Victorian Women's Fashion: The Definitive Guide for Travellers

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Victorian Women’s Fashion

The Young Queen Victoria by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1842). Photographic reproduction from Wikimedia Commons. Victoria ascended the throne at the age of 18.

In British history, the Victorian era refers to the period of Queen Victoria’s long reign, from 1837 until her death in 1901. The era was marked by the technological advancements, rapid urbanisation, and population boom of the Industrial Revolution, as well as the peak of the British Empire, which by the 1880s had reached the Far East.

This global domination brought wealth to industrialists and merchants, and expanded the middle class, giving them power and confidence that for centuries was seen to belong only to the aristocracy. The new British middle class displayed their social standing and fortune through many ways–but especially through the clothes they wore.

According to Kathryn Hughes in “The middle classes: etiquette and upward mobility“, since women, unlike men, could not draw social status from their jobs, and doing housework was discouraged (middle class families were expected to have a maid or several “specialised servants”), the middle-class wife was to function as “a walking billboard for her husband’s material success.”

This article will focus on the changes in female fashion during the Victorian era.

If you want to learn more about Britain and its history, consider joining Odyssey Traveller’s tour of Queen Victoria’s Great Britain. This 21-day small group program provides participants with talks and short lectures from a group of guides with expertise on Victorian Britain. The tour commences in London and concludes in Glasgow.

Pre-Victorian Era Fashion: The Regency Era

Regency fashion, which was the popular fashion trend before Queen Victoria’s reign, is very familiar to modern readers. Think Jane Austen. (Click here for an article about the author.)

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

“Regent” is a term used to describe a person appointed to govern because the monarch is a minor, absent, or incapacitated. The years 1795 to 1837 was called the “Regency era” because it included the period when George III was deemed unfit to rule due to mental illness, and his son, George IV (Queen Victoria’s uncle) had to rule in his stead as Prince Regent.

Though England and France at this time were fierce political rivals (and constantly at war with each other), French fashion influenced the English. During France’s revolutionary period, women cast aside their corsets and returned to the Neoclassical simplicity and freedom (and to some, immodesty) of the thin, nearly-transparent Grecian gown–a stark contrast to the gilded style of Louis XVI.

This high-waisted gown was modified to the silhouette we now call the Empire-style gown (named after the “First Empire” during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte), which dominated the style of the Regency period.

Victorian Era
British cotton morning dress circa 1819. Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1977. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Around 1811, the English turned away from the Greeks and looked to the Middle Ages for inspiration. This medieval-inspired “Gothic” style added shape to the bodice, and ruffles and padding (recalling the 16th century Elizabethan age) to the skirt. Gown silhouettes moved away from the Empire style as the waistline dropped steadily from below the breasts to the normal waistline.


Victorian Era Fashion: 1840s to 1850s

By the early Victorian era, a tightly fitted bodice and a full skirt emphasising a narrow waist became the dominant silhouette. The corset, cast aside by the French in the age of revolution, returned once again to shape (and restrict) the female form.

According to Jayne Shrimpton’s Victorian Fashion, published in 2016, “The restrained fashions of this period accorded with the prevailing ideal of womanhood”–that is, the ideal woman was demure, meek, and subservient (pp. 9-10).

Victorian era
European silk day dress circa 1840. Gift of Lee Simonson, 1938. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

A new technique called “gauging” allowed more fabric to be added to the bodice waistline. The bell-shaped skirt, its domed shape retained by several layers of stiffened under-petticoats followed by the invention of a hooped support called the cage crinoline, would grow more voluminous. A shawl was added to the ensemble for elegance and modesty, and the bonnet evolved to a shape that “concealed the wearer’s face and limited her vision” (p. 11).

1860s to 1870s: Big Skirts and the Bustle

The cage crinoline was initially made of cotton and linen and was cumbersome and heavy. In the late 1850s, the steel-hooped cage was invented, a lighter, cheaper alternative, which exploded in popularity when it became mass-produced. This coincided with the invention of synthetic dyes and the sewing machine, bringing production costs down and introducing wilder colours to a British woman’s wardrobe.

Victorian era
Cage crinoline made of cotton and metal, circa 1862. Purchase, New York Historical Society (by exchange), 1985. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By the 1860s, women’s skirts had grown to become as wide as five to six yards in circumference (Shrimpton, 2016, p. 14), embellished with ribbons, lace, and braided silk. This was middle-class wealth on full display, the sheer volume of fabric a sort of signal to society that the wearer could only be dressed with the help of servants.

Women could either have their dresses made in an expensive salon or (for those with modest means) buy a ready-made bodice and make the skirt themselves using similar fabric.

Around 1865, the skirt silhouette began to change, the front losing its volume and growing flatter, and the back becoming more emphasised. The over-skirt or the double skirt was introduced, supported by a bustle, a pad worn with a buckled waistband. Trains, an extension of this back drapery, came into fashion in the late 1870s, but quickly grew out of style as it was not practical to walk around the city dragging fabric.

Victorian era
British silk dress circa 1870. Catharine Breyer Van Bomel Foundation Fund, 1980. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

1880s to 1890s: Bodice as Armour

Like the cage crinoline, the bustle grew to ridiculous lengths, becoming more pronounced and projecting “like a shelf behind the waist” (Shrimpton, 2016, p. 25). This style fell out of favour and was on its way out by the 1890s.

Victorian era
Bustle, circa 1883. Purchase, Irene Lewisohn and Alice L. Crowley Bequests, 1985. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

The tight-fitting cuirasse bodice was introduced in the late 1870s. The name comes from cuirass, a tight-fitting body armour, as the bodice gave the wearer a tailored, military silhouette.

Victorian Era
An 1878 silk wedding ensemble with a cuirasse bodice. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Genevieve Doherty in memory of Mrs. John Henry, 1964. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The “leg of mutton” sleeve would come into a fashion to define the 1890s, named as such because of its shape: tight at the lower arm and puffed out at the upper arm. Wide-brimmed hats would slowly replace the “sedate bonnet” (Shrimpton, 2016, p. 25).

Unknown woman by Lock & Whitfield, The Common, Ealing, circa 1895. Photo source.

Skirts were still worn in full-length (up to the ankles), but women also started adapting masculine styles (e.g. shirt collar, bow tie or tie, tailored jacket) for daywear. This change in fashion reflected societal changes in British life: in 1883, married women acquired the right to obtain and retain any property deemed separate from their husband’s, and in 1897 the women’s suffrage campaign gained momentum.

An example of women’s sporty daywear (with matching hat) can be seen in this painting of Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes by John Singer Sargent. 1897. Wikimedia Commons/Metropolitan Museum of Art.

End of an Era

After a reign spanning more than six decades, Queen Victoria died at the age of 81 in 1901, and British fashion entered the Edwardian era under the empire’s new monarch.

If you want to learn more about the Victorian era, join Odyssey Traveller’s small-group tour of Queen Victoria’s Great Britain. This is an immersive 21-day educational tour especially designed for the mature or senior traveller.

If you prefer a shorter trip in a classroom setting, consider signing up for the seven-day Victorian Britain Summer School in Hobart.

Originally published December 29, 2018.

Updated on October 14, 2019.

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