Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Brief History of the Dolly Varden Dress Craze

Rosy Dolly, Pretty Dolly

“After a long and patient contemplation of the golden key, and many such backward glances, Gabriel stepped into the road, and stole a look at the upper windows. One of them chanced to be thrown open at the moment, and a roguish face met his; a face lighted up by the loveliest pair of sparkling eyes that ever locksmith looked upon; the face of a pretty, laughing, girl; dimpled and fresh, and healthful—the very impersonation of good-humour and blooming beauty.” (Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge)

Here we first meet the progenitor of one of the more well-known fads of the nineteenth century, the 1872 craze for the pretty Dolly Varden. The red-lipped, flirtatious, locksmith’s daughter who attracts men to her like bees, Dolly was probably the most memorable character of Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, which first appeared in 1841. The novel, Dicken’s first of two historical novels, is set during the anti-popery riots of 1780.

Painting: "Dolly Varden", William Powell Frith,
circa 1842-1849. Tate Gallery, London.
In her cherry-colored hat ribbons and bright polonaise dresses, she was a reader favorite, and a favorite of her creator, too, who kept a portrait of her in his home. I am only guessing, of course, but the London’s Tate Gallery holds a portrait of Dolly Varden flirting with the viewer in her red ribbons, painted by Dickens’ friend William Powell Frith, after the book was published: maybe this is the same painting?

Dickens passed away in 1869, but a few years later, the sale of his property, including his portrait of Dolly Varden, aroused enormous public interest in the character (see p. 261, Cunnington, Cecil Willett, English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations. Courier Dover Publications, 1990). By early in 1872, the name "Dolly Varden" was being applied to all sorts of things. Of course there was the dress style and beflowered dress fabrics. There was the hat, too, a beribboned forward-tilting straw affair, and a parasol (Fort Wayne Daily Sentinel, April 20, 1872). There were Dolly Varden paper dolls. A New York dry goods store opened and titled itself the “Dolly Varden Store”. It went bankrupt a few years later. (See NYT, The “Dolly Varden Store”: An Interesting Bankruptcy Case—Statement of the Assignee”. January 7, 1876.)

Sheet music cover: a young girl 
wearing a Dolly Varden dress. 
"Dolly Varden". Words by Frank 
W. Green; music by Alfred Lee. 
Philadelphia: Lee & Walker, 
between 1872 and 1875. From 
Keffer Collection of Sheet 
Music, Penn Library, 
Department of Special Collections.

Products galore were named for her. “The Dolly Varden Polka”, and other music, note paper and envelopes (Boston Daily Globe, May 6, 1872), cigars (see, oh, and cakes, and poetry. More on that later.

The name made its way farther afield, too: A mine in Nevada opened and was named the Dolly Varden; an explorer of the Dakota territories, Julius Chambers, gave the moniker to his canoe and also to a lake; a political party took up the name; and famously a woman accompanying fishermen on expedition spotted a pink-spotted char and compared it to Dolly Varden; the fish has sported the name ever since. There was even a race horse named for her: she ran at Prospect Park, noted the New York Times in October of that year.

Let's not forget the cake. Do see one of two of the earliest recipes I could find online for it, dated 1881, in Emma Whitcomb Babcock's Household Hints (p. 54).

Dolly Varden in 1872 Fashion: Popular, but Perhaps Too Popular

In Barnaby Rudge, Dolly Varden is described as wearing rather colorful, even flashy clothes. Do a search of the online text of the story, and you'll see what I mean.

The craze apparently started sometime very early in 1872.

[Author's note, as of 07/22/09. Actually, it appears to have started earlier. Harper's Bazar mentions stylish ladies at the races wearing the new fashion, which, the magazine reported, featured colorful cretonne fabrics: "At the Fordham races some leaders of fashion wore " Dolly Varden" costumes of the gay cretonnes lately described. One worn by a brunette was a buff ground, with large chintz figures of brilliant colors, made with a polonaise trimmed with ecru lace and black velvet; others had black or white grounds, with gay-colored flowers and palm leaves. The polonaise had revers in front, was without drapery behind, and was trimmed with white duchesse lace and Swiss muslin pleatings. Wide-brimmed Leghorn hats were worn with cretonne suits. (Harper's Bazar, July 15, 1871. "New York Fashions.").]

Photo: Dolly Varden style parasol on Corsets and Crinolines site.
From the Portsmouth Times, Saturday, April 13, 1872.
Articles about store openings--debuts of seasonal collections, for example--printed in the Times and small papers alike became chock full of mentions of Dolly Varden fabrics and stylings. For example, the Wednesday, March 29, 1872 issue of the Times describes the following dress prominently displayed at the Lord & Taylor opening:

…(A) Pompadour Dolly Varden of black silk cut in diamond-shaped scallops (sic), these finished with a satin piping of canary and white, with an elegant sash of satin and gros grain, relieved by delicate bouquets of flowers, elicited the admiration of every visitor, being at the same time the most chaste and elegant polonaise at the exhibition. Dolly Varden predominated in all goods—in the flowing robe de chamber as well as in the graceful, jaunty costume that an old lady innocently designated as the “Enoch Arden.” Foulards, challies, silk muslins, grenadines, piques, lawns, prints, were exhibited in profusion and in exquisite taste.” (LORD & TAYLOR'S OPENING.; Brilliant Display of Goods, Crowds of Visitors and Buyers)

“Dolly Varden to the Rescue. ALL the fashion writers inform us that the Dolly Varden style of dress is to be the rage the coming summer. Every- body who has read knows that Dolly Varden, the sweet daughter of a London locksmith named Gabriel who lived in the days of George III…”
For those who hadn’t read the novel, the Portsmouth Times, among other papers, gave them the background information they needed to make a good purchase.

They rather needed to:

NELLY—Well, then, my Dolly Varden and your walking-suit will see the light together.
MARY—You mean thing, you—to have kept it all to yourself. That’s what I call real selfish.
JULIA—What was Dolly Varden?
NELLY—I don’t know—never thought of it. Varden sounds French.
MARY—No it ain’t. It’s one of SHAKESPEARE’S heroines. I asked Uncle George about it, and if it wasn’t in BYRON, or WALTER SCOTT, or somewhere, and he laughed at me. Just as if I should know.”
NELLY—I’ll find out when I go to the milliner and try on that hat. Such a dear cocked up little conceit of a thing, with a bunch of straws and butter-cups in it. You could most eat them.
MARY—They are, I’m afraid, likely to be common, and in ten days between a Grand-Street bonnet and a Broadway one, you won’t be able to find a shred of difference. It’s getting harder and hard every day to be exclusive, ma says so, and declares that the only chance now is for us to import WORTH”.
("The Minor Comedy". NYT, April 21, 1872.)

Ouch. If you read the rest of the article, it’s even ouchier. The Times was having a good poke at the nouveaux riches. Nota bene: Worth was a carriage-trade French couturier, with the patronage of queens and duchesses, Astors and Vanderbilts, but, of Smiths and Jones too. The color of money was all he needed to see, though he didn’t advertise it.

Song sheet Cover: "Dolly Varden". Music by H. Werner, words by F. Wilson. In this drawing the young woman is wearing a rather untrimmed, flowered Dolly Varden polonaise with plain "petticoat-style" underskirt at the seaside, a fashionable venue for wearing this sort of ensemble. Library of Congress.

Music sheet cover. "Dolly Varden Polka" 1872. A fashionable young miss in her Dolly Varden ensemble, giving a good view of the tilted hat. Her flowered dress is obscured by a plain mantle or shawl. Library of Congress.
What did the popularity stem from? Scribner’s Monthly (V 4, Issue 2, p. 248) had its opinion:

"At the mere mention of Barnaby Rudge, the locksmith’s pretty daughter stood before us. Strange that we could have forgotten her,—the sweet, fresh, jaunty English lass, trim, neat and coquettish, with her bright quilted petticoat, and her gown caught up daintily and pinned at the back. The locksmith’s daughter, as we know, was no heroine. She advocated no great public principle, suffered in no noble cause. She was just a good, pure, everyday girl—and that is why we love her. Her name is a character in itself. All Dickens’s names are. It means freshness and spring-time and guileless dressiness. And so Dolly Varden is made the presiding genius of the dry-goods world to-day."

In England, the fashion seems to have been a primarily middle-class phenomenon, carefully eschewed by ”the best people” in the upper echelons of society, as Cunnington put it.

By later in the year, writers stateside were feeling the same way. In "LONG BRANCH.; A Summer Evening at the Sea-Side-- Every-Day Life--Miss Dolly Varden" (July 12, 1872), a column by the Times’ “our own correspondent” commenting tartly on summer life at that popular summertime destination, was finding the fad overwhelming, on the way out, everything but the hat a fashion failure:

“And then, bathing, too, gives them the opportunity of wearing their Dolly Varden hats, what are by no means unbecoming to certain faces. Thank heaven that inexorable ruler—Fashion—has decreed the downfall of every other part of Miss Dolly Varden’s costume. Very few are now to be seen, and somehow or other they are all failures.”

Novelists of the early 1870s picked up on the fad in their stories. In Phemie Frost’s Experiences, our heroine, staying with her more fashionable cousin, sees the latter open her trunk, “that seemed to be overrunning with poppies, marigolds and morning-glories, and, giving something of a jerk, brought up a puffy, short gown of white muslin, blazed all over with great straggling flowers—the morning-glories, poppies, marigolds that I had seen bursting up from the trunk.” (p. 315)

Phoemie’s gut instinct is to find the thing a bit much, but she is won over by the pannier puffs at the back and the idea of wearing a garden. Coaxed and abetted by her cousin, she soon has one of her own:

‘ ”Does the dress suit? For we have no time to throw away,” says she [the cousin].

“Suit,” says I, turning round and round with slow enjoyment of that queenly figure in the glass. “Of course it does. Why, cousin, it is superb; the bunching up is stupendous. Then the pattern—a whole flower garden in full bloom.” ‘
(p 319)

Our Young Folks took the opportunity in August to publish a morality tale about a young lady named, naturally, Dolly, who with such a pretty Dolly Varden dress on, takes off to the fair and acts out like, well, her namesake, with the expected result of any morality tale, she gets into trouble. It's actually a charming little story, with the most charming little sky-blue dress. Do read "Dolly Varden", if you have a chance.

Magazine editors had their fun:

“Apropos of the Dolly Varden style of raiment, so much talked of in the present era, we have seen no description of it so succinct and clear as the following: ‘the starboard sleeve bore a yellow hop-vine in full leaf, and on a red ground, with numbers of gray birds, badly mutilated by the seams, flying hither and thither in wild dismay at the approach of a green and black hunter. An infant class was depicted on the back; and in making up the garment truant scholars were scattered up and down the sides and on the skirt; while a country poultry fair, and a group of hounds hunting, badly demoralized by the gathers, gave the front a remarkable appearance. The left sleeve had on it the alphabet in five different languages. ‘ ” (“Editor’s Drawer”. Harper's New Monthly Magazine. / Volume 45, Issue 267, p. 478.)

There was plenty more humorous comment along those lines, if a search of newspapers is any guide.

By November, the fad was blowing itself out: “How fickle is fashion…poor Dolly, her reign was short, the devotees have all forsaken her. (The Petersburg Index, November 25, 1872.)

The Fashion, Dissected

Dictionaries and other reference sources appear to have forgotten the scope of the fad. Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1995), for example, styles it thus:

“Dolly's memorable costumes led to the naming for her of a style of 19th-century woman's ensemble consisting of a wide-skirted, tight-bodiced print dress worn with a white fichu (light triangular scarf) and a flowered hat with wide, drooping brim. She was also commemorated in the brightly colored Dolly Varden trout.”

As the quotations in the last section intimate, this description is a little simplified. As with many fashion crazes, manufacturers, retailers, and dressmakers applied the term very loosely indeed, likely with the idea of increasing sales volume. Go to a mall or big box store today and you’ll see the same thing: “menswear-inspired” sure covers a lot of ground…

To be Dolly Varden style, a fabric generally, but not always, featured an eighteenth century chintz-like floral pattern on a colored ground; the fabric itself varied from muslins and batistes to silk foulards and wools:

"The Dolly Varden foulards are very fashionable for house wear, and come in rare and beautiful designs, and very gay colors. The edge of flounces on dresses is cut in points or scallops [sic], and bound- with silk a shade darker than the material."(Fort Wayne Daily Sentinel, March 26, 1872)

Here’s the Sentinel again, on April 20th: “Dolly Varden Sateens, Dolly Varden Chintzes, Dolly Varden Percales, Dolly Varden Reps, Dolly Varden Alpacas, ...”

As for the dress? Of all the fashion history sources I’ve read, Cunnington’s book best dissects the look:

“The Dolly Varden, of chintz or cretonne over bright silk petticoat, either plain, flounced, or quilted. Later, for winter, the Dolly Varden may be of fine flannel or cashmere printed in chintz pattern, with black silk, satin, or velveteen petticoat, often quilted or lined with eiderdown.” (p. 262)

Yet for every generalization there’s an exception, and as Cunnington himself had pointed out time after time, nineteenth-century fashionistas threw terms around very loosely. In April, the NYT wrote of another grand store opening:

“An exquisite peach bloom gros grain silk, with Dolly Varden polonaise of the same shade in striped satin, cut in blocks and finished with fringe, combining all the colors of the costume, double sash of silk and wide Spanish lace, competed a toilet that was absolutely perfect. A pearly Dolly Varden, court train, was gracefully paniered over a pale blue silk petticoat [underskirt, not today’s use of the term for slip], rendered still paler by rich falls of Duchesse lace, and finished with salmon colored bows.” (“ARNOLD & CONSTABLE'S OPENING.; Grand Display of Spring and Summer Goods and Styles”. April 4, 1872)

No florals in these ensembles, unless perhaps the lace...

The hat, yes, the hat. Here’s the Times correspondent, writing in March: “..a Dolly Varden hat of white chip [straw], canary colored ribbons, pink and blush roses, coquettishly turned-up brim…” ("LORD & TAYLOR'S OPENING; Brilliant Display of Goods; Crowds of Visitors and Buyers." March 29, 1872)

Let’s look at some fashion plate examples:

This is a Dolly Varden carriage costume from Harper's Bazar, May 11, 1872. (From NYPL Digital Collection, #803909).

Here is a Dolly Varden house dress from Harper's Bazar, March 23, 1872. (From NYPL Digital Collection, #803737).

Please also have a look at the glorious Dolly Varden walking suit in Stella Blum's Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper's Bazar, 1867-1898, if you have a copy. If you don't, see the Google Books version.

Sadly, only one of the three fashion plates, the last one, features the fashionable floral fabric, and you must look very carefully at the front view to see the patterning. Certainly florals would something to depict easily in an already very busy fashion plate, but the plates do show just how wide a variety of stylings fit under the Dolly Varden umbrella, or should I say, parasol?

Considered together, the pictures above show that the Dolly Varden fashions were interpreted loosely and drew on trim ideas common during the period. A few elements, however, seem to have been particularly common:
  • Use of 18th century type fabrics: stripes with florals, especially on bodice/polonaise.
  • In many but by no means all cases, underskirt was plain or quilted (the latter to imitate 18th century quilted petticoat convention.
  • Use of a polonaise, although as Cunnington states, early versions of the polonaise in this year could be constructed with a separate bodice, with basques in front and short ones in back, and a separate tunic overskirt, long in front and short and puffy in back.
  • Sleeves ending in 18th century style flounces.
  • Forward-tilting, decorative straw hats.
  • Self-fabric ruching and similar 18th century style trims, although these were pretty universally used on dresses during this time.
In case you’re wondering about polonaise construction:

"Another form of dress was the polonaise, after the looped up dresses of the eighteenth century. It was really a bodice and overskirt combined. The polonaise bodice was similar to the usual form but was continous with its overskirt, which was drawn up in swathes by internal ties. Beneath it, an underskirt was worn which could be trained or not. The polonaise was usually cut like a princess dress, without a waist seam, and often differed from it only in that it was not full length. The underskirt was essential, as it had been for the looped up walking dresses of the 1860s and it often ended in a frill or kilted edging. One form of the early 1870s polonaise costume was the Dolly Varden dress. This consisted of a floral cotton polonaise over a plain, brightly coloured skirt of walking length, and worn with a straw hat, perched forward on the high coiffure. It was a charming, girlish, eighteenth century style costume, beloved of ordinary Englishwomen, and not of Society ladies. Most fashionable 1870s costumes were more mature, sophisticated and decidedly Parisian." (“Fashion in the 1870s and 1880s”. The Ladies' Treasury.)

In Closing, a Little Poetry

Dolly leaves you now on a lyric note:

"Dolly Varden”

By Bret Harte (Francis)

Dear Dolly! who does not recall

The thrilling page that pictured all

Those charms that held our sense in thrall

Just as the artist caught her,

As down that English lane she tripped,

In bowered chintz, hat sideways tipped,

Trim-bodiced, bright-eyed, roguish-lipped,

The locksmith’s pretty daughter?

Sweet fragment of the Master’s art!

O simple faith! O rustic heart!

O maid that hath no counterpart

In life’s dry, dog-eared pages!

Where shall we find thy like? Ah, stay!

Methinks I saw her yesterday

In chintz that flowered, as one might say,

Perennial for ages.

Her father’s modest cot was stone,

Five stories high; in style and tone

Composite, and, I frankly own,

Within its walls revealing

Some certain novel, strange ideas:

A Gothic door with Roman piers,

And floors removed some thousand years,

From their Pompeian ceiling.

The small salon where she received

Was Louis Quatorze, and relieved

By Chinese cabinets, conceived

Grotesquely by the heathen;

The sofas were a classic sight,

The Roman bench (sedilia hight);

The chairs were French in gold and white,

And one Elizabethan.

And she, the goddess of that shrine,

Two ringed fingers placed in mine,

The stones were many carats fine,

And of the purest water,

Then dropped a curtsy, far enough

To fairly fill her cretonne puff

And show the petticoat’s rich stuff

That her fond parent bought her.

Her speech was simple as her dress,

Not French the more, but English less,

She loved; yet sometimes, I confess,

I scarce could comprehend her.

Her manners were quite far from shy.

There was a quiet in her eye

Appalling to the Hugh who’d try

With rudeness to offend her.

“But whence,” I cried, “this masquerade?

Some figure for to-night’s charade,

A Watteau shepherdess or maid?”

She smiled and begged my pardon:

“Why, surely you must know the name,

That woman who was Shakespeare’s flame

Or Byron’s, well, it’s all the same:

Why, Lord! I’m Dolly Varden!”



There is a man in our town,

He is an awful hard 'un;

He actually refused to buy

His wife a Dolly Varden.

The dame she ripped [sic?],

The man he swore

he'd surely have to end her,

When straightway off the hussy went

Upon a Grecian bender*.

A sight so sad made him so mad,

He tramped down all the garden-

He then cooled down and went to town,

And bought a Dolly Varden.

May 2, 1872, The Decatur Republican (Illinois)

*One tiny note: get the pun? The Grecian bend was a popular stance women took at this time, slightly bent forward. Read about in Cunnington.


Addendum, March 21, 2011. How interesting. Just found out that the Wikipedia entry about the Dolly Varden costume links to this article. Neat!


Grittenham said...


I have an original "Dolly Varden Polonaise" pattern dated 1889.

I'm trying to establish it's value.

Any thoughts/ideas?


ZipZip said...

Dear Grittenham,
Most sorry for the delay in replying!
Antique patterns can have some value to them, and the older the pattern, the better. Patterns from the 1880s are not all that common, that I know of.

However, because I am not a dealer in patterns, nor have bought originals myself, am unable to help you with valuation.

You might wish to check with, with Vintage Martini, or the Vintage Pattern Lending Library. Here's hoping they can offer you some help!


Natalie in Kentucky

QNPoohBear said...

We have family photos of 4 generations of girls wearing a Dolly Varden dress first worn by my great-grandmother born 1888. The dress was given away years ago before the newest generation could wear it.

ZipZip said...

Dear QnPoohBear,

My goodness, now there's a neat tale. I am sad that the dress was given away; still, you have the photos, a family treasure.

Very best,

Natalie in Kentucky

C. said...

Hi, thank you for your very good information, i have a question about the dolly varden costume: do you know the difference between the fashion of the dolly varden in the USA and in Britain?

Thank you

ZipZip said...

Dear C.,

You are welcome! From what I understand, Dolly Varden styles were embraced by all sorts of people in the United States. The first actual reference that I have seen to a Dolly Varden dress is in an upscale women's fashion magazine, and the dress is described in glowing terms. See the 2009 addendum I wrote that's inserted into the original article.

Meanwhile, at least according to C. Willett Cunnington in English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, the fashion was not adopted by the upper crust. His book is quite old, however, and I do not know what later costume historians have said. Regrettably, my research did not extend to English resources.

Thanks again,

Natalie in Kentucky

ZipZip said...

Dear C.,

You are welcome! From what I understand, Dolly Varden styles were embraced by all sorts of people in the United States. The first actual reference that I have seen to a Dolly Varden dress is in an upscale women's fashion magazine, and the dress is described in glowing terms. See the 2009 addendum I wrote that's inserted into the original article.

Meanwhile, at least according to C. Willett Cunnington in English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, the fashion was not adopted by the upper crust. His book is quite old, however, and I do not know what later costume historians have said. Regrettably, my research did not extend to English resources.

Thanks again,

Natalie in Kentucky

C. said...

Thank you, Nathalie, so now i can do my presentation of the dolly varden dress, you've got a great blog!!

ZipZip said...

Dear C.,
Happy to help and good luck with your presentation!
Natalie in Kentucky

ZipZip said...

Dear C.,
Happy to help and good luck with your presentation!
Natalie in Kentucky

ZipZip said...

Dear C.,
Happy to help and good luck with your presentation!
Natalie in Kentucky