The Whims of Fashion in the 19th Century Bucharest

From NOVEMBER 27th 2018



The Bucharest Municipality Museum now showcases the themed exhibition called “The Whims of Fashion (1850 – 1950)”, which can be visited from November 27th 2018 to March 17th 2019.

Official art was largely influenced by the bourgeois taste which, all throughout the 19th century, pushed architecture and decorative arts towards imitating past styles or eclectically combining them.

In the 19th century, the costume carried all the ingredients of the past, bringing forward prejudices, a social and economic status, duties and tastes. Of course, we are talking about the costumes of daily use, wore in the cities by the aristocratic people. The peasants’ costumes, dominant at the time, expressed a millenary past, gathering attention from both scholars and queens.

Western influences, eastern reminiscences, an evolving make and line, created in famous workshops or by anonymous tailors, expensive and fine fabrics – all these indicate a Romanian world which was active, enterprising and confident in its destiny. We are witnessing a world of layers and egos, with a sharp sense of masking the role and position of the individual, a prosperous and dynamic society, open to dialogue and collaboration, conscious of its illustrious past and its prosperous purposes, frantically knocking at the gates of the new century.

But behind the clothes there was a man, the one who produced the fabric and the garment; the one it was produced for, the one who bought it and the one who wore it. Together, they all prove a remarkable human tradition. These ancestors, most of them anonymous, greeted the threshold of the epoch with a lot of optimism. They knew that “The century which was commencing would be pathetic, with no moment of rest, it would be an extraordinary experience and an unprecedented collective outburst. The Romanians lived in the new century with their old hopes and with all their trust in a present which they wished it would continue.” (Bulei, 1984, 170).

The 19th century, all throughout its course, took on the language of its many styles. Candlesticks, table sets (cuttlery, services, cups), toiletry objects (cases, vials) are described by both the Biedermayer style, the rennaissance style (lion claws, emossed or ronde-bosse characters) and the Louis XVI style (ribbons, laurels, pearl motifs). If during the first decades of the 19th century we can still talk about a few great styles of well-defined features (Regency, Biedermeyer, Empire), what describes the evolution of decorative arts, especially during the second half of the century, is the constant return to the forms and vocabulary of the previous styles. One can notice the burgeois’s interest for rather complex items, inspired by models which stood the test of time.

We cannot describe the colors of an age without mentioning the clothes. The costume shaped a silouhette purposefully different from the antique one (bouffant sleeves, clenched waist, splay skirts). The dresses had a tight bodice, an oval clevage (en bateau) or a cape to cover it decently, gigantic bouffant sleeves supported on wires and wadding, a vasp waist pressed in a corset, and a splay skirt supported on muslin petticoats. The artists set the standard for extravagant clothing which was seen especially in costume balls or indoor outfits.

During each period the beauty of the clothes was achieved through other artistic means. There have always been artists who managed, not just in painting or sculpture but in fashion design as well, to offer the viewers that complete experience which makes a moment unforgetable, which hightens the senses, the thoughts, the memories and the associations between them all.

It is a well-known fact that the Bucharest Municipality Museum owns a rich collection of period clothes, probably the largest in the country, and that most of it comprises costumes created in western workshops. The 19th century of men’s and women’s fashion is represented by ball dresses, crinolines, tail coats, diplomat costumes, smockings, while Art Nouveau is represented by a large number of dresses and accesories.

A significant part of them were tailored in European capitals such as Paris, London, Vienna, Leipzig, Rome and imported through the Royal Warrant holders.

The collections do not lack accessories such as ladies underwear, splendid robes de chambre (eg. Paulina Urseanu’s dresses), hats, lace stockings, girdles, ball pocket-books, lace or ostrich fans, coin and jewellery cachets as well as a great variety of beauty products. The folk costume is represented by a significant number of garments from Muscel, Banat, Moldavia or the Romanian Plain. The official costumes are represented by the diplomat costumes and the military uniforms.

The military uniforms are diverse and include items from the Romanian army collection starting from the Civic Gards period (up to 1864) until the two world wars.

The exhibition aims to highlight the diversity of the female costume by X-raying Bucharest’s urban life, the social elite of the 19th century, and also the richness of the Bucharest Municipality Museum patrimony.

The costumes and accesories in the exhibition are accompanied by a series of patrimony objects from the collections of Plastic Art, Furniture, Metal-Decorative Art, Glass and porcelaine – Decorative Art, Photographs and postcards, Miscellaneous, Science-Technique, Printed works and prints.


1. Bulei, I., 1984, Lumea românească la 1900, Editura Eminescu, Bucureşti, p. 170.


Dr. Camelia-Maria Ene