think the Clothes in Books community is going to take the credit for that, right?

  2. Thank you for bringing Mrs Oliphant and black party dresses to us. I haven't read her yet, so I am looking forward to a new, old author who cares about dress.

    1. Thank you for the kind words! I'm so delighted if I encourage people to read her.

  3. "The book is a bit too tied up with snobbery, and trade, and who is infinitesimally more important or less classy than another, and the social importances of religion." Clearly a MUST READ!!! (Honiton lace is bobbin, not needle lace.)

    1. You will love it Lucy (all her books, or the ones I have read so far). I would have known you would understand the difference between the different kinds of lace.

    2. Needle lace is more time-consuming to make than bobbin lace, and making bobbin lace is not a quick process. This laborious production made lace terribly expensive and therefore exclusive. Not that the money went to the lace workers, of course. In the mid-19th century machines were developed to make lace. This brought lace within the reach of the middle-classes and there followed an orgy of wearing lace: huge lace shawls, broad lace flounces on dresses, parasol covers, etc. etc. Over time, of course, this cheapened lace, and now we think of cheap nylon stuff when we think of lace.
      I expect that Phoebe preferred needlepoint lace. But Honiton bobbin lace wasn't so mean. Queen Victoria treasured her Honiton wedding lace all her life. She would wear it for special occasions. She could have afforded needlepoint of course, but it wasn't made in the UK, and it was good publicity to have an entirely British-made wedding dress. QV's wedding dress and the lace still survive separately, and have been exhibited regularly. I have seen them.

    3. Oh thank you so much, this is such interesting information, and am glad to get it clearer in my head!

  4. As I read this, Moira, I couldn't help but think of the trend started in the 80s, I think, of everyone having a 'season,' and choosing shades of blue or green or whatever based on their season. It's so interesting how we judge what looks well on us and what doesn't.

    1. Oh yes, great catch Margot, that is exactly what it was like! She would have made a great colour consultant 😉

  5. Christine Harding5 December 2023 at 12:17

    On a purely practical note, how were these voluminous layers of fine fabrics washed and ironed - and would they only have been worn once in public, and then made over to look different? And would they have been hand stitched, or had sewing machines become widely

    1. I think sewing machines are just starting to come in during the 1860s - they existed before, but at this point became a practical proposition for domestic use.
      I think there was a lot of spot-cleaning, and then starching and ironing. Servants would have been a huge help here! You can imagine the hems of skirts being dirty and damaged, and cut shorter...

  6. Suspect it was ever thus (and still is) regarding young women and their preoccupation with what to wear. Love Mrs Oliphant. Don't you think she must have been a lot of fun as a person? Chrissie

    1. Yes to all! She had a not-wonderful life, and obviously was too kind to too many people. But she has that lovely aspect, that she is very realistic about human foibles, but also very forgiving and finds them funny.

  7. The post from last Christmas that you mentioned was my introduction to Mrs Oliphant. Thank you!!


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