The Dolly Varden fashions were a version of popular fashions worn originally in the 1770s and 1780s embraced by women such as Marie Antoinette, the Duchess Polignac, or the Princesse de Lamballe. Dolly Varden fashions later became popular in Great Britain and the United States between about 1869 and the 1880s with the fad peaking around 1872. In addition, the Dolly Varden fashions commonly consisted of a dress and a piece of millinery.
Dolly Varden fashions generally meant a brightly patterned, usually flowered dress with a polonaise overskirt that was gathered and draped over a separate underskirt. The overdress was typically made from cotton or chintz, although it could also be made from lightweight wool, silk, or muslin. The Dolly Varden polonaise that became popular in the United Kingdom in 1871 with middle and lower class women was usually created from chintz or cretonne and “worn with [a] bright silk petticoat that was flowered or quilted. Winter version [was] of flannel or cashmere printed in chintz patterns.”
Besides the dress, Dolly Varden fashions included a piece of millinery, either a cap, bonnet, or hat. The Dolly Varden cap that became popular in the United Kingdom was a small cap of gathered lace and ribbon. It was popular in 1888 and usually worn with tea-gowns that were also popular at the time.
The Dolly Varden bonnet was fashionable in the United Kingdom between 1868 and 1889. In 1872 it was described as “the prettiest and most becoming head gear that has been worn by women for centuries.” The 1881 winter version of the Dolly Varden bonnet was said to be a “grey shaggy beaver, tied down with strings of hairy plush ribbon, lophophore’s tail in front, and crystal and silver bird at the side.”
Although a cap and bonnet may have been worn, the Dolly Varden hat was by far the most popular piece of millinery. It was usually a flat straw hat trimmed with flowers and ribbon, much like the eighteenth-century bergère hat, sometimes called a shepherdess hat, and shown below. The bergère hat was widely worn in the mid-18th century and versions of it can still be viewed in British and French paintings of the times, such as The Swing by Fragonard or in portraits by Thomas Gainsborough, Johann Zoffany, and others.
Dolly Varden hats were all the rage in the summer of 1872 in England. In fact, these hats were advertised regularly in newspapers. They also came in several colors that included white, brown, black, and even a striped version. As to the Dolly Varden fashions in general, they were described on 10 May 1872 in Selma, Alabama’s Times-Argus:
“[T]he low-bodied dress, with skirts well looped up, sleeves tight to the elbow, and then suddenly assuming the dimensions of sacks, leaving the portion of the arm below the elbow bare, is to be the costume of the season, at home, it is to be hoped, for it would scarcely do for walking or riding in, without some modification. And patterns of every hue and variety of sprig and flower are displayed in the store windows, to the no little anxiety of paterfamilias, who begin to wonder what sort of appearance his women-folk are going to assume when they step forth … with their straw hats looped up on one side, a la Dolly, and their flowered skirts looped up on both sides, displaying the scarlet or brown undergarment, in which our great-grandmothers delighted, and which they wore short, so as to display the open clocks of their red stockings, and the shining silver buckles of their high-heeled shoes.”
Dolly Varden fashions acquired their name from a character in Charles Dickens’s historical novel Barnaby Rudge. It was published in 1841 but set during the Gordon Riots of 1780 and the character referred to was Dolly Varden. She was a beautiful young locksmith’s daughter who was taken captive by rioters and who some have described as a “gaily dressed coquette.”
Once Dolly Varden fashions came into vogue they were promoted in various publications. For instance, there was a Dolly Varden walking suit that appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazar 16 March 1872 edition. This monthly magazine that portrayed itself as a “repository of fashion, pleasure, and instruction,” described the Dolly Varden walking suit in the following way:
“In the first figure … the Dolly Varden polonaise is made of flowered cretonne with a black ground, and is edged with a ruffle of the material four inches wide, headed by a band of black cretonne stitched on. The band and ruffle graduated in size, extend up the waist, over the shoulders, and across the back. The Dolly Varden polonaise is worn over a skirt of black gros grain, trimmed on the bottom with a wide kilt pleating, surmounted by three rows of black silk braiding and black ribbon bows. In the second figure, which shows the side and back of the dress, the Dolly Varden polonaise is made of green foulard sprigged with bright flowers. It is edge with a ruffle of the material, set on with a heading, which is separated from the ruffle by tabs of green fouldard, pointed at one end and overlapping each other, each tab being secured by a star-shaped silver button. The waist is closed with similar buttons, and is trimmed with the tabs and buttons, without the ruffles. The skirt is made of solid green foulard.”
Despite Victorian women trying to recreate Dolly Varden fashions, the Times-Argus reported that the Dolly Varden represented in the Barnaby Rudge of the 1840s had nothing in common with “the young ladies of the present day , who have their own peculiar grace and attractiveness.” Furthermore, the paper stated:
“To find any one who would resemble her, we should have to go back to our great grandmothers …[Today] they are cutting up their widow curtains, to make what they call now ‘Dolly Varden’ dresses, and the little forty-cent palmetto hats … are brought up here cocked on one side, ballasted with ten dollars’ worth of Paris pansies and poppies, and bachelor’s buttons, and sold for twenty-six dollars.”
To get a better idea of what Dolly Varden looked like in 1841 William Powell Frith produced a picture of her, along with another character known as Miss Haredale. Firth’s picture showed Dolly Varden sitting at a table removing her gloves as Miss Haredale sat opposite her on a sofa learning towards her. The Liverpool Standard and General Commercial Advertiser reported on the image:
“Mr. Frith has caught the spirit of Mr. Dickens’ charming character of Dolly Varden most admirably. She is the plumpest, archest, wickedest-looking little minx ever seen.”
Part of the reason for Dickens’s Dolly Varden becoming popular with the public was that his novel was also adapted into several plays during the 1800s. For instance, Edward Stirling, a prolific playwright in the mid-19th century who reportedly wrote or adapted over 200 plays produced a version of Barnaby Rudge at the Strand in August 1841. It was an immediate hit with London theater goers. Even Dickens praised it and saw it twice. The play also became a staple for stock touring companies. It then quickly sailed across the Atlantic Ocean reaching America a month or so after its debut in England.
Besides Stirling’s version, there were others who adapted Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. For example, Thomas Higgie produced a three-act play in 1854. Charles Selby and Charles Melville did the same thing in 1875, with their three-act play being performed at the English Opera House. In addition, another adaptation was Dolly Varden; or, the Riots of ‘80 produced in 1889. It was an original musical comedy opera in two acts written and composed by an E. Cympson. It was first produced at the Brighton Aquarium and although it was said to have some “pleasing songs” the only other good thing reputedly was Miss Minnie Leverentz who acted well in the role of Dolly.
Exactly why the Dolly Varden fashions became so popular thirty years after Dickens’ wrote Barnaby Rudge or why the Dolly Varden craze exploded is unclear. However, it was suggested in 1872:
“Some one ― in all probability an enterprising dressmaker ― started the notion that one of the most striking novelties in the way of costumes for ladies would be a revival of the antiquated flowered-chintz overskirts worn by the English ladies in the middle of the last century.”
Whether true or not people were still attempting to recover from the fad of the “Grecian Bend,” the “Roman Fall,” or the “Alexandra Limp.” when the Dolly Varden craze started. Moreover, no one could understand why the pretty locksmith’s daughter would suddenly acquire such recognition nor why she would go on to receive much greater attention in the late 1800s than she ever did when she was first introduced to the world in the 1840s. Yet, she was overwhelmingly popular with Victorians as indicated by a Times-Argus report in 1872:
“Every now and then a whim seizes the public and takes possession of the people’s senses, though why or wherefore, it would be hard to say; but when once it has got a fair hold, it has to be humored until it is worn out or supplanted by some other novelty. At the present moment the name which predominates everywhere, which is advertised in the papers, posted on walls in bills in large block type, stuck up in the windows of dry goods stores, and heard in everybody’s mouth, is that of Dolly Varden, the sprightly, coquettish heroine of Dickens’s historical novel, ‘Barnaby Rudge.’”
Dolly Varden quickly became more than just a salute to Dolly Varden fashions. It turned into a desire for everything to be Dolly Varden, just like it had when hot air balloons first appeared on the horizon creating a la balloon mania so that everything from clothing to hair and from hats to household goods was somehow associated with balloons. Now everything was a la Dolly. In fact, the Chepota Advance in Kansas pointed this out in 1872. The paper maintained that the public had so thoroughly embraced the Dolly Varden craze there was nothing in their town of Chepota that was not somehow associated with it:
“Go to Waterman, Well & Star’s for Dolly Varden collars. … Go to Loose’s for Dolly Varden dress goods. … Go to Brown & Co.’s for Dolly Varden furniture … Go to D.W.C. Davis for Dolly Varden hardware … Ludlow keeps Dolly Varden toothpicks … We have understood that Davis the druggist has some Dolly Varden pills. … For anything in way of Dolly Varden perfumery be sure to call on Dersham. It has been whispered around that Herman & Bro. intend making some Dolly Varden bread … It is very widely circulated through our city that one of millinery establishments has a supply of Dolly Varden plumes, jimcracks, thingumbobs, cockades, &c. If there are any Dolly Varden pictures or stationery in town we are confident Parker keeps them. … Smith & Aldrich have various little Dolly Varden trinkets. … We are told that DeJarnette and Steineger keep Dolly Varden saddlery. … It is intimated that Christian has brought on some Dolly Varden spittoons. We have heard it hinted that Highby has Dolly Varden hams. … We know Wise & Morgan have Dolly Varden groceries … Marsh returned from the east lately. We are confident he brought on Dolly Varden goods of some kind. There may be such a thing as a Dolly Varden coffin. If there is we are sure Montague has it. It has been said that there is one man who does not deal in anything in the Dolly Varden line … We are inclined to think however, he has lately invested in some Dolly Varden vegetables. It is currently reported that Wiggins has several styles and varieties of Dolly Vardens. His gentlemanly and courteous clerk, Pratt, can give you the facts … Of course Miller keeps all kinds of Dolly Varden arms and ammunition. We know Jonas has Dolly Varden goods, because we saw a dress of that kind from his store. … We are not positive but we think we saw at Campbell & Grubbs’ some Dolly Varden yeast powder. … Miller showed us some Dolly Varden jewelry yesterday … We have been confidentially informed that Zipp is putting Dolly Varden soles on a certain kind of shoes … It has been proposed by some of our bachelor friends that we ought to have some Dolly Varden ice cream. … Schmucker wants to see you and show you his Dolly Varden hair pins, sleeve buttons, &c. Dolly Varden notes taken upon good security by Safford at the Savings bank and Dolly Varden deposits gladly received at the First National by Lee Clark, who wears a pair of Dolly Varden pantaloons.”
The New Orleans’ Times-Picayune likewise pointed out in 1872 that that Dolly Varden craze was beyond belief. However, they also added that it needed to end:
“If this Dolly Varden mania is not put a stop to, the peace of families will be imperiled and the lunatic asylum be enlarged. Everything is Dolly Varden, and Dolly Varden is everything. There are Dolly Varden hats, Dolly Varden coats, Dolly Varden trousers, Dolly Varden drawers, Dolly Varden socks, Dolly Varden shoes, Dolly Varden shirts, Dolly Varden back hair, Dolly Varden front hair, Dolly Varden night gowns, Dolly Varden bustles, Dolly Varden paniers, Dolly Varden garters, Dolly Varden hugs, Dolly Varden kisses, Dolly Varden babies, Dolly Varden cocktails, Dolly Varden mothers-in-law, Dolly Varden walks, and Dolly Varden Dips in the ‘valse a deux temps.’ Turn were you will, these two maddening words, ‘Dolly Varden,’ meet the eye in business, dry goods, cookery, clothes society, ‘the world, the flesh and’ ― Dolly Varden! Already Dolly Varden has brought one man to the silent tomb in Kentucky; so no more of Dolly Varden.”
Perhaps it was these calls for Dolly Varden to end that helped speed its demise because the Dolly Varden fashions and the Dolly Varden craze that had once been so thoroughly embraced by Victorians did end. However, although the typical Dolly Varden fashions died away, the name of Dolly Varden was not completely forgotten. It continued long after to be associated with chintz-patterned type fabrics and peplum-style dresses, even into the late 1930s.
In summing up Dolly Varden fashions and the overwhelming popularity that the Dolly Varden craze caused on both sides of the Atlantic, one nineteenth-century critic brazenly declared:
“Dolly Varden was a crazy woman; she did all sorts of queer things; but if Dolly should walk out of her crazy English grave and drop down on Broadway, and see thirty-five thousand insane American women adopting her lunatic dress patterns, and ‘cutting-up’ generally, just as Dickens said she used to ‘cut up,’ Dolly would immediately get up a grand fair to raise funds to build a gigantic Dolly Varden Insane Asylum.”
-  E. J. Lewandowski, The Complete Costume Dictionary (London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2011), p. 89.
-  The True Northerner, “Dolly Varden Paragraphs,” May 3, 1872, p. 3.
-  C. W. Cunnington, English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Dover Publication, 2013), p. 353.
-  The Times-Argus, “Dolly Varden,” May 10, 1872, p. 1.
-  Harper’s Bazar (New York: Hearst Corporation, 1872), p. 186.
-  The Times-Argus, p. 1.
-  Ibid.
-  Liverpool Standard and General Commercial Advertiser, “Exhibition of Works by Modern Artists,” September 28, 1841, p. 7.
-  The Times-Argus, p. 1.
-  Ibid.
-  Chetopa Advance, “Dolly Vardens,” May 15, 1872, p. 2.
-  The Times-Picayune, May 2, 1872, p. 4.
-  The Times-Argus, p. 1.