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A Victorian Lady's Wardrobe
The Victorian era began when Queen Victoria took the English throne in the 1830s, and it lasted up until the early 1900s. Victorian clothing for the ladies was very different from the comfortable outfits of today. It was estimated that a lady could wear up to 37 pounds of clothing in the winter. Unlike the “hip-hugger” jeans of today; Victorian ladies showed very little skin. Even in the summer, they did not show their legs. Most ladies got their fashion tips from “Goodey’s Lady ’s Book”. It was published before the civil war, with over 100,000 copies sold. The magazine showed ladies how to cook, behave, and most importantly, dress.
Everyday clothing was sewn by hand. Dresses would be “altered, refurbished, added-to, re-trimmed, even adopted to new uses.” Around 1850, ladies wore short puffed sleeves and v-shaped necklines. In the 1860s, the Garibaldi shirt came out. It was an early version of a blouse. Around the 1870s, tea gowns were worn in the afternoon, until a lady put on her evening dress. They were loose and flowing with out uncomfortable undergarments. Up to the 1880s, ladies would wear aprons of white muslin with pockets and ruffled edges around the house. In 1895 puffed sleeves were at their height. A typical walking costume had puffed sleeves and a long flared skirt. Most evening gowns resembled the fashionable everyday dresses; but were much more ornate and elegant. In 1840s, off the shoulder evening gowns were popular.
When Queen Victoria’s husband Albert died, she went into mourning and wore her stately mourning outfits the rest of her life. At the time it was proper for ladies to mourn for a year or more. This meant wearing all black, usually crêpe dresses. A lady did not go out in public unless her face was covered with a black veil. She had everything from a black hat and purse to even a black handkerchief. Sometimes they wore “jet jewelry” made of black coal. After their mourning was over they would go into “half-mourning”, which meant they could gradually start to wear colors again, starting with gray.
Even during the hot summers, ladies never showed any skin. Instead of bikinis, they swam in bathing dresses. These usually included corsets, ruffles, sleeves, and often a frilly cap. Annette Kellerman was arrested, in 1907 at Atlantic City, for wearing a sleeveless suit that showed her legs. Ladies would change in a “bathing machine”, like a room on wheels. It rolled right into the water, and the modest lady would come out. Of course, she never went far because a wet bathing suit was heavy enough to drown most swimmers.
Wedding Dress styles resembled fashionable day dresses and they almost always had a high neckline and buttons down the back. A wedding gown would usually be made so it could be worn after the wedding. Most were made of silk or satin; but some were of practical fabrics like linen. Although white was the most popular color, they also came in cream and other soft pastels. Many dresses were ornately designed with lace and beads. Veils hung down over a ladies face.
In the winter, ladies often wore coats, fur muffs, and fur hats. When puffed sleeves reached their height, they were so large ladies had to wear cloaks because their sleeves would not fit in a coat. Rich ladies often wore Kashmir shawls. They were named after the town in India, where they were made of goat fur. Paisley shawls were very fashionable and often given as wedding gifts. They were made of wool or silk and had patterns either woven or printed on them. Most shawls had a long fringe.
Victorian ladies wore a lot of underclothes. She had a corset, a crinoline, bloomers, petticoats, and a bustle. When the editor of “Goodey’s Lady’s Book”, came up with the term lingerie, fancy underclothes became very popular.
A corset was a contraption worn around the waist and made of whalebone. It laced up the back, and helped women achieve the desired eighteen-inch waist and hourglass shape. It was made very popular by the Gibson Girl. Ladies would have someone pull the laces, or sometimes tie it to the bedpost and run. It often took at least thirty minutes to squeeze a normal waist to eighteen inches. Corsets caused many health problems such as fainting, headaches, indigestion, and spinal and urine disorders. It also messed up lady’s insides so they could not have children. Although Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote an article on the heath problems, the corset remained as popular as ever.
In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara wore a hoop skirt or a crinoline. Crinolines were large skirts with metal hoops, that helped puff out a ladies skirt. They resembled a “huge bell-shaped skirt.” Crinolines became popular because they puffed out a lady’s dress without all the petticoats needed before. Some even had as many as twenty-four hoops. Later a crinolinette came out and replaced the crinoline. It was simply a shorter version that made walking easier. Some hoops were so large that a man could not get close enough to the lady to kiss her. Ladies often had to kneel, because she could not fit on the carriage seat. Ladies also had to be careful not to let the hoops pop-up when she sat down. Hoops would rust and if it was sharp it could give a lady blood poisoning. Because the material was not fireproof, many ladies were burnt to a crisp while cooking supper or waltzing in a candlelit ballroom.
In the later Victorian years, crinolines were replaced with the bustle. The wire piece was supposed to make the rear of a ladies dress puff out. Sometimes bustles were worn with half a crinoline. When bicycles came out, they helped to get rid of crinolines and bustles.
Amelia Bloomer designed a new outfit, which shocked prim Victorian ladies. She wore a normal shirt, with a short crinoline and skirt that stopped at her knees, showing off her pantaloons. They resembled long baggy pants. The “Bloomer Outfit” became popular with feminists in the 1850s. Later, pantaloons were named bloomers and became part of ladies underclothes.
Over the Victorian period, there were two very popular hairstyles: the chignon and the pompadour. Around the 1860s, the chignon was very fashionable. The hair was put inside a net bag, resembling a hair net. It often ended at the nape of the neck. The chignons were very embellished often featuring flowers, ribbons, and lace. The pompadour originated in the late 1800s. Its popularity was heightened when Charles Gibson’s Gibson Girl came out. She featured the pompadour, and most ladies began wearing a pompadour too.
Hats were very popular during the Victorian period. In the 1860s, they wore bonnets, trimmed with flowers. In the 1870s, they were trimmed with feathers. Ladies also wore straw hats trimmed with lace, feathers, or flowers. Many hats had ostrich plumes, and ostrich farms became popular. Some birds even became extinct because of lady’s hats.
A Victorian lady had many accessories. Lace covered scarves went well with a ball gown. In the1840s to the 1860s, parasols were thought to be very elegant. Popular parasol materials included: matching dress material or lace. Sometimes they had fringes, lace, ribbons, flowers, or tassels. By the 1880s, Japanese paper was the fashionable material, these were called “Japanese sunshades”. Ladies always wore gloves both inside and outside the house. Often they were worn two sizes too small, to make the hand look smaller. Some gloves were very ornate. Gloves went all the way up the arm for evening wear. They often had buttons going up the arm, and needed a glove hook to fasten the small glove. It was estimated to take thirty minutes just to fasten all twenty buttons. Handbags came in silk or velvet for evening wear and a beaded purse was very fashionable. Victorian ladies often had posey holders. They were very elegant and ornate, and were filled with damp moss or a mussie. Their purpose was to hold a small bouquet of flowers. Often they were carried in the hand or sometimes pinned on the dress.
Fans were very popular. They were often made of ostrich feathers, or lace. In the 1830s, they had ornate edges and handles of tortoiseshell, ivory, or mother-of-pearl. In the 1860s, fans were small and sometimes made of straw and ribbon. By the 1870s, they were very large. Fans were used for more than just fanning and keeping cool. Across a crowded ballroom, ladies often used them to flirt with gentlemen. Each position of holding the fan carried a different meaning. An open fan meant love; but a closed one meant hate. If she opened and shut the fan it meant kiss me. If she fanned fast it showed her independence. If the fan was carried in her right hand in front of her face it meant she wanted him to follow her.
A Victorian lady often wore jewelry. For evening wear most ladies wore broad bracelets. In the 1870s, diamonds were very popular. In the Anne of Green Gables series, Anne has a pearl bead engagement ring. At the time, people found it odd because pearls stood for sadness. Many engagement rings were chosen based on what the stone meant, for example rubies meant affection. Sometimes stones were even chosen by their first letter to spell out messages or names. Hair jewelry was very popular. Often it contained the hair of a departed loved one; or sometimes that of a mother or sweetheart. Hair could be woven into necklaces or bracelets or placed inside a locket or broach. Queen Victoria always wore a bracelet with hair and a picture of her departed husband.
In the 1860s, since the skirts were long, boots were very plain. Only when the boots began to peek out from under the skirt did they become ornate. Laces often matched the silk on top. Around 1862, boots were made with a heel. They came in leather, different shades of silk and gray kid. In the 1870s, rounded toes were popular. The shoes needed a buttonhook to button up the sides. In the 1890s white shoes were worn for special occasions. In contrast to the boots; very dainty ornate slippers were worn with ball gowns.
A Victorian lady did not wear make-up at all. “Goodey’s Lady’s Book” did not approve of make-up. It was considered scandalous to wear lipstick or rouge. However, a little face powder was sometimes permitted. To help achieve the pale, dainty look, women actually drank water mixed with arsenic to lighten their skin. Most ladies used lavender water, which was like perfume.
Over all, a quote from Vanity Rules seemed to best describe the Victorian lady: “Fashionable women of this time were expected to appear delicate, frail, thin, and pale.”
Thank you to The Graphics Fairy for the photos used above.
© Call Me Cordelia 2004 -