The Victorian Era is a difficult chapter to write about in fashion history. Not only is the fashion more diffuse and less distinct in one clear style, one clear silhouette, it is also by far the most complex era in Costume history in my opinion. Print media made new developments in fashion spread in the glimpse of an eye all over the country. Ladies took up such and such new fashions, giving them a touch of their own taste. New variations were born. And then, the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the sewing machine caused a capital change in the fashion world: ready-made clothing!
The basic silhouettes of this era are rather plainly visible. But when it comes to more subtle finery; to hats and hairstyles,
trimming, fancy blouses and waists, there seem to be as many different styles as there are dresses and pictures of them. Focusing on the skirt alone: at one time it is all in ruffles, then again
it is pulled back straight with small fabric roses and a third time the skirt is in ruffles at the hem and in pleats at the back and decorated with an abundance of ornaments. It seems that every
week, every day something new came up. To consider all and everything is beyond the possibility of this chapter. Thus, I will state the characteristics of different silhouettes with the numerous
variations in mind.
The Victorian era is the period of the reign of Queen Victoria from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. During the Victorian era, the British economy flourished. The Industrial Revolution was a substantial progress and made Great Britain a forerunner for a considerable time. Furthermore, it was a peaceful time. Queen Victoria had little political power or influence but the domestic policy managed to keep everything stable. Her popularity experienced some ups and downs: Grave incisions like the Great Famine in Ireland or the Boer Wars in Africa made her positively unpopular but her public image managed to recover.
In general, Victorian women had as bad a situation as in the centuries before, at least respecting rights and powers. They were wives and mothers but had neither legal rights nor domestic influence. The women had no own property and their business was to marry and make a good match. Everything, including all the dowry, was transferred to the possession of the husband. To that came the extreme prudery of the era: it was improper to even mention for example the "leg" or any piece of underwear. How far worse it must have been for women who wanted a divorce or had experienced violence. It is sometimes said that today, the extend of this prudery is exaggerated but it was certainly uncomfortably great.
1820's and 30's - Not Regency anymore yet not Victorian already:
Towards the end of the Regency/Empire epoch (approx. 1820), the high empire waist slipped down about an inch every year. Therefore existing gowns were altered according to the new fashion with wide waistbands to help lowering it.
In the mid-twenties, the waist reached its natural position and it became again fashionable to be very slim. Consequently, corsets were worn again. The wasp-waist was contrasted with increasingly full but sometimes only ankle-long skirts (sometimes even padded with animal hair to give them shape) and the little puffed sleeves of the early 1820s gave way to the so called “leg-o-mutton” sleeves (sleeves that were almost spherical). Those sleeves, most popular in the mid 30s, needed to be supported by padding worn as underwear or enhanced with boning and were therefore very hindering. A higher neckline was in vogue now. The new fashionable silhouette was: broad shoulders through the sleeves, a very slim waist and a full skirt. Evening and ball gowns stayed low-cut and short-sleeved. After the fashion of pure white and pastel shades, a change has been taking place and clothes became noticeably colourful and decorated. In the 1830s, chintz, a printed cotton fabric of Chinese origin came into fashion.
In this time, the Romantic Movement had reached its zenith: The Romantic fiction and historical novels and plays were loved very much by a great readership. As a consequence, the ladies (with a quixotic view of the past centuries, especially the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan Era) wanted to dress like the work's heroines, so that for instance (small) Elizabethan ruffs were seen again.
During the Victorian era, it was custom to change one's dress several times a day. Hours were spent in the dressing room to prepare for the various duties and occupations of the day (at least by very rich, very fashionable women):
and even such exotic ones as the
And most of these existed in two implementations for spring/summer and autumn/winter respectively according to the weather conditions! Over the gowns was the outerwear in form of capes, mantles and jackets. Underwear consisted of a chemise/shirt and knee-long drawers, colourful stockings, a corset, the hoop-skirt and the bustles and paddings.
In the 1840s, the huge leg-o-mutton sleeves vanished to be supplanted by tight-fitting ones. The skirts became even wider, supported by crinolines. Crin, French for horse hair, gave this undergarment it's name: the crinoline is a bell shaped hoop-skirt, at first stiffened with horse hair, later normally made of steel rings and fastened around the waist with bands.
Evening gowns had a low, wide neckline and small close-fitting sleeves. Shiny, glimmering fabrics like silk and taffeta were the thing, just as lace in form of trimming along the neckline, as gloves and stoles.
A small waist was created by tight corsets. Queen Victoria's waist measurement when crowned in 1837 was about 50cm (20").
By the 1850s, a crinoline made of steel rings made it possible to reach a great size of skirt without using so many petticoats.
Evening gowns had a rather low neckline and were worn off the shoulders or just on the shoulders.
Skirts with many layers of fabric creating horizontal valances were very fashionable. This flouncy style supported the bell-shape and width of the skirt even more.
By the 1860s, the crinoline had reached so enormous a measure that simple operations like passing a doorway or taking a walk were hardships. The skirts were now flatter at the front but jutted out more behind the women. The zenith of size with nearly 5m (5.5 yards) skirt circumfence was passed by 1865. The huge skirts made wearing coats or thicker clothes impossible and thus forced the women to look elsewhere for protection against the elements. Cashmere shawls had already protected ladies in the Regency era in their light musslin gowns. Now, jumbo cashmere shawls became fashionable: They were either square or more like a wrap with insinuated sleeves. Floral motives or paisley patterns in red hues were popular weavings.
The Tarlatan, a very light flowing dress, made the summer months more enjoyable with such enclosing underwear. It was made of light cotton in linen weave, being both light and strong. Normally white, they were a thankful base for colourful ribbon trimming or frills. Claude Monet wonderfully portrayed the Tarlatan dresses and their nature in his painting "Women in the garden", 1866.
The 1860s witnessed the American Civil War, therefore the Victorian Era is especially in the States also referred to as Civil War Era.
By the end of the 1860s, the crinoline was replaced by the tournure. This underconstruction is also made of steel rings and derrière paddings. The silhouette was no longer bell-shaped but strait in front and projecting in the back. From the 1860 to the 1880s, this style continued without material changes. Take a look at George Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte", 1884 - 1886. There is no better depiction of this odd silhouette. It appears like the body from the waist down is a large square and the torso is a small triange on which the head, a small circle, sits.
During the tournure fashion, the dresses consisted of two pieces: the skirt and the top. The skirt with its bustles and pleats was decorated to the minutest detail with all sorts of lavish embellishment.
From the 1870s the Tea Gown began to enjoy great popularity. It was a mixture of a chic, decorated dress and a more relaxed cut. Tea Gowns were worn when female visitors came to take their tea with the hostess.
From 1884 onwards till 1914, the French call this epoch also fin de siècle or Belle Époche ("Beautiful epoch"). The decorative arts during the fin de siècle are chiefly dominated by the Art Nouveau movement. In the 1880s and 1890s, Japonism was very influental, too, both on art and fashion. The chrysanthemum had been brought to Europe and enjoyed great popularity in embroidery.
The 1890s are the last years of Victorian fashion. The clothing was characterized by long bodices very stiffly boned. The waist was increadibly small, consequently called wasp waist. Together with rather strait skirts the hourglass silhouette was created.
The dresses were high cut, baring only hands and heads. Even the neck was hidden under high standing collars, supported by boned collar stays. Waist-long capes with luxurious embroidery and trimming were fashionable.
For a short time, around 1897, the large leg-o-mutton sleeves returned. Then, the accentuation of the shoulders was exchanged for that of the bodice.
To the hourglass silhouette came the S-Line: of all the different corset styles of the past centuries there never was one so uncomfortable and harmful for the wearer. The chest was pushed forward in a curve and the bust emphasised. The waist was laced up mercilessly, the belly pressed inwards and the derrière accentuated. This fashion enforced not only an unnatural waist measurement but an unnatural posture. Internal bruising, deformation of the rib cage, pain and breathlessness were the daily fair.
When the social status and legal situation of women improved a little, physical activity and opportunities to travel increased. Tennis, cycling, swimming and driving cars suddenly stood open and demanded for suitable outfits. Bloomers became fashionable for cycling after being the object of ridicule at first. Swimsuits with knee-long trouser legs and short sleeves were worn for public bathing.
Elements of Victorian era fashion survived until today: Based on Victorian styles (or clichés) are e.g. the Steampunk and Lolita movement.
The hairstyles had become ever more extravagant until the end of the 1840s when simpler styles again came into fashion. The hair seemed to strive for hight and attention: the coiffures were high, even sculptural, with careful arrangements. The hair was parted in the middle and a part was combed up to the crown. The side parts at the temples were curled and the centre part at the top of the head was braided, knotted and looped. Wire frames were neccessary as support. Adornments were feathers, jewels, false flowers.
From the 1850s until the 70s the hairstyles were simple: the hair was parted in the centre and curled in several corkscrew curls. These could tumble around the face, tied together with a ribbon or be pinned to the lower back of the head. From the 1870s and 80s on the hair was arranged on the top of the head without being actually extensive - either in curls, pleats or top knots.
Chatelaine pockets and purses e.g. made of velvet and embroidered were popular. Just so were drawstring bags in all shapes. Fans were quite the thing. Palette shaped or folding fans, decorated with painted scenes were popular. Square fans, for instance with an ebony frame, have the shape of an opened envelope.
During the whole of the Victorian era, belts seem to have been exceedingly popular, from broad belts laced in the back to narrow leather girdles. The handkerchief was a very important accessory. It was edged with lace, scented with perfume and embroidered with a monogram or flowers and of course was never really used for colds.
Until the middle of the 19th century half-boots and flats were still worn, made of soft leather or, for special occasions, silk and satin. These flats could either be slipped on or tied with ribbon strapping. They very much resembled Regency footwear.
Wearing heels became fashionable in the 1870s. The heels were not very high and inward-curved. Square or pointed toes were mostly worn. In the picture above of this pair of boots at the Otago Museum Dunedin the triangles at the ankles are made of elastic material so that the boots could easily be pulled on and fitted better.
- Please note that this list does claim no completeness and does not operate as advertisement. It was merely composed for informative purposes. Furthermore, no valuation of the patterns is implied or intended -
Keywords: Empress Sisi, dress, gown, robe, fashion, Queen, Victoria, hoop, skirt, bell, pattern, simplicity, burda, corset, Princess
Albert de Broglie, fashion plate, Biedermeier, costume, crinoline, log-o-mutton, Victorian, age, era, epoch, underwear, accessories, shoes, boots, Victorian
© Nina Möller