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26 Halloween Costume Ideas from an 1887 Guide to Fancy Dress

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Need a costume idea? Fear not: Fancy Dresses Described, or What to Wear at Fancy Balls, has you covered. This comprehensive guide, published in 1887 and written by Ardern Holt, outlines in exhaustive detail hundreds of outfits appropriate for all manner of fancy dress balls (what we would today call costume parties), tackling everything from historical and literary figures to the elements and seasons and beyond. Here are a few of our favorites.

1. Air

In its basic form, this dress—long for an adult, short for a child—should be made of tulle, have several layered skirts, and be white over white or blue over white. Since you’re going as air, the idea is to be as light as possible—at least before you layer on the additional adornments. “The lower skirt is dotted about with silver swallows and other birds, the upper edged with silver fringe or lace, and covered with silver bees and a variety of insects,” Holt writes. (The insects "may be, if preferred, of their natural colours, the birds of gorgeous plumage.”) The bodice, described as “low,” should be likewise trimmed, “a silver-spangled scarf loosely thrown across.” Completing the outfit is the headwear—“a veil attached to the head with silver butterflies; marabout feathers”—and the shoes, which should be satin and have silver butterflies on the bows.

If you’re afraid that a number of girls may show up at the fancy dress ball wearing this basic Air costume, Holt has also laid out the guidelines for “a newer and more original rendering,” comprised of a short, blue satin skirt that is painted red toward the waist and adorned with a windmill on one side and a balloon on the other. Other ideas: “The low blue bodice draped with grey tulle, forming the tunic, but starting from a gold brooch in the form of a face; crimson embroidered waist-band, bellows and horn hanging from it; birds nestling in the tulle. Head-dress, a gold weather-vane.”

2. Alphabet

Like Air, the costume makes use of multiple layered skirts: First, a short black underskirt with Roman letters in gold along the bottom; then a white skirt with old English letters in ruby velvet; the third and final skirt is blue and covered with black velvet letters. Holt advises that the bodice should be black velvet and low, and the lady should don a blue cap with “Alphabet” written on the band. (Another option is “a battlemented crown, a letter on each.”) Spice up your costume with “aigrette of goose-quills ; birch rod and primer as chatelaine.”

But those are more like suggestions than guidelines; Holt stresses that the costume “may also be made in any coloured silk, satin, cotton, or tarlatan, and the letters printed on the more substantial materials.” What’s more, any evening dress can be turned into this costume “by wearing a belt across bodice, a band of black velvet round the throat, and high cap all adorned with letters; or carried out as follows: Black tulle evening dress, silver letters stuck on spirally; huge A, B, C on train ; large black fan with A, B, C upon it; the same on shoes; the vowels on velvet round the neck; black capitals on the handkerchief.”

3. Aquarium

Mermaid costumes are so last year. Go as a full-on aquarium instead! This costume is comprised of a “fashionable evening dress of blue and green tulle, trimmed with marine plants and ornamented with fish and shells, the octopus on one side of the skirt; veil of green tulle; hair floating on shoulders. Bodice trimmed with seaweed and coral; ornaments, silver fish and coral.” Another sea-themed costume: Holt’s “Gem of the Ocean,” which is “taken from the anemone tanks of an aquarium.”

4. Backgammon

Sure, you could go as Monopoly, or maybe even Operation, but what’s the fun in that? Instead, dress as one of the oldest board games for two players. The bodice of this dress should be made of maize satin, and the first skirt should be short and trimmed with black velvet and gold braid. The upper skirt should be “cut in deep points alternately cerise and black satin” to evoke the backgammon board, and “bordered with gold braid.” Accessorize with a velvet necklet, enamel dice earrings, a cerise satin cap, and a cup for dice “suspended by gold cord from waist to hold handkerchief.”

Another, more elaborate version of the costume features a full, short skirt of ecru satin, “bordered with circles of red and white satin appliqued on with gold braid to simulate the pieces of the game.” Costumers should include “a small plaiting of lace let in between points of alternate red and black satin falling from waist, with a gold tassel at each point.” The bodice should be low and made of squares of black and ecru satin, and shoulder knots should be made of white, crimson, and black ribbon. Wear a hat resembling dice, and don’t forget “a pocket, formed like another dice ... at side of skirt; red fan, shoes, and stockings, with buckles; black gloves.”

And if lawn games is more your thing, Holt has you covered there, too—simply suit up as Badminton or Lawn Tennis!

5. Bee, Busy

Set aside that cookie cutter “Sexy Bee” costume in favor of its 19th century predecessor. Craft a short skirt of black and gold striped satin. The stripes should be about 8 inches wide, “and over each, a double box plait of black or yellow tulle. The skirt may be edged with a fringe of tinsel balls.” The lowcut, sleeveless bodice should be made of gold plush and edged with gold balls. Place the wings, which are made of “black tulle, stretched on wire, veined and spotted with gold spangles” at the center of the back. Top off your costume with “a small cap imitating a bee's head with eyes and antennae” and carry in your hand a gold wand “surmounted by a miniature bee-hive.”

Maybe you don’t want to be a busy bee. Maybe you want to be a regular bee. Holt has you covered there, too. Make similar skirt, but switch the bodice to black velvet striped with gold, “made as a deep cuirass” (in the style of the armored chest plate that soldiers wore), “or as a coat, with tails having the markings of a bee.” Add long sleeves and gloves, and make your wings out of “yellow gauze bordered with gold, or of white gauze veined with gold.” Complete the outfit with a “black velvet cap to imitate the head and antennas of the insect, or formed as a large bee; black high-heeled shoes with yellow bows; yellow and black striped stockings.”

The hornet (above) is costumed similarly, but don’t confuse any of these with the Wasp. Though it has a similar dress, “but the stripes are more decided. Velvet and satin or plush are suitable materials. It is sometimes rendered with a skirt of puffed green tulle and bands of black velvet at intervals.”

6. Canal, Suez

It’s safe to say that you’ll be the only person at the Halloween party rocking a costume dedicated to an artificial waterway opened in 1869. Here’s how to do it, according to Holt: “Long flowing robe of cloth-of-gold, with waves of blue satin bordered with pearls; under-skirt of red satin embroidered in Egyptian designs. A gold key at the girdle; Egyptian head-dress of pearls, turquoise, and diamonds; girdle of roses and lilies.” You might also consider a nametag, so you don’t have to explain to people what you are all night long.

7. Carrier Pigeon

You might think of them as nothing more than rats with wings, but pigeons have their admirers—among them inventor Nicola Tesla, and probably the soldiers who received messages carried by the birds during wartime. (In fact, after World War II, 32 pigeons were presented with the Dickin medal, which honor the works animals do in wars.) To honor these goofy-looking but noble birds by dressing as one for Halloween, wear a white tulle skirt over a satin one, and craft a tunic in the shape of wings; cover it with white feathers. Place a pigeon (presumably not a live one) in your hair and on your shoulder. Complete your costume with a “band of red ribbon across bodice from right shoulder to under left arm, with letter attached; letters falling from feather fan; head-dress, cap like pigeon's head.” You can also go gray instead of white, and craft a bodice entirely of feathers, “the draperies caught up by pigeons, and the edges bordered with feathers … Pigeons in the hair. A letter suspended from the waist by a red ribbon.” You’ll probably need to kill a lot of pillows to make this one happen.

8. Champagne Bottle

Also appropriate for New Year’s Eve, this fancy dress is comprised of a black velvet skirt and a cuirass bodice made of gold satin with black sleeves. On your head, wear “an old gold and green satin cap with rows of gold braid, a large white satin label on front of skirt, printed with ‘Jules Mumm, Rheims. Very dry,’ or any suitable label.”

9. Day

Create this costume using a white tulle veil and evening dress with “clouds of rose-coloured tulle draped over it” and “rays in silver cloth radiating from the waist.” Powder your hair in gold. Place a gold sun “above the forehead” and “butterflies on the shoulders.”

10. Daydream

This is a costume for those who are low on time, really bad at crafting, or simply lazy: “White silk evening gown with crimson striped tablier and train. ‘Daydream’ embroidered on the sash.”

11. Esmeralda

This costume, probably inspired by a character in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is comprised of “a rich gipsy dress in yellow, black, and scarlet satin, made short, trimmed with coins and gold braid,” with “a sash of gold tissue tied about the hips, a tambourine carried in hand.” And don’t forget the coins: The bracelets above and below your elbow should be “united by coins; stay-bodice with coins and gold braid; gold net with sequins; ornaments, sequins.” You can also wear a loose black jacket with a yellow blouse and a red skirt, as shown.

12. Express

If you love trains, this elaborate costume is for you. The back of the skirt is stiff, steel-colored satin, edged in black velvet and “showing a series of rails in steel braid”; the hem should be “edged with a row of movable wheels, which must turn at every movement of the wearer.” The front of the skirt, meanwhile, is made of black velvet, striped downward. The cuirass-style bodice should be steel-colored. Place a “miniature steam engine in flowing hair, with grey feathers issuing from the funnel,” and wear “wheeled skates for shoes.”

13. Footwoman of the Future

Minus the powdered hair, this costume would look right on just about any steampunker: “Black satin quilted skirt; maroon double-breasted tail-coat, brass buttons; black waistcoat showing beneath the jacket in front, and lace ruffles; hair powdered; tricorn black and gold hat; gold-headed cane in hand.”

14. Gold Mine

Holt had gold on the brain: In addition to “gold,” “shower of gold,” “golden hen,” and “golden idea,” he suggests a gold mine costume consisting of a “dress of white and gold brocade or tulle, made as a fashionable evening dress, trimmed with sequins; a painted panel let into one side, with a sketch of a gold mine.”

15. Gymnasia

This one is for people truly devoted to their gym routine: Create a short gown out of red velvet, and festoon the bodice and skirt with “trapeze, dumb bells, parallel bars, and other gymnastic paraphernalia … and introduced as ornaments.”

16. Hours

Long flowing cashmere dress, with loose low bodice and pendent sleeves; scarf draped on shoulders; round the skirt a band, half blue half gold, with the hours upon it; the hair flowing; a crescent coronet of gold. Veil of spangled tulle; gold armlets and necklet; sandals.

17. Jack and Jill

Finally, a couple’s costume! Jack should wear “a smock frock and round felt hat.” Jill, meanwhile, should have “a flowered cotton bodice and tunic, over a short petticoat; small shawl; poke bonnet, or Dorothy hat.” Both should carry pails. For good measure, embroider “Jack” and “Jill” on your respective pockets.

18. Joan of Arc

Be a vision in the costume for this 15th Century warrior—just not the kind that Joan herself said she experienced. First step: Procure a suit of armor, complete with helmet, plume, mailed feet, and gloves. Once that’s out of the way, create a white, plaited cashmere skirt and a red cloak. Another option is to dress as Holt says Joan did when she appeared at the coronation of the French King: In a skirt and tunic of blue satin, “spangled with fleurs-de-lys; silver helmet with white plume; coat of mail, mail on arms, gauntlets, feet encased in long boots; sword with cross on hilt, and shield; the hair floating on shoulders.”

Worried about where you can find armor? Don’t fret: Holt says it can be “silver, burnished steel, or what is called scale armour. But it can also be made by cutting out in strong brown paper the various pieces required, copied from any illustrated history, or from Knight's Shakespeare, pasted over with silvered paper.”

19. Photography

The difficulty in assembling the costume today might be finding enough actual photographs to festoon yourself with. (I hope you have a printer!) Holt suggests “a green silk dress trimmed with tulle of the same shade.” Around bouillonnes, or puffs, in the skirt, nestle in a row of photographs. Next, drape a silk scarf across the skirt “with medallion photographs at intervals, all bordered with green galon; the bertha of the low bodice fastened at the front, back, and on the shoulders with them; a cap in the form of a lunette, with cartes-de-visite” (a small type of photograph). A long green veil is optional.

20. Press, or Newspapers

If you’re interested in this costume, better start stocking up on newspapers now: The costume is fully made of it. “The skirt consists of box-plaited illustrations from the papers, coming to the waist, with portraits and names of newspapers pasted across here and there.” The bodice should be in the “bertha” style, exposing the shoulders, and have scarlet velvet bows. Stick quill pens, and ink-bottle, and sealing-wax in your hair—”it has a much better effect than would appear, and has been a favourite dress at Fancy Balls,” Holt reassures.

21. Sleep

This costume is all about the poppies, which are a symbol of sleep. Start with a straw-colored ball dress, “wreathed with poppies”. Top it off by powdering your hair and wearing “a cap in the shape of a poppy turned upside down and worn on one side … or a wreath of poppies.”

22. Sour Grapes

We’re not sure what distinguishes this sour grapes costume from a regular grapes costume—perhaps your facial expression? Create a maize sateen dress covered with grapes “cut out from chintz and appliqued on.” Wear a muslin cap covered with grapes on your head, and place “bunches of artificial grapes on the low square bodice and elbow-sleeves, and in the muslin apron turned up and forming a lap.”

23. Toilet-Table

You could also call this costume a vanity. The dress is white muslin dress over pink calico; the bodice is long-sleeved, low (and filled with a handkerchief called a fichu) and trimmed with lace. Suspend a looking-glass from the waist, “with brush, combs, scissors, etc.; powder-puff in hand; cap, like pincushion, stuck with pins; ribbon epaulettes, with scissors, etc., attached.”

24. White Cat

Take your Grumpy Cat costume to the next level with Holt’s instructions: Make a short, white skirt of cashmere, silk, or satin, and edge it with white fur or swansdown. The bodice can be low and square or a high jacket, and trimmed with fur on the back. “From the shoulders hangs a loose white fur mantle,” Holt writers. “Head-dress [is] a cap of white fur, like a cat's head, with ears and red bead eyes; round the neck either a red collar and bells, or a red collar with the words ‘Touch not the cat but with the glove.’” Powdering your hair is optional, he says, “but it looks better.” Wear “high white satin boots bordered with fur, and long gloves edged with fur, hanging at side.” Have a kitten perched on your shoulder and carry a “fan painted with cat.” (Yeah, we're not quite sure what that means, either.) Prefer to go as Alice in Wonderland's Cheshire Cat? Holt recommends wearing a coat of chinchilla (and make sure to smile big!).

25. Windmill

Also known as "Moulin a Vent," this is a short costume made of pink satin, "with low yellow satin bodice and white stomacher" (a triangular panel in the front part of the bodice), "laced across with two shades." Powder your hair, and get ready to add windmills: Put one on your head as a head-dress, place one on your left shoulder, put windmills on your shoes, wear them as earrings, and paint them on your gloves. Wear "a bow at neck, windmill depending."

26. Yachts

“Many balls are now given at our seaports, where the dresses of the ladies are supposed to represent yachts,” Holt says. Today’s ladies may attain this look by wearing “scarves carried across the bodice denoting the name, such as the Sivallow, the Raven, and so on. Sometimes a white tulle gown is simply draped with flags and the burgee; or if American or other vessels are meant, the national flag falls from one shoulder.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.