Fashionable tricks of the townswomen from the past centuries

The fashion of the past centuries was transforming, undergoing significant changes, as well as the townswomen themselves. For example, there was a clear emphasis on daywear, as well as finery and lavish outfits for the balls. Every woman in Ottawa wanted to stand out and be better. The only thing that could get in her way was money, though not always. Ottawanka will tell you more about women’s tricks, fashion and style of the past centuries.

Nineteenth-century fashion, daywear

It was known primarily for its variety and frequent changes. Here are some interesting facts about what Ottawa residents wore and how they got out of challenging situations.

Women used the services of a dressmaker and sewed underwear by hand, for example. A little later, the townswomen mastered the sewing machine and started making articles of clothing with an unsurpassed passion.

Canadian middle-class women often changed their clothes to keep up with the trends. That’s why it was popular to recycle outdated items for fashionable ones.

Canadian women, including women in Ottawa, opted for crinolines because traditional coats were hard to wear over wide skirts.

Ottawa women’s dresses

In the 1830s, dresses were unbelievably wide. A striking example is a photo of a woman from the Reynolds family of New Brunswick. It shows a lady with voluminous sleeves, the epitome of the Gigot style. However, as early as the 1850s, the crinoline skirt changed shape with the addition of a bell-shaped silhouette. While at first, it was flat lines, then later, it turned into an hourglass shape. Also, a basque was added to the dress bodice.

Costumed outfit

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, such events as costume theater, masquerade balls and carnivals on skates were widely popular. Ottawa residents, both women and men, had to pick out every detail of their outfits thoughtfully.

Costumes of historical characters were the most popular. Prominent among them was the costumed dress of Mrs. R. A. Lindsay, who attended the 1881 Montreal fancy ball as the Lady of Marie Antoinette’s times.

Princess style dresses were typical outfits for the 1870s. They were sewn without a waistline, while the complement to the costume was a whole wig and a velvet accessory. Such a combination recalls Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe.

The solemn and costumed events were characteristically themed. So hosts and visitors, for example, balls, celebrated the history of Canada as well as loyalty to the British Empire.


  1. Shawl from India and later from Scotland was of great popularity. Subsequently, this element became indispensable in the ordinary attire of townspeople.
  2. Women chose shawls as accessories. Such an item could be easily draped. A little later, they started wearing a stole or a jacket instead of a shawl.
  3. Handmade fans and umbrellas. They are variations of particular gifts. After all, they were often made in only one copy. A striking historical example is the umbrella of Annie Newson from Ottawa. The accessory was given to her by a fan Warren Soper in 1880, who subsequently became her husband.
  4. Purses and handbags. During the period of the Canadian Confederation, the interest of townspeople in travel grew. At the same time, dyes were invented, making decoration more accessible. It all contributed to the introduction of a new design and the proliferation of purses and handbags in bright colors. For example, Josephine McTaggart from Ontario wore a small purse suspended from her waist. People had a choice of red, gold and blue colors, all of which were in active use at the time.
  5. The 1880s and 1890s saw the popularity of hats. Their abundance sent embarrassment of riches as these accessories came in all shapes, sizes and fashionable additions. Women started pursuing this craft, an entirely different one from dressmaking. They supplemented the hat with ornaments, ribbons and lace. In addition, they used flowers and feathers. The result was astonishing, so hat-making could be considered a true art.

Outfit trim and decoration

Women’s outfits of the 1880s were notable for their splendor and substantial decoration. They included frills and ruffles, ribbon bows and lace. Interestingly, the petty bourgeois women wore such outfits not only in the evening or on festive occasions, for example, but also during the day. Jayne Shrimpton, a professional dress historian, noted the similarity of drapery dresses of those times with fabrics for furniture. Here are a few similar features:

  • The fashion for saturated and predominantly dark colors
  • Embossed fabrics
  • The use of satin brocade
  • Splendid three-dimensional effects
  • The use of velvet and plush.

It’s worth telling a little about the hairstyles of townswomen. While before the 1880s, women had long cascading curls, after that period, the trendy tight chignons acquired popularity. That was especially noticeable after the proliferation of high collars. 

A perfect 19th-century Canadian beauty

What is she like? It is pale skin with rosy cheeks and crimson lips. Slender girls with elegant collarbones were the benchmark. They could be prone to fainting, as evidenced by numerous photos and paintings of lavishly dressed girls at balls draped in tight corsets. Slenderness was associated with intelligence and exceptional elegance.

Beauty secrets that will shock you

  1. Women and very young girls used arsenic in small amounts. Moreover, it was typical for the entire 19th century. It helped to get a clean, ghostly pale complexion, which was so popular in those days. If it did not help, women imitated it with lavender powder.
  2. A strict diet or a call to “Stop eating!”. For example, in The Ugly-Girl Papers, they talked about an approximate menu. It was a small saucer of strawberries with or without crackers for breakfast, exactly half an orange for lunch and a handful of cherries for dinner.
  3. Eternal youth. Women believed they could hold youthfulness through face masks using olive oil and turpentine (a mixture of resin from coniferous trees).
  4. For face foundation and powder, the main ingredient was white lead.
  5. For depilation, as well as for rinsing the hair, they used ammonia.
  6. To achieve the desired effect of so-called sparkling eyes, women used belladonna. Among its side effects, it was noted blindness. Others used lemon juice or other irritants.

For contemporaries, such so-called beauty secrets seem strange and shocking, but such is the fashion history of those times. These facts only prove that women have always wanted and want to be beautiful and stylish, using every method and way to do it.