A “little second-hand lustre”: dressing as Mary in the Victorian age

In today’s blog Sally Tuckett, Lecturer in Dress and Textile History (History of Art) at the University of Glasgow and UofG lead for the popular FutureLearn A History of Royal Fashion course, explores the trend for dressing up as Mary, Queen of Scots in Victorian Britain

As a social and dress historian I find the reasons why people wear certain clothes and what that tells us about wider society often more fascinating than the clothes themselves. Fancy dress or costume offers a particularly intriguing conundrum as the motivations for dressing in a certain way can range from the superficial to the deeply personal, from the desire to have a bit of fun to full-on escapism. And then, of course, there are people who hate the entire notion and the thought of attending a fancy dress event strikes horror into their core, and yet social convention or peer pressure might dictate that they still end up participating. From a dress history perspective, furthermore, such costumes are more likely to be transient, either adapted from existing clothes or turned into something else once used. When it comes to fancy dress costumes from the nineteenth century, therefore, we rely on written information such as newspaper reports and publications, and on visual material such as photographs of the participants. 

The popularity of Mary, Queen of Scots as inspiration for fancy dress costumes did not escape contemporaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nor has it escaped the notice of scholars since. Helen Bennett and Sara Stevenson neatly summarised the possible reasons why Mary was a popular costume: the intrigue around her life and story, obtaining a ‘little second-hand lustre’ from being a queen for a night, and, in some cases, sheer vanity.[1] More recently, Benjamin Wild goes a step further and suggests that the romance of the Stuart dynasty, not just Mary herself, was a form of escapism for the Victorians who felt increasingly hemmed in by a fast-paced, ever-changing world.[2]

Fig.1: Princess Alexandra as Mary, Queen of Scots, 1871. Private Collection

‘Mary’ appeared at balls and parties across Britain, from charity balls in local town halls, to the stately homes of the highest levels of society.  One of the most well-known examples being Princess Alexandra of Wales, who in 1871 dressed up as the character of Mary from Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Abbot (first published in 1820). The dress had puffed and slashed sleeves – a nod to the renaissance styling – and the gown was of deep red velvet, with a cloth of gold petticoat embroidered with pearls, and a plethora of semi-precious stones across the bodice and skirt which also had point-lace edging.  The key feature signalling that Princess Alexandra was dressed as Mary, Queen of Scots, was the Marian-style bonnet, complete with fleur-de-lis jewel visible in the centre. The photograph in Fig. 1 was taken to commemorate the event, and descriptions of the costume were repeated in a book called Fancy Dresses Described, a publication which was produced in conjunction with the department store Debenham and Freebody’s, who also conveniently supplied the materials and skills needed to replicate the costumes.  In this same book were printed various versions of a ‘Mary’ costume. These included: Marie, Queen of France; the Prisoner Mary/Tragic Mary; and Mary, Queen of Scots (Fig.2).

Fig. 2: ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ from Fancy Dresses Described.

It is difficult to ascertain what the precise motivations were for wanting to dress up as Mary, Queen of Scots. The possible reasons of ‘second-hand lustre’ or escapism certainly ring true when you think about the reasons why people get dressed up in fancy dress costumes today.  What the categorisations of the Mary costumes highlight, however, is that one of the main appeals of dressing up as Mary could simply have been the variety that her life story offered – from glittering European royalty to a fallible woman.  

[1] Sara Stevenson and Helen Bennett, Van Dyck in Check Trousers: Fancy Dress in Art and Life, 1700-1900 (Edinburgh, 1978).

[2] Benjamin Wild, ‘Romantic Recreations: Remembering Stuart Monarchy in Nineteenth-Century Fancy Dress Entertainments’, in Estelle Paranque (ed), Remembering Queens and Kings of Early Modern England and France: Reputation, Reinterpretation and Reincarnation (2019).

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