Victorian Fashion

Wealthy Victorian ladies were very interested in fashion and fashion magazines. The invention of the sewing machine by Isaac Merrit Singer in 1851 led to the mass production of clothing, but many still had their clothes made by an exclusive dress-maker. Style was led by couturiers like Charles Worth, an Englishman who owned a salon in Paris patronised by Princess Eugenie and the leading figures of all the courts in Europe. As with most expressions of taste, Victorian fashion was formed in the upper levels of society and affected the most humble of working people. Fashions changed as the Victorian world changed: in the economic revival after the 1840s, which had been a period of great hardship, women's dresses began to be made from lighter, brighter fabrics, waitlines rose, skirts became fuller and leg-o'-mutton sleeves, which had been tight at the wrist, began to fill again.

The quintessential female silhouette of the mid-Victorian period was a tight bodice blossoming out from the hips into a bell-like voluminous skirt. This was achieved by the invention of a light dress frame made from steel hoops called the crinoline. Up to thirty-five steel springs increased in diameter as they reached the ground. The crinoline replaced large numbers of stiffened petticoats lined with horsehair which women has been wearing to acheive a fashionable form, despite their weight and discomfort. Its major disadvantage was considered to be that it occasionally tilted and revealed the ankles. Less socially gauche difficulties, such as the discomfort of sitting, were overcome with better materials and design. The 1860s saw greater restraint in fasionable dress. The number of steel hoops was reduced to three or four at the bottom of the skirt. In the later 1860s this shape, known as a half crinoline, became the bustle, a small frame attached to the lower back, which supported a pronounced mass of material often running into a long train.

As with architecture, Victorian dress was frequently historicist. In the 1880s, the 18th century style of draped overskirts and tight-fitting bodices, associated with the marquises of the Pompadour period, were revived. But these were rarely pure historical recreations, for the Victorians brought the character of their age to their costume. A full-skirted dress derived from 18th century patterns, in a richly-coloured fabric, would be decorated with machine-made embroidery and lace. Aniline dyes were discovered by Sir William Perkin in 1856 and cloth manufacturers quickly realised their potential for producing brilliant colours such as mauve, magenta, or brilliant pink. Victorian fashions could be hazardous to women in various ways. The weight of the large number of petticoats placed great stress on the pelvis. Numerous accounts circulated through society of women blown over cliffs in high winds. They were fire-hazards too: in a packed antiago Cathedral in 1860s, over 2,000 people died when a crinoline caught fire and people were unable to escape. Narrow waists were so fashionable that some women went to extraordinary lengths to be in vogue. Waists of less than 20 inches were achieved at the cost of damage to internal organs. In 1895 two women are reported to have had ribs surgically removed to be able to wear narrower corsetry.


These trends in fashion prescribed the delicate and ornamental roles for women in society. A long box-pleated train hanging from a bustle in a beautiful silk with applied decoration of floral motifs not only indicated obvious wealth, but also leisure. Its owner always travelled by carriage, for such a train could never be allowed to drag the streets. Such a vision was reinforced by the jewellery and accesories so necessary for the maintenance of sartorial face. Elegant women would not be seen promenading without the appropriate paraphernalia of long gloves, monogrammed fans and ornate parasols. Prestigious events in the social calendar demanded ostentatious displays of wealth and aristocratic women were bedecked with jewellery and accompanied their husbands like glitering symbols of accomplishment. For the very wealthy, even simple and basic items of accessory, such as hair grips, could be encrusted with diamonds and pearls. In the 1880s, taste was ostentatious, though less skilled than earlier with jewel encrusted pieces based on simple shapes. The lower classes copied all this as far as they could. Cheap illustrated magazines showed what fashionable women were wearing and they sought to emulate it; skirts could be purchased with a band to hold the train up while a woman worked. A number of attempts at dress reform were made. In 1851, an American, Amelia Bloomer, came to England proclaiming the merits of a sensible and not unfeminine costume known as bloomers. She proposed that women should wear a simple bodice, a wide skirt reaching just below the knee, and underneath a pair of loose fitting trousers reaching to the ankles and tied with lace. This notion was derided by the British press and public. The greatest attempt at dress reform did not happen until the 1880s under the auspices of the Aesthetic Movement.

By the somewhat exaggerated standards of women's costume in the period, men's dress in the era was relatively practical. Although social convention wrapped masculine dress in strict social codes, where different occasions demanded particular costume, men were not greatly inhibited by the clothes they wore. The essential character of men's dress was in most respects little different from the formal dress of the 20th century. Lounge suits first worn in the 1850s were a useful and comfortable style of dress. It is the fashionable accessories of the period that mark the characteristic Victorian differences in masculine fashion. Top hats, and silver and ivory topped canes have long since fallen out of use. Victorian men appear to have allowed colourful novelty to entire their wardrobes in one respect: their waistcoats. Often known as 'fancy' waistcoats, these were fasionable until the 1870s when the three piece suit came to dominate taste. They were often decorated with lavish embroidery, figured silks with small patterns, or woven velvet. Under the influence of Prince Albert, tartan waistcoats became very popular in the 1850s.


In 1837, cloth was manufactured (in the mill towns of northern England, Scotland, and Ireland) but clothing was generally custom-made by seamstresses, milliners, tailors, hatters, glovers, corsetiers, and many other specialized tradespeople, who served a local clientele in small shops. Families who could not afford to patronize specialists, made their own clothing, or bought and modified used clothing.

Men's fashionable clothing was perhaps the least volatile, but there was still an enormous difference between the wasp waist and frock coats of the 1830s dandy and the sober sack suits and Norfolk jacket. The style was long popular for boys' jackets and suits, and still used in some uniforms of 1901. During the 1840's, casual wear became popular. Casual clothing included neckties and scarves. Shirts were commonly made of linen and were black, grey and other neutral colors. Linen is labor-intensive to manufacture, but when it is made into garments, it is valued for its exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather. Special occasion dress would often include tailored coats specific for the occasion.

For most, the Victorian period is still a by-word for sexual repression. Men's clothing is seen as formal and stiff, women's as fussy and over-done. Clothing covered the entire body, we are told, and even the glimpse of an ankle was scandalous. Critics contend that corsets constricted women's bodies and women's lives. Homes are described as gloomy, dark, cluttered with massive and over-ornate furniture and proliferating bric-a-brac. [The term bric-a-brac was first used in the Victorian era]. It referred then to collections of curios such as elaborately decorated teacups and small vases, feathers, wax flowers under glass domes, eggshells, statuettes, painted miniatures or photographs and so on.

Myth has it that even piano legs were scandalous, and covered with tiny pantalettes.
Of course, much of this is untrue, or a gross exaggeration. Men's formal clothing may have been less colorful than it was in the previous century, but brilliant waistcoats and cummerbunds provided a touch of color, and smoking jackets and dressing gowns were often of rich Oriental brocade. A robe is distinguished from a cape or cloak by the fact that it usually has sleeves. The English language word 'robe' is loanword from French language.


A frock coat is a man's coat characterised by knee-length skirts all around the base, popular during the Victorian era and Edwardian periods.
A Norfolk jacket is a loose, belted, single-breasted jacket with pleats on the back, now with a belt or half-belt.
Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum.
Brocade is a class of richly decorative shuttle fabrics, often made in colored silks and with or without gold and silver threads.
A corset is a garment worn to mold and shape the torso into a desired shape for aesthetic or medical purposes. Both men and women are known to wear corsets, though women are more common wearers....stressed a woman's sexuality, exaggerating hips and bust by contrast with a tiny waist.
Women's Ball gowns bared the shoulders and the tops of the breasts. A ball gown is the most formal female attire for social occasions. According to rules of etiquette, a ball gown must be worn where "white tie" or "evening dress" is specified on the invitation. The tight-fitting jersey dresses of the 1880s may have covered the body, but they left little to the imagination.
A bustle is a type of framework used to expand the fullness or support the drapery of the back of a woman's dress, occurring predominantly between the mid-to late 1800s. Bustles were worn under the skirt in the back, just below the waist, to keep the skirt from dragging. Heavy fabric tended to pull the back of a skirt down and flatten it. Thus, a woman's petticoated or crinolined skirt would lose its shape during everyday wear (from merely sitting down or moving about). The word "bustle" has become synonymous with the fashion to which the bustle was integral.
A waistcoat is a sleeveless upper-body garment worn over a dress shirt and necktie and below a Coat as a part of most men's formal wear, and as the third piece of the three-piece male business suit.
A cummerbund is a broad waist sash, usually pleated, which is often worn with single-breasted dinner jackets.
A robe is a loose-fitting outer clothing.
A smoking jacket is an overgarment designed for the purposes of smoking tobacco, usually in the form of smoking pipes and cigars, or for domestic leisure.
The cummerbund was first adopted by British Empire military officers in colonial India as a cool alternative to a waistcoat, and later spread to civilian uses.

Sport Clothes

#The influence of sport is very noticeable in the Victorian period. All kind of new sports were now coming into favour, and it was impossible to practise them with any comfort in the formal dress of the day. By 1894 many more women were taking part in sporting activities and their clothes had to be adapted accordingly. The 1890's saw the formation of the Original Lady's Cricketers' Club (1890) and the Ladies Golf Union (1893), and the first international hockey match for ladies (1897).

One of the most popular sporting activities was bicycling. A favored costume exists of a double-breasted jacket with large leg-of-mutton sleeves. Underneath a lady was wearing a shirt blouse with a stiffened collar and a man's tie. She also has on wide knickerbockers, coloured stockings made of cotton and a straw hat with stand-up trimmings and a face veil. For a game of tennis, a lady wore a blouse and a short skirt (two inches of the ground!), a cap, a tie and gloves. A bathing costume was made of cotton with insets of embroidery.

These outfits may appear very cumbersome to us, and it is difficult imagine participating in sport hampered by so much material. These clothes however were quite revolutionary in their time and were frowned upon by many as quite scandalous. At this time, women were beginning their struggle for emancipation and it is interesting that their desire to be on an equal footing with men is reflected in the clothes that they wore. The wide leg-of-mutton sleeves gave ladies a masculine, rather aggressive appearance rather than emphasizing their femininity.

Most men enjoyed the hunting season when they could practise their hunting skills by hunting deer, fox or wild fowl. In 1872 a brown tweed shooting outfit was popular with a jacket buttoned high to the neck, and leather gaiters.

The 1890's as a whole was a period of changing values. For the young there was a new breath of freedom in the air, symbolized both by their sports costumes and by the extravagance of their ordinary dress. It was perfectly plain that the Victorian Age was drawing to its close.

# Secret History of the Corset and Crinoline # Flamboyance and the Crinoline Craze
# From Crinoline, to Crinolette, to Bustle # Over-Structured Opulence to the 'Healthy Corset'
# A Turn Toward the Bust: Early 20th Century # All Tied-Up: The Corset in Contemporary Fashion

# Fashion | Page 1 # Charles Frederick Worth # Court Fashion # Fashion Plates
# Dress, Fashion and Modernity # Corset Controversy # Bloomers and Reformers # Bicycles

Victorian Age Fashion Galleries
# 1837-40 # 1840 # 1850 # 1860
# 1870 # 1880 # 1890 # 1900


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