Victorian Era (1837 - 1901)

'Princess Albert de Broglie', Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1853, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Nina Möller
'Princess Albert de Broglie', Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1853, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Nina Möller

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 meant substantial technological progress and made Great Britain a forerunner for a considerable time. Furthermore, it was a peaceful time in Europe. Queen Victoria had little political power or influence but the domestic policy managed to keep everything stable. However, the international policies and colonialisaiton of the British Empire were anything but peaceful.

The changing work culture meant that people (working outside of factories) had leisure hours and could partake in popular forms of entertainment. Education levels rose as well through a more formalised school system. Literature, theatre, galleries, music venues and dances, and the opera were widely attended.

 

Victorian fashion
Victorian fashion.

 The Victorian Era saw fashion chance, sometimes dramatically, every decade. From wide, bell-shaped skirts over the crinoline to figure hugging styles in the 1870s, there is a lot of variety comprised within the generalising name 'Victorian Era'. The making of clothes and dress culture changed massively during the industrial revolution which introduced the sewing machine, mechanical weaving, and therefore made ready-made clothing possible. This overturned the entire textile industry and lastingly changed society. The rise of the middle class during the era had a formative effect on this time, brought on by the growing wealth that the industrial revolution made possible.

Belle Assemblée, London, c. 1825, Evening Dress and Walking Dress.
La Belle Assemblée, London, c. 1825, Evening Dress and Walking Dress.

The 1820's and 30's are a fascinating time, sandwiched between the Regency and the onset of Victorian fashion. 

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. 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. In Germany, this time is called Biedermeier.

 

During the Victorian era, it was custom to change one's dress several times a day, at least once in the late morning and once before dinner. There were different dresses for different parts of the day and different activities. The option to buy cheaper clothes made this vast variety possible, although only to women of a certain income level. There was the the dressing gown, the morning dress, the day dress to receive visitors, the visiting dress to go visit, the afternoon dress, the walking costume, the carriage dress (ensemble for drives in open carriages, riding habits, dinner & evening toilette, ball gowns and the Full-Dress toilette for very formal occasions at court.

 

 La Slyphide, fashion plade no 3, 1840 (flickr, picture by CharmaineZoe's Marvelous Melange) - Victorian fashion dress
La Slyphide, fashion plade no 3, 1840 (flickr, picture by CharmaineZoe's Marvelous Melange)

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.

The waist appears so small through optical illusion: the very wide skirt and the bodice that is padded and cut to enhance the shoulders by big sleeves, ruffles and a wide neckline form a contrast to the waist that makes it appear extra slim. It is not necessarily the work of lacing a corset very tight. 

 

Allgemeine Modenzeitung, Nr. 6, 1850 (?). picture taken by Nina Möller  - Victorian fashion era
Allgemeine Modenzeitung, Nr. 6, 1850 (?). picture taken by Nina Möller

By the 1850s, a crinoline made of steel rings made it possible to reach a great size of skirt without using so many petticoats. To sit down or pass a narrow doorway the wearer could just lift the rings of the hoopskirt on one side. Crinolines look very static and imposing but they are highly movable.

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. Although Victorian fashion looks very ornate and difficult, wearing it and getting dressed in it are no hours-long processes or hardships. Put on your chemise and drawers and stockings with garters, your corset, your skirt(s) and your bodice and voila, you are dressed!

 

Les Modes Parisiennes, c. 1850. Ball dresses with floral decoration.
Les Modes Parisiennes, c. 1850. Ball dresses with floral decoration.

Outside of Europe, in North America, the 1860s witnessed the devastating American Civil War. By that time, the crinoline had reached an enormous measure. The skirts were now flatter at the front but jutted out more behind the women. The zenith of size with many metres of skirt circumference was passed by 1865.  The huge skirts required outerwear that matched the shape and  cashmere shawls which had already protected ladies in the Regency era in their light musslin gowns were popular. Floral motives or paisley patterns in red hues were fashionable. Capes also provided warmth, as well as simply making the dress from a warm fabric. Usually, the dress was actually a bodice and a skirt that matched but were really two pieces.

 

For summer on the contrary, the Tarlatan, a very light flowing dress, made the heat more enjoyable. 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.

 

Tournure, Otago Museum Dunedin, New Zealand. picture taken by Nina Möller - Victorian Era fashion
Victorian era Tournure, Otago Museum Dunedin, New Zealand. picture taken by Nina Möller

By the end of the 1860s, the crinoline was replaced by the tournure. The silhouette was no longer bell-shaped but strait in front and projecting in the back. This bustle style stayed until the 1770s when it changed, but the bustle came back for the Second Bustle Era in around 1882.

 

Either a tournure as in the picture was used, or bustle pads (padded pillows tied around the waist that sat in the back to give the skirts that volume and drama). During the tournure fashion, the dresses consisted of two pieces: the skirt and the jacket-style bodice. The skirt with its bustles and pleats was decorated to the minutest detail with all sorts of lavish embellishment. 

 

 

In around 1874, the bustle vanished for the sake of a very slim and figure-hugging silhouette. The skirts are now very narrow and all hoopskirts and padding is removed for the so called 'natural form'. The bodice is lengthened well down to over the hips to create this smooth look. The skirts are usually decorated with ruffles, ruches, lace, tassels and silk flowers. They can end in a train or be floor long for more ease of walking.

The shoulders are very narrow with tight-fitting sleeves and even the hairstyles are now high to support this slim and pillar-like silhouette.

This style, however, lasted only until about 1882 when the bustle returned and the skirts once more became wide at the back.

Journal des Demoiselles, August 1884.
Journal des Demoiselles, August 1884.

 The Second Bustle Era of the 1880s creates an almost architectural style with skirts that are round but very flat at the front while they protrude at the back. Take a look at George Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte", 1884 - 1886, for an extreme and stylised depiction of this style.

 

From 1884 onwards till 1914, this epoch is also called fin de siècle or Belle Époche, in the US it is the Gilded Age. 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 dresses became more draped, more flowing and less geometrical. 

 

 

 

Late Victorian Dress © Nina Möller
Late Victorian Dress © Nina Möller

Moving into the 1890s, the silhouette changed yet again. The S-curve with a large pidgeon breast (also called monobosom) was achieved through layers of ruffled corset covers and blouses. It was not necessarily the body that was forced in an unnatural shape and rather the clothes that were styled and adapted to give that look. 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.

Elements of Victorian era fashion survived until today: Based on Victorian styles (or clichés) are e.g. the Steampunk and Lolita movement.

 

Hair:

 

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.

 

Comtesse de La Tour–Maubourg, Théodore Chassériau, 1841, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. picture taken by Nina Möller
Comtesse de La Tour–Maubourg, Théodore Chassériau, 1841, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. picture taken by Nina Möller

 Accessories:

 

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.

Victorian era shoes, Otago Museum Dunedin, New Zealand. picture taken by Nina Möller
Victorian era shoes, Otago Museum Dunedin, New Zealand. picture taken by Nina Möller

 

Shoes:

 

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.

 

Patterns:

  • Izabela Pitcher (Prior Attire), The Victorian Dressmaker
  • Burda 2768 (dresses with hoop skirt; Biedermeier)
  • Burda 7466 (dresses; Biedermeier)
  • Burda 7880 (1888 dress)
  • Butterick 4540 (day dress)
  • Butterick 5543 (dress)
  • Butterick 5696 (bustle dress)
  • Butterick 6694 Historical (2 day dresses)
  • McCall's 3597 (dresses)
  • McCall's 3609 (undergarments including crinoline)
  • McCall's 5129 (bonnets)
  • Simplicity 1818 (ca. 1850-1860; dresses)
  • Simplicity 2172/7532 (Steampunk dresses)
  • Simplicity 2881/7320 (reminiscent of Elisabeth 'Sisi', Empress of Austria)
  • Simplicity 2887/ 7318 (ca. 1850s)
  • Simplicity 2890 (undergarments)
  • Simplicity 3727 (dress)
  • Simplicity 3855 (dress)
  • Simplicity 4400 (dress)
  • Simplicity 4510
  • Simplicity 7216 (undergarments including crinoline)
  • Simplicity 9764 (undergarments including crinoline)
  • Simplicity 9769 (undergarments)

 

- 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 -

 

 

'Catherine Lorillard Wolfe' (a philanthropist and art collector), Alexandre Cabanel, 1876, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, picture taken by Nina Möller
'Catherine Lorillard Wolfe' (a philanthropist and art collector), Alexandre Cabanel, 1876, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, picture taken by Nina Möller

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


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