Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Victorian Fashion Rundown and Timeline

Whether you are working on a new steampunk ensemble, writing a steamy 19th century romance novel, or simply curious about Victorian fashion just because; I hope this blog post can help you understand the evolution of the female form and the birth of modern fashion better.

I put together this information to create my 1970’s natural form dresses last year, and my research just sat on my computer doing less than nothing. I know it was difficult for me to find adequate information online about the fashion of this time period, despite how popular it is in the costuming world. Therefore, I had to go to the library and research this stuff the old fashioned way proving that, YES, libraries are still highly necessary!

Perhaps you stumbled upon this page in your quest, and will find that it is just what you were looking for. 



1940's Evening Dresses
The ideal body shape during this decade included an upside down triangle shaped-bodice forming from the shoulders down to the point of the waistline, and a bell-shaped skirt exaggerated with layers upon layers of petticoats. Low sloping shoulders were ideal, and evening gowns were often off the shoulder to create this look. Waist lines were low and often brought to a point to make the triangle effect. Day dress sleeves reached all the way to the wrist and the fullness of the sleeve was brought lower to the elbow region.


1850's Evening Dresses
The look for the bodices remains relatively the same as the previous decade however, crinoline became the main way to create the highly desired bell-shape. Although many people depicted crinoline to be like cages for women and are representative of the lack of women’s rights during this time, this is a misconception. In reality, crinoline was a god-save. Can you imagine wearing four or more layers of cotton skirts on a hot summer day? It’s terrible! You get all hot, sweaty, sticky, heavy, and you just want to die. Crinoline allowed more air to circulate and the lightness made it a lot easier to walk around.


1860's Evening Dresses
In this decade, the ideal body shape was to have a flat front of the skirt with elaborate intricacies flowing down the back of the skirt. Who is responsible for this? Fredrick Worth.

In 1964, Fredrick Worth designed the bustle and train as a way to do away with crinoline. He saw his bustle and train to be his greatest achievement and boasted that he “dethroned the crinoline.” The bustle originally was a pad filled with horse hair in the 60’s, but altered its design in later decades.

Like most new women’s fashions, men mocked the new fashion and made fun of how the train swept the streets for miles and people would step on them all the time.

Bodices were formfitting and buttoned up the back.


1870's Day Dresses
During the 1870’s the bustle began to disappear for a while to give way to the “natural form” look. The ideal female form was form fitting until just below the hips where the skirt stays flat in the front but fans out in the back to create a folded peacock tail look.

By 1876, the bustle had completely disappeared out of fashion. Instead, the skirt was tightly tied back by 3 or 4 ribbons on the inside to make it completely flat in the front other than decorative trimmings, then the back fabrics were layered and folded in complicated ways as it tumbled in a waterfall-like way to the train on the ground. The train was intended to convey the impression that the wearer kept a carriage, because you can’t sit in a carriage easily while wearing a bustle. However, even women who were not of the carriage class trailed their appendages on the street.

Evening and dinner dresses often had elbow sleeves
Ball dresses often had tiny sleeves and a neckline low in the front but fairly high behind.

1877-1878 Ball dresses were often trimmed with trails of flowers. Although sometimes they were artificial, it was more fashionable to trim them with real flowers and put artificial ones in their hair-- the opposite of what would seem practical. During this decade it became fashionable to wear a velvet ribbon neckband with evening gowns.

In regards to fabrics, The Queen reported that “There is no such thing as a dress made from a single material.” Advising people to “Take two materials, one of which shall represent the principal and the other the accessory, and out of these compose a costume, trimming the principal with the accessory and the accessory with the principal.”

In the late 1870’s, undergarments were greatly reduced due to the form of the female silhouette and they were now often colored or white with colored ribbons on them. This was seen as fashionable but also very risqué.

Tight lacing was the most severe during this period because big skirts make the wait look small, but with the more vertical look, women had to strive harder to achieve such extreme waists. In the late 1870’s older married women had looser gowns for 5 o’clock tea so they could relax. Tight lacing became a hot issue of debate in regards to women’s health.

Alison Gernsheim points out that although the rules of etiquette books require women to wear gloves at all times, in most of the photographs during this decade, gloves are rarely depicted.


1880's Evening Dresses
Between 1882 and 1885, the bustle saw its revival, and the vertical look started to turn overly-exaggerated and curvy. The new bustle was called a tournure and sat lower than the original bustle and jutted out horizontally.

The 1880s were similar to the 70’s in that the idea of having the dresses plain above but fancy below still held true, but the difference laid in the fact that the 70’s had soft curvy lines and the 80’s had stiffer ones. In the late 1880’s, women’s styles were harder and more aggressive- there were even styles modeled after military uniforms. Trains were not worn in the daytime but were a separate attachment for evening dresses but were shorter. One source said that in the 1880’s, silver and gold anklets were often worn to show a distinction of elegance.

After 1882, most of the high-necked bodices were not as long as they were in the 70’s and they differed in the fact that they buttoned down the front instead of being laced up in the back. This was significant because women could button up the bodice by themselves wear as before they needed a servant to help them.

Sleeves were long, plain, and tight, and most of the emphasis was on the skirt. The skirt usually had pleats for folds around the thighs, or a “double fishwife” skirt that was caught up like an apron. The underskirt was often kilted.

Wool became very popular in the 1880’s and it was seen as a healthy fabric to wear.


1890's Day Dress
Bodices were tightly tailored with long sleeves with giant puffs at the shoulder. Crinoline and bustles disappeared forever, and skirts created an A line silhouette like a bell. Corseting stayed relatively the same, however. Suit dresses became popular for forward thinking women as well. 

Informal day wear became popular which consisted of a high-necked blouse tailored much like a man’s shirt. This was tucked into a simple skirt. Sports clothes became fashionable and featured shorter skirts revealing the ankles. Cycling dresses came into style which replaced skirts with bloomers.

Uncorsetted tea gowns were popular to wear at the home and were even reported to be worn outside the home towards the end of the decade.


New Artificial Dyes

Prior to 1856, all dies were made from natural products. For instance- purple was made from murex shellfish and red was made from cochineal beetles. It required 17,000 beetles to make a single ounce (one gram) of dye. Therefore it was very expensive. Also, overtime the colors would fade.

In 1856, William Perkin discovered artificial dye by accident. He was a 18 year old English chemistry student who was attempting to make artificial quinine, a drug to treat malaria by using aniline, a substance derived from old coal tar; however, the experiment failed and left him with a dark oily sludge. He was about to throw it away until curiosity prompted him to make a solution of it-- it became a rich purple. He then applied it to some silk and discovered that not only did it act as a dye, but it didn’t fade as much over time. Being that Mauvine (the dye he made) was made from coal tar which was an abundant waste product from gas manufacturing, it was incredibly cheap to produce.

In 1857, Perkin opened a dyework on the Grand Union Canal in London and produced Mauvine. The color became very fashionable in France after Empress Eugenie discovered that it matched her eyes. In 1958, Queen Victoria wore the color to her daughter’s wedding and then everybody had to wear it! Punch Magazine called it “The Mauve Measels”

He continued to experiment with making other colors and apparently the color of the canal changed from week to week with each dye they were testing. Meanwhile, other chemists in other countries began to open dye works and produce other fashionable colors. It almost became a race to see who could come up with the brightest colors from coal tar.

One fashionable dye was a vivid emerald green made from arsenite of copper. However, after a young women wearing one of these dresses in the early sixties came down with an illness from arsenic poisoning from the dye in the dress, it fell out of fashion in Paris until a different type of emerald dye was made. A physician testified that no less than 60 grams of 60 grams of arsenic came off from a single dress- enough to kill 30 people if administered in doses.

It has been remarked that English women often didn’t have a good sense for color combinations- they wanted the bright colors but didn’t understand how to color coordinate!

The House of Worth
My Favorite Worth Dress
Early Victorian dressmakers were mostly women who visited the wealthy at their homes, took measurements and order from the customer. The customer picked out the fabrics and styles from magazines and the dressmakers made them. Dressmaking was seen as a craft, not an art. Charles Fredrick Worth was an Englishman who moved to Paris who became “The Father of Haute Couture” meaning the father of exclusive fashion.

In 1857, he opened The House of Worth (Maison Worth) at 7 Rue de la Paix, Paris.

Worth was inspired by the dresses in old paintings in museums and unlike dressmakers before him, he saw himself as an artist rather than a craftsman and expected customers to come to him. In order to make his business appear more exclusive, he required every customer to visit with a letter of introduction from a previous customer. French Writer Taine wrote what happened when a lady visited Worth without a letter of introduction:

“Madame” he said, “by whom are you presented?” “I don’t understand.” “I’m afraid you must be presented in order to be dressed by me.” While some people found him to be rude, and scoffed at the way he acted, others didn’t care how rude he was so long as he dressed them. According to Peter Crisp, It was an advantage to Worth that he was a foreigner because he stood outside the French class system and could behave in ways that would ordinarily seem offensive.

The showrooms in the House of Worth featured mannequins with mirrors strategically placed next to them so that customers could see their own inferior dress next to Worth’s beautiful designs- guilting the customers into buying more clothing. He also had a thickly curtained room lit by gaslight so that customers could see how their gown looked in a ballroom setting.

He pioneered clothing methods still used today. He made patterns out of muslin or toile to drape over the client’s body, then customize it to their shape. He also was the first to make seasonal clothing rather than “one-off” garments.

In 1964, Fredrick Worth designed the bustle and train as a way to do away with crinoline. He saw his bustle and train to be his greatest achievement and boasted that he “dethroned the crinoline.”

The bustle originally was a pad filled with horse hair in the 1860s, it then fell out of fashion in the 1870s when natural form was more popular, then the bustle reappeared in the 1880’s as a “tournure”-- an exaggerated bustle form made of hoops and it stuck out like a shelf.

Tournure and Undergarments


Now that the sewing machine was invented and there could be a mass production of clothing- shopping became a leisure activity rather than a chore for the very first time. This was the birth of the consumer culture.

The first department stores that were opened were A.T. Stewart’s in New York, Bainbridges in Newcastle, and Bon Marche in Paris. Consumers could by a complete outfit with all the accessories at one location. Unlike previous stores that kept items locked behind glass cases, clothes were displayed openly. Also, because department stores could carry more stock, they bought items in bulk and could get better deals from their suppliers and charge cheaper prices. Customers also could return goods and get refunds.

Window Shopping became more popular. The glass pressing machine was invented in 1827 and allowed for large panes of glass to be made to display in store windows to tempt passers by with a new way of advertising.

Secondhand Clothes

When clothing became unfashionable for the rich to where they would give them to their maids and servants. Because the clothes were too fine for them to wear themselves, they sold them to secondhand shops where the clothes were usually disassembled and turned into other pieces of clothing. Stealing clothing from clothes lines was a common thing so that the poor could get some money. In Oliver Twist, Fagin was a “Fence”, a receiver of stolen goods who taught Oliver and the other boys to pickpocket men’s handkerchiefs to be sold to the second hand shops and mills.


Jet was a black stone made from fossilized monkey puzzle tress and used often for mourning jewelry.

Velvet ribbon- In the 1870’s it became popular to tie a velvet ribbon around a woman’s neck and have the ribbon tails hang down the back a little. This eventually evolved into the choker necklace.


Wearing false hair (chignons) was super popular and even the normal. False hair pieces were made from the hair of prisoners, or from poor and middleclass women who sold it, and even rumored to have come from the ailing or corpses at hospitals.


Many writers and sources how Victorian women achieved a 18 or 17 inch waist. What Alison Gersheim and other scholars believe is that this refers to the smallest circumference a corset can be achieved completely laced tight but not around a person. Really, the corsets were left open several inches larger than that, but it was a symbol of elegance and pride to be able to purchase smaller corsets.


Crisp, Peter. A History of Fashion and Costume. Vol. 6.

Alison Gernsheim - Dover Publications - 1981
IMAGES: Google Images and Truly Victorian