The Lost Museum Archive

Charles Dickens Describes New York City Women.

Fine fabrics and elaborate dresses served as a sign of rank among the urban upper classes, but in nineteenth century New York working-class women, especially young women who associated with the Bowery culture, also took pride in fancy dress. While respectable women were expected to wear muted colors and avoid calling attention to their bodies, young working women often flaunted colorful clothes, ribbons, and lace. In 1842, the popular British novelist Charles Dickens visited New York and later described his impressions of these women in his travel chronicle American Notes.

Heaven save the ladies, how they dress! We have seen more colours in these ten minutes, than we should have seen elsewhere, in as many days. What various parasols! What rainbow silks and satins! What pinking of thin stockings, and pinching of thin shoes, and fluttering of ribbons and silk tassels, and display of rich cloaks with gaudy hoods and linings! The young gentlemen are fond, you see, of turning down their shirt-collars and cultivating their whiskers, especially under the chin; but they cannot approach the ladies in their dress or bearing, being, to say the truth, humanity of quite another sort.

Source: Charles Dickens, American Notes: A Journey (1842).