Harriet at the Ball

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August 14, 2014 by auntkatefirmin


Monte Carlo costume plate from Fancy Dresses Described via internet archive. Enhanced for brighter color & contrast.

Thanks to the enterprise of Carte Postale I have an answer to why our mystery woman might have dressed up in the way she did.  (For convenience, I will continue to call her Harriet.)

MONTE CARLO. Dress, half red satin, half black velvet and lace; one shoe red, one black; short skirt fringed with coins, and trimmed with cards; pointed coronet of red satin, with aigrette of cards on shoulder; croupiers’s rake carried in hand; and Rouge et Noir.





Title page from 1887 edition of Fancy Dresses Described.


I’m still wrapping my mind around the notion of the wife of a licensed victualler attending a fancy dress ball; I guess Harriet was a little better off than I had envisioned. Leaving that question aside, Harriet had purchased, or perhaps rented, an elegant red and black ensemble so that she could attend in the guise of the region of Monte Carlo and the famous casinos. The book illustration reinforces a date for the photo of 1886-1887 since it comes from the 5th edition, dated December 1887. The 5th edition was the first to include color plates; the other editions had line drawings only. I have checked the 1880 and 1882 editions in ebook form and neither contains a description of the Monte Carlo costume. Someday I may track down the 4th edition (1884) which is not available as a digital copy to see if Monte Carlo is included. I think Harriet was wearing the dress before the book was published but, regardless, the notion was current.

So there’s one question answered – she’s not representing some sort of casino attendant, she’s embodying Monte Carlo the place. In addition to historical figures, peasants, characters from the opera, and the like, costumes for countries and places were popular at the time.

Now we can be certain that the little object in her right hand is indeed a croupier’s rake (and there doesn’t appear to be a word other than “rake” to describe it). In her left hand she probably holds a “tapis” or a representation of the betting tableaux on the table,

Tableaux for betting on Rouge et Noir via the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

Tableaux for betting on Rouge et Noir via the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

the “rouge et noir” of the costume description. Monte Carlo was noted for two games: roulette and “trente et quarante” also known as “rouge et noir.”

Pursuing this thread has brought to my attention that 1887 was also the Jubilee year. That opens up the possibilities – perhaps Harriet was attending a celebration sponsored by an association of victualers or other businessmen intended to honor Queen Victoria and felt that the occasion demanded an extra-special ensemble.

Now I know what to look for I can see that Harriet’s outfit is multi-colored. She carries out the red and black theme in her gloves, stockings and shoes, even wearing the red glove and stockings exactly as shown in the illustration – she’s even standing a nearly identical pose to the illustration! In the fashion of the time, as a brunette Harriet has chosen bolder colors, a blonde might have chosen more pastel tints.

The mystery woman.

The mystery woman in her Monte Carlo ensemble.

What a treat to have a glimpse of 1887 and to imagine Harriet enjoying the ball knowing that she looked stunning as Monte Carlo!

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