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Victorian fashion comprises the various fashions and trends in British culture that emerged and developed in the United Kingdom and the British Empire throughout the Victorian era, roughly 1830s to 1900s. The period saw many changes in fashion, including changes in clothing, architecture, literature, and the decorative and visual arts.
By 1907, clothing was increasingly factory-made and often sold in large, fixed price department stores. Custom sewing and home sewing were still significant, but on the decline. New machinery and materials developed clothing in many ways.
The introduction of the lock-stitch sewing machine in mid-century simplified both home and boutique dressmaking, and enabled a fashion for lavish application of trim that would have been prohibitively time-consuming if done by hand. Lace machinery made lace at a fraction of the cost of the old developed new, cheap, bright dyes that displaced the old animal or vegetable dyes.
In the 1840s and 1850s, women's gowns had wide puffed sleeves. Dresses were simple and pale, and incorporated realistic flower trimming. Petticoats, corsets, and chemises were worn under gowns. By the 1850s the number of petticoats was reduced to be superseded by the crinoline, and the size of skirts expanded. Day dresses had a solid bodice and evening gowns had a very low neckline and were worn off the shoulder with shawls.
In the 1860s, the skirts became flatter at the front and projected out more behind the woman. Day dresses had wide pagoda sleeves and high necklines with lace or tatted collars. Evening dresses had low necklines and short sleeves, and were worn with short gloves, fingerless lace or crocheted mitts.
In the 1870s, un-corseted tea gowns were introduced for informal entertaining at home and steadily grew in popularity. Bustles were used to replace the crinoline to hold the skirts up behind the woman, even for "seaside dresses". The fad of hoop skirts had faded and women strived for a slimmer style. The dresses were extremely tight around the corseted torso and the waist and upper legs; Punch ran many cartoons showing women who could neither sit nor climb stairs in their tight dresses. The crinoline was replaced by the bustle in the rear. Small hats were perched towards the front of the head, over the forehead. To complement the small hat, women wore their hair in elaborate curls. Some women wore hairpieces called "scalpettes" and "frizzettes" to add to the volume of their hair.
In the 1880s, riding habits had a matching jacket and skirt (without a bustle), a high-collared shirt or chemisette, and a top hat with a veil. Hunting costumes had draped ankle-length skirts worn with boots or gaiters. Clothing worn when out walking had a long jacket and skirt, worn with the bustle, and a small hat or bonnet. Travelers wore long coats like dusters.
In the 1890s, Women's wear in the last decade of the Victorian era was characterised by high collars, held in place by collar stays, and stiff steel boning in long line bodices. By this time, there were neither crinolines nor bustles. Women opted for the tiny wasp waist instead.
Women's hats during the Victorian era are stereotypically thought of as the enormous, feather- and flower-laden creations that were fashionable in the late-Victorian period. They evolved through many trends over the decades before reaching the later style.
The exaggerated structure of certain Victorian dress elements was part of an effort by designers to emphasise the popular silhouette of the moment. Millinery was incorporated into this design strategy. During the early Victorian decades, voluminous skirts held up with crinolines, and then hoop skirts, were the focal point of the silhouette. To enhance the style without distracting from it, hats were modest in size and design, straw and fabric bonnets being the popular choice. Poke bonnets, which had been worn during the late Regency period, had high, small crowns and brims that grew larger until the 1830s, when the face of a woman wearing a poke bonnet could only be seen directly from the front. They had rounded brims, echoing the rounded form of the bell-shaped hoop skirts.
The silhouette changed once again as the Victorian era drew to a close. The shape was essentially an inverted triangle, with a wide-brimmed hat on top, a full upper body with puffed sleeves, no bustle, and a skirt that narrowed at the ankles (the hobble skirt was a fad shortly after the end of the Victorian era). The enormous wide-brimmed hats were covered with elaborate creations of silk flowers, ribbons, and above all, exotic plumes; hats sometimes included entire exotic birds that had been stuffed. Many of these plumes came from birds in the Florida everglades, which were nearly entirely decimated by overhunting. By 1899, early environmentalists like Adeline Knapp were engaged in efforts to curtail the hunting for plumes. By 1900, more than five million birds a year were being slaughtered, and nearly 95 percent of Florida's shore birds had been killed by plume hunters.
During the 1840s, men wore tight-fitting, calf length frock coats and a waistcoat or vest. The vests were single- or double-breasted, with shawl or notched collars, and might be finished in double points at the lowered waist. For more formal occasions, a cutaway morning coat was worn with light trousers during the daytime, and a dark tail coat and trousers was worn in the evening. The shirts were made of linen or cotton with low collars, occasionally turned down, and were worn with wide cravats or neck ties. Trousers had fly fronts, and breeches were used for formal functions and when horseback riding. Men wore top hats, with wide brims in sunny weather.
During the 1850s, men started wearing shirts with high upstanding or turnover collars and four-in-hand neckties tied in a bow, or tied in a knot with the pointed ends sticking out like "wings". The upper-class continued to wear top hats, and bowler hats were worn by the working class.
In the 1860s, men started wearing wider neckties that were tied in a bow or looped into a loose knot and fastened with a stickpin. Frock coats were shortened to knee-length and were worn for business, while the mid-thigh length sack coat slowly displaced the frock coat for less-formal occasions. Top hats briefly became the very tall "stovepipe" shape, but a variety of other hat shapes were popular.
During the 1870s, three-piece suits grew in popularity along with patterned fabrics for shirts. Neckties were the four-in-hand and, later, the Ascot ties. A narrow ribbon tie was an alternative for tropical climates, especially in the Americas. Both frock coats and sack coats became shorter. Flat straw boaters were worn when boating.
During the 1880s, formal evening dress remained a dark tail coat and trousers with a dark waistcoat, a white bow tie, and a shirt with a winged collar. In mid-decade, the dinner jacket or tuxedo, was used in more relaxed formal occasions. The Norfolk jacket and tweed or woolen breeches were used for rugged outdoor pursuits such as shooting. Knee-length topcoats, often with contrasting velvet or fur collars, and calf-length overcoats were worn in winter. Men's shoes had higher heels and a narrow toe.
Throughout much of the Victorian era most men wore fairly short hair. This was often accompanied by various forms of facial hair including moustaches, side-burns, and full beards. A clean-shaven face did not come back into fashion until the end of the 1880s and early 1890s.
Distinguishing what men really wore from what was marketed to them in periodicals and advertisements is problematic, as reliable records do not exist.
In Britain, black is the colour traditionally associated with mourning for the dead. The customs and etiquette expected of men, and especially women, were rigid during much of the Victorian era. The expectations depended on a complex hierarchy of close or distant relationship with the deceased. The closer the relationship, the longer the mourning period and the wearing of black. The wearing of full black was known as First Mourning, which had its own expected attire, including fabrics, and an expected duration of 4 to 18 months. Following the initial period of First Mourning, the mourner would progress to Second Mourning, a transition period of wearing less black, which was followed by Ordinary Mourning, and then Half-mourning. Some of these stages of mourning were shortened or skipped completely if the mourner's relationship to the deceased was more distant. Half-mourning was a transition period when black was replaced by acceptable colours such as lavender and mauve, possibly considered acceptable transition colours because of the tradition of Church of England (and Catholic) clergy wearing lavender or mauve stoles for funeral services, to represent the Passion of Christ.
Manners and Rules of Good Society, or, Solecisms to be Avoided (London, Frederick Warne & Co., 1887) gives clear instructions, such as the following:
|Relationship to deceased||First mourning||Second mourning||Ordinary mourning||Half-mourning|
|Wife for husband||1-year, 1-month; bombazine fabric covered with crepe; widow's cap, lawn cuffs, collars||6 months: less crepe||6 months: no crepe, silk or wool replaces bombazine; in last 3 months jet jewellery and ribbons can be added||6 months: colours permitted are grey, lavender, mauve, and black-and-grey|
|Daughter for parent||6 months: black with black or white crepe (for young girls); no linen cuffs and collars; no jewellery for first 2 months||4 months: less crepe||–||2 months as above|
|Wife for husband's parents||18 months in black bombazine with crepe||–||3 months in black||3 months as above|
|Parent for son- or daughter-in-law's parent||– Black armband in representation of someone lost||–||1-month black||–|
|Second wife for parent of a first wife||–||–||3 months black||–|
The complexity of these etiquette rules extends to specific mourning periods and attire for siblings, step-parents, aunts and uncles distinguished by blood and by marriage, nieces, nephews, first and second cousins, children, infants, and "connections" (who were entitled to ordinary mourning for a period of "1–3 weeks, depending on level of intimacy"). Men were expected to wear mourning black to a lesser extent than women, and for a shorter mourning period. After the mid-19th century, men would wear a black hatband and black suit, but for only half the prescribed period of mourning expected of women. Widowers were expected to mourn for a mere three months, whereas the proper mourning period expected for widows was up to four years. Women who mourned in black for longer periods were accorded great respect in public for their devotion to the departed, the most prominent example being Queen Victoria herself.
Women with lesser financial means tried to keep up with the example being set by the middle and upper classes by dyeing their daily dress. Dyers made most of their income during the Victorian period by dyeing clothes black for mourning.
Home decor started spare, veered into the elaborately draped and decorated style we today regard as Victorian, then embraced the retro-chic of William Morris as well as pseudo-Japonaiserie.
|This section possibly contains original research. (May 2008)|
Men's clothing is seen as formal and stiff, women's as fussy and over-done. Clothing covered the entire body, we are told, and even the glimpse of an ankle was scandalous. Critics contend that corsets constricted women's bodies and women's lives. Homes are described as gloomy, dark, cluttered with massive and over-ornate furniture and proliferating bric-a-brac. Myth has it that even piano legs were scandalous, and covered with tiny pantalettes.
Of course, much of this is untrue, or a gross exaggeration. Men's formal clothing may have been less colourful than it was in the previous century, but brilliant waistcoats and cummerbunds provided a touch of color, and smoking jackets and dressing gowns were often of rich Oriental brocades. This phenomenon was the result of the growing textile manufacturing sector, developing mass production processes, and increasing attempts to market fashion to men. Corsets stressed a woman's sexuality, exaggerating hips and bust by contrast with a tiny waist. Women's evening gowns bared the shoulders and the tops of the breasts. The jersey dresses of the 1880s may have covered the body, but the stretchy novel fabric fit the body like a glove.
Home furnishing was not necessarily ornate or overstuffed. However, those who could afford lavish draperies and expensive ornaments, and wanted to display their wealth, would often do so. Since the Victorian era was one of increased social mobility, there were ever more nouveaux riches making a rich show.
The items used in decoration may also have been darker and heavier than those used today, simply as a matter of practicality. London was noisy and its air was full of soot from countless coal fires. Hence those who could afford it draped their windows in heavy, sound-muffling curtains, and chose colours that didn't show soot quickly. When all washing was done by hand, curtains were not washed as frequently as they might be today.
There is no actual evidence that piano legs were considered scandalous. Pianos and tables were often draped with shawls or cloths—but if the shawls hid anything, it was the cheapness of the furniture. There are references to lower-middle-class families covering up their pine tables rather than show that they couldn't afford mahogany. The piano leg story seems to have originated in the 1839 book, A Diary in America written by Captain Frederick Marryat, as a satirical comment on American prissiness.
Victorian manners, however, may have been as strict as imagined—on the surface. One simply did not speak publicly about sex, childbirth, and such matters, at least in the respectable middle and upper classes. However, as is well known, discretion covered a multitude of sins. Prostitution flourished. Upper-class men and women indulged in adulterous liaisons.
Some people now look back on the Victorian era with wistful nostalgia. Historians would say that this is as much a distortion of the real history as the stereotypes emphasising Victorian repression and prudery. Women were not allowed to swim, for it would be frowned upon as "bad etiquette". Women also had to wear special suits to ride bikes.
Also notable is a contemporary counter-cultural trend called steampunk. Those who dress steampunk often wear Victorian-style clothing that has been "tweaked" in edgy ways: tattered, distorted, melded with Goth fashion, Punk, and Rivethead styles. Another example of Victorian fashion being incorporated into a contemporary style is the Lolita Fashion.
A mid-Victorian interior: Hide and Seek by James Tissot c. 1877.
Day dress of c. 1875 James Tissot painting.
Whistler's Portrait of Lady Meux 1882.
Evening gown of 1878
Portrait by Alexander Melville of Queen Victoria, 1845