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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 & September 23rd 2021.