Skip to main content
‘Kimball’s Clothing House’, Jay T. Last Collection of Art & Design: Aesthetic Movement, Huntington Library, San Marino, California

On the nineteenth-century origins of fad culture

Rebecca Mitchell, University of Birmingham.                


‘Fad’ is, appropriately, a word without a history, a Victorian term adopted by the Victorians

to describe consumerist and cultural crazes made possible by uniquely Victorian industries. Late nineteenth-century fads derived from the news, literature, celebrity culture, and technological innovations, among other sources, but one of the hallmarks of faddishness is that by the time objects reach market saturation, the original inspirations, motivations, or historical models had often long been forgotten.

Tracking the rise of individual fads can offer insight into the way public interest developed around these objects. The ‘Dolly Varden’ dress, for example, originated in the 1770s as a ‘polonaise’ gown among continental aristocracy, and experienced a minor revival in the 1840s when Dolly Varden, a character in Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge (1841) was depicted wearing it. But it did not become a fad until the 1870s, after a Dickens-owned painting of the character was sold and the gown re-entered the public eye and marketplace. Having shed its historical or literary connections, the gown was revived again in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta Patience (1881).

This successful operetta was a send-up of Aestheticism, a literary and artistic movement that peaked around 1880, notably typified in the early career of Oscar Wilde. On the stage, the titular dairy maid Patience serves as a stark contrast to her rivals, the ‘lovesick maidens’ wearing high Aesthetic dress. Patience instead wears a version of the Dolly Varden, very different in style but equally faddish as any Aesthetic gown. Yet as Aesthetic iconography proliferated through mass media and advertising, it was distilled to the most recognizable, stereotypical markers that depended only on the public’s fleeting familiarity with the craze—as opposed to a deep knowledge of or engagement with the sources of those fads—and elements of Patience’s Dolly Varden dress were incorporated into the Aesthetic. 

The Aesthetic afterlife of the dress demonstrates the changeability of Victorian fads and the gleeful ignorance of antecedents that often accompanies fad culture. Irrespective of inspiration, it was the confluence of Victorian advances in manufacture, industry, publication, retail, and art that made faddish objects, as well as the dissemination of those objects, possible.