Arsenic and Old Lace in Brussels

Another city. Another costume museum. Although, there was no arsenic consumed on my trip to Brussels in February there was plenty of old lace at the ‘Museum of Costume and Lace’ or Musee du Costume et de la Dentelle.

In February, the current exhibition was entitled ‘The Bourgeoise on Display’ or Crinolines et Cie that charted the rise of the nouveau riches between 1850 to 1890 in terms of fashion. There was a particular focus on how the new middle classes in Belgium aspired to  wear the same clothing as their aristocratic counterparts. This ran in tandem with the rise of the ready-to-wear industry and advent of department stores in Belgium.

Decade by decade (with panels to tell you what decade you were in) the clothes were arranged stylistically alongside accessories, hats and social history material. The exhibition was an evolution of style from the cumbersome crinoline to the bustle and the ‘leg o’ mutton’ sleeves reminiscent of the 1830s crazed for puffed sleeves.


   Exhibition Poster (c) Museum of Costume of Lace, 2015/16.

Each section was carefully interpreted, exhibited and displayed to show the best of the museum’s costume collection for that particular era. In the 1850s and 1860s section day and evening dresses were stationed in a loose timeline telling the story of the invention of the crinoline that eventually made some skirts fifteen metres in diameter!


From Left to Right: A brown taffeta dress from the 1860s, with rounded Peter Pan collar and matching cuffs. Green and Red Chinese print puffed sleeves evening dress from the 1850s

So you’re probably wondering how I can tell the difference between the 1860s and 1850s dress above? Well, being the well trained dress historian that I am (i.e. obsessed with dress!) I can immediately tell the difference between an 1850s and 1860s dress. In the 1850s, women were still wearing ‘crinolines’, don’t confuse this term with later metal cage crinolines. This term refers to the heavy horsehair and linen petticoats used to make dresses form the rounded shape reminiscent of the 1850s dress above.

Hence why the skirt of the dress has a more ‘poufy’ shape in appearance; rather than the nice clean lines of the 1860s dress. It wasn’t until 1856 that cage crinolines began to appear; so the red and green dress possibly dates before or just after this date. The process of getting dressed in what some say is a caricature of the reality of wearing a cage crinoline can be seen below. In the picture, two female servants are standing on ladders to put the lady’s dress over her head! In the press of the time, there were many satirical images of women’s cage crinoline flying up or knocking things over, like in the cartoon below. Check out my YouTube video below for more of the same type of imagery!

Housemaid knocking over furniture in a crinoline. 


Exaggerated dressing of a crinoline wearer. Unknown source, from V&A website.


(L-R)  Blue, black and teal striped/tartan 1860s day dress with changeable evening blouse.  Late 1860s blue frilled and stiffened cotton day dress with centre front buttons and rounded shoulders.

Towards, the end of the 1860s the large circular silhouette began to recede to the back of the dress, which eventually became known as the bustle (as seen in the blue dress above). Even though the shape of the skirt had changed, it was still hard to walk or even sit down in a bustle. As the bustle was tied to the waist and covered in layers of petticoats and finally the dress to give the wearer a somewhat ‘snail’ shape in their everyday dress. It wasn’t until 1884, that a concertina style bustle was designed to collapse when the wearer sat down and spring up again once she rose from her seat.

In the 1880s’, the bustle became more pronounced and stuck out at odd angles! Again newspapers in the 1870s and 1880s made fun of this new fashion and joked that a tea tray or a small child could be balanced on the back of the bustle! The black and white striped dress is a perfect example of the more protruded 1880s bustle dress. The blue, black and yellow striped bustle dress (featured in the YouTube video below) is from the early 1870s as the dress still retains some the roundness reminiscent from the crinoline of the previous decade.


1880s? Day Dress of b/w striped cotton with lace edging and roping to bottom. Gathered folds on top back, centre back and top back of dress extend to bustle area of dress.


Early 1870s dress of teal blue silk trimmed with black velveteen with large bow detail to top back and centre of dress.

All of the dresses within the exhibition, were accompanied by matching accessories for women, and sometimes children, that reflected the change in style of hats, fans, bonnets and other accessories. One of my favourite bonnets was the black tulle, worsted and silk mourning veil that has a pink rose attached to it, made of silk. Items like this fascinate me as a dress historian, as it makes me think did the original wearer of the bonnet re-use it after her mourning finished? Was the flower an addition to the bonnet to remind her of better times? When you work with objects on a daily basis, you truly become a detective on the par with Sherlock Holmes, particularly in the field of dress history. Alexandra Kim and Ingrid Mida have recently wrote an excellent book called The Dress Detective based on object-centric study in the field of dress history!

On the second floor of the exhibition, there was an amazing array of social history objects that portrayed the rise of the ready-to-wear and department store industry in Belgium. There was magnificent pattern and fabric swatch books that would have been on display in department stores, where ladies could buy a dress and choose a fabric and have the dress made in-store. There were advertisements for ready-made (very much in the style of Le Corbusier and Magritte!) corsets, petticoats, stockings and other garments in an array of pre-measured sizes. Essentially, the first type of mail order catalogue!


1870s/1880s Taffeta Sample book from a Lyons firm. Unknown source.

Additionally, on the second floor there was a large steel cage in the style of the crinoline that had dress up items for both children and adults. Necessarily, to say I was really excited that I could try on a crinoline and feel what it was like to wear one. As a fan of 1950s dresses and Gone With the Wind, I was able to successfully sit down and move about in the modern crinoline (as you can see in the pictures below). Dotted throughout the exhibition there was an excellent array of photographs, either enlarged in their original photo albums, that give a sense of what wearing crinolines, bustles and other fashions really looked like. There was a particular emphasis on how different women in different societal positions interpreted the fashions of the day to suit their own personal, monetary and social needs.


Adult cage crinoline for museum goers to wear!


Me and my rather dappy chappy in his morning suit and bow tie. Ross Davidson Photography.


1850s/1860s sepia photograph album of an unknown family.


Replica sepia photographs of prominent Brussels and Belgian families and businesses, 1850-1890.

Overall, the exhibition was clearly laid out and represented by exhibition panels by decade, as seen in the picture below). So that even if you did not know much about fashion or 19th century history you could easily follow the timelines through the themed decade exhibition panels. The information on the panels and exhibition text itself was informative, concise and to the point. The translation from French and Dutch into English was excellent; as many English translations can be overly academic in their wording and phrasing, putting off non-academic visitors.


Some more rather handsome and smart looking chappies on the 1870s exhibition panel. 

The dresses were beautifully presented on period correct mannequins, presumably with correct underpinnings and support to give the correct period shape. The lighting used throughout the exhibition highlighted the dresses without being to glaring, and directed the viewer to highlights of the dress e.g. pattern, cut of dress, or stitching details etc. My favourite dress has to be the blue, black, green and white tartan day dress with separate blouse for evening wear. I love the imaginative looping to the centre front of the day jacket, as well as the extravagance of what would have been a very daring pattern in the 1860s.


Blue, taupe, green, red and black tartan striped dress with bolero jacket and looped fringing and white cotton blouse. 

I would definitely recommend a visit to this amazing museum if you are visiting Brussels in the near future.  The museum now has an exhibition on wedding dresses that I’d love to see but alas my travels will not be directed towards Belgium for sometime. Also check out my YouTube video of extra photos from the museum! Don’t forget to subscribe to me on YouTube! Follow me on Twitter & Instagram.

All photographs (c) Rachel Christina Sayers 2016 unless otherwise stated. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.