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Victorian Costume and Fashion History

Early Victorian Costume and Fashion History 1837-1860

By Pauline Weston Thomas for Fashion-Era.com

 

Early Victorian Costume and Fashion History 1837-1860

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Early Victorian Fashion Overview

This is an overview of fashion history of the early Victorian era and can be read in line with other related topics. Much fuller details of petticoats styles are given in Crinolines and Bustles.

Victorians - Where to Look for Fashion Details

Movements like the Rational Dress Reform Society and the Aesthetic Dress Movement highlight positive and negative reactions to industrial and technical applications happening in Victorian society. In terms of Victorian fashion history this also brought changes in women's position and dress.

You'll also find other relevant information in sections like Jewellery, Make up, Shopping in the Past, Chambre Syndicale, What's in a Name as well as the social effects on Victorians, Victorian Recreations, A Woman's Place in the 19th Century, Victorian Homelife Changes, The Seaside and Fashion Dolls

Dating Victorian Costume

Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901 and was succeeded by her 60 year old son Edward the Prince of Wales. At the start of the Victorian era most fashions lasted about a decade, but mass communications and mass production both improved so much that by 1901 the history of fashion was moving in a yearly cycle. 

Illustrations of Victorian clothes of the last 20 years of the C19th can be dated to within a year or two. Looking at the section on Crinolines, Bustles and S Bends Corsets would help those new to costume to understand the subtle changes in dress and hairstyles and how to spot the changes from a fashion history point of view. For theatrical and re-enactment work there are clear distinctions in dress in every Victorian decade. 

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The Early Victorian Silhouette 1837-56

The look of demure prim gentility was emphasized by the loss of the great hats in 1835 for bonnets. Great hats had given a flirtatious air to clothes and their replacement by bonnets changed the whole character of day dresses. Lavishly trimmed bonnets stayed in fashion for half a century and weren't worn much after 1890.Fashion history painting showing a woman at home in Victorian era.

In 1836 Gigot sleeves collapsed abruptly and so costume began to develop the sentimental 'early Victorian look' we associate with Queen Victoria's early rule. Prim sentimentality was emphasized by the popular ringlet hairstyle. 

Picture showing two women in early Victorian dress. Fashion history fashion plate.Left - The early sentimental Victorian look often used to depict ladies of the era, c1838

By 1840 the collapsed sleeve was much narrower, but still retained a restrictive seam line on the dropped shoulder. The early Victorian tight fitting pointed bodice was much longer and had a very small tight fitting waist. All the boned bodice seam lines and trims were directional to emphasize the small waists. The boning also helped stop the bodice from horizontal creasing.

Right - Slimmer fitting sleeves of plainer, more streamlined early Victorian dresses of 1838.

By 1845 the boned bodice was even more elongated into a V shape and the shoulder sleeve seam line drooped even more. This meant that an early Victorian woman's arm movements were restricted. The limited range of arm movements increased the appearance of demure vulnerability and helplessness we so often associate with Victorian femme fatales. Softer more demure plain colours and small delicate dimity patterns helped to add a neat ladylike quality to gowns.

A Victorian woman could also emphasize modesty by wearing freshly laundered detachable white collars and false undersleeves called engageantes. Both were often made of delicate whitework and gave an air of refinement and daintiness.

(See picture below.)

After being absent for a decade the cashmere shawl was brought back into fashion about 1840. Because the new version was larger it acted as an outer wrap and when folded in half and draped over the shoulders would reach almost to ground level in some cases.

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Cartridge pleats were used at first to draw up the skirt fabric in 1841, but after 1846 flat pleating the fabric gave more overall hemline width. To make the skirts appear wider, extra flounces were added in the early 1840s to evening dresses and by 1845, flounces and short overskirts were a regular feature of day dresses. 

As bell shaped skirts of the 1830s became wider and they began to also look dome shaped. By 1842 they needed a great deal of support from extra petticoats. The wider skirts were supported by stiffened fabrics like linen which used horsehair in the weave. 

'Crin' is French for horsehair so the word crinoline suggesting a crin lining was used for any garment area that was stiffened to give shaped foundation. Strip hem linings and a sleeve head are just two examples where crin was used. Later by 1850 the word crinoline began to mean the whole of the beehive shaped skirt. It was then only another step to call the later artificial or cage hooped support frame petticoats after 1856, crinolines.  

Picture of a woman and child in Victorian dress. Fashion history fashion plate.The cut of the low shoulder line filled in to the neckline by day followed through to evening dresses. Evening dresses totally exposed a woman's shoulders in a style called the 'bertha'. Sometimes the bertha neckline was trimmed over with a 3 to 6 inch deep lace flounce or the bodice neckline was draped with several horizontal bands of fabric pleats.Picture of a typical bertha neckline on a woman's dress. Fashion history fashion plate.

Right - Typical domed appearance of   petticoat supported Victorian crinoline dress and child's confirmation dress of 1851.

Lace bertha neckline 1856 very usual on early Victorian evening dress.

All this exposure was restricted to the upper and middle classes. Victorian working class women would never have revealed so much flesh. The décolleté style meant that the shawl became an essential feature of dresses. In the early Victorian years time corsets also lost their shoulder straps and a fashion for producing two bodices, with a closed décolletage for day and a décolleté one for evening.

Using a separate bodice to skirts meant that a tighter waist could be achieved.  This fashion for two piece costumes, but known as a dress lasted until about 1908.

Crinoline Cage Frame of 1856 Patented by W. S. Thompson

Six petticoats at least were needed to hold the wide skirts out. The cotton, flannel or wool petticoats used under one skirt could weigh as much as 14 pounds, so clothes were uncomfortably hot and heavy in summer. 

The American Mrs. Amelia Bloomer denounced the style that needed so many petticoats, suggesting a bifurcated garment as a solution. You can read more about Mrs. Bloomer and emancipated dress in the section called Rational Dress Reform.

Another American W .S Thompson took out a patent on a cage frame in 1856 and then marketed a steel frame cage crinoline throughout Europe. It freed women from excessive petticoat weight, although a top petticoat give a softer foundation for the dress skirt. It let women's legs move freely beneath, but it could be unstable in gusts of wind, so it was fortunate that women had universally adopted the wearing of drawers some years before. Petticoats were always cut following the line of the top garment. Skirts among all classes began to look rounded, like gigantic domed beehives and soon they reached maximum size. Freed from excess petticoat weight women began to gain a jaunty spring in their step.

Within a few years the crinoline was improved when it became articulated and various modifications such as subtle flattening of the front created a less domed more pyramid effect by 1860.  Read more about the fashion history of the crinoline here.

EngageantesDrawing of examples of false sleeves called Engageantes. Fashion history.

To balance the effect of the cage crinoline, sleeves were like large bells too and sometimes had open splits allowing for lavish decorative sleeve hemlines and detachable false undersleeves called engageantes. Engageantes were often made from fine lace, linen, lawn, cambric or Broderie Anglaise and were easy to remove, launder and re-stitch into position.

Right - Engageantes - false detachable undersleeves.

It is these distinctively styled sleeves that help date the first softer polonaise bustle when looking at illustrations. Charles Worth was responsible for many interesting sleeve styles of the mid-Victorian era. 

William Perkin Discovers Coal Tar Aniline Dyes 1856

In 1856  William Perkin did some experiments and discovered Mauveine an extract from  coal tar. Mauveine was a bright purple dye synthesized under laboratory conditions and it revolutionized the textile industry. Perkin made a fortune from his discovery of aniline dyes. 

Other dye colours such as magenta and brilliant blue were soon on the market and in 1856 the Frenchman Verguin discovered fuchsine. When the dyes were used on silk the colours sang with vibrancy, but could also be garish when seen next to naturally dyed fabrics. 

Brighter fashion colours were soon in use, but there were some like the Aesthetics who reacted against the brasher tones.

Charles Worth Redefines Haute Couture in 1858

In 1857 the Englishman Charles Worth set up a Paris fashion house at 7 Rue de la Paix a then unfashionable Paris district. In 1858 he made a collection of clothes that were unsolicited designs. He showed the clothes on live models and when people bought his original designs he became a leading fashion design couturier of the Victorian era. Until that time fashion details and changes were suggested by the customers. The House of Worth became a leader of ideas for the next 30 years.

Haute Couture during the Victorian period was an ideal foil for conspicuous consumption. Fragile gauze dresses decorated with flowers and ribbons that were made for wealthy young women were only intended to be worn for one or two evenings and then cast aside as they soiled and crushed so easily. Silk flowers, froths of tulle and pleated gauze trims would have emphasised the innocence of virginal girls whilst signalling their availability on the marriage market. Such conspicuous waste and conspicuous consumption were hallmarks of Victorian high living.

Older, married more senior women wore statelier fabrics like heavy satins, crisp silks and plush velvet. It was thought good etiquette to dress according to one's position in society and that also meant not wearing clothes more suited to a younger woman.  

When researching fashion history it is important to remember that ordinary women were dressed in a much more subdued manner.  Many would mainly wear occupational dress or household serving uniform.  You can see images of Victorian fashion plates here.

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