Early Victorian Costume and Fashion History 1837-1860
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
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
A Woman's Place in the 19th
Century, Victorian Homelife Changes, The Seaside
and Fashion Dolls.
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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.
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.
is French for
horsehair so the word crinoline suggesting a crin lining was used for any
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
fashion plates here.
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For more information about the Victorian Era
1837-1901 click on the title links below:-
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