I’ve written about a few Victorian women recently, which got me to thinking about other aspects of their lives, the first one being clothing. As someone who loves clothes, especially the simplicity of what we wear nowadays, Victorian women’s clothes are a source of fascination to me. As a child, up until the age of about 11 or 12, when I managed to persuade my mum it was no longer necessary, I had to wear a petticoat under neath a dress or skirts and blouse, but that was nothing compared what Victorian’s wore. I dread to think how they coped in the summer! Here’s a quick run through of the typical clothing worn by Victorian women:
In the early Victorian days, everything was sewn by hand, so there was no mass production of clothes. As a consequence of this, clothing was expensive. Rich people didn’t have a problem but the poor would probably have made their own clothes and there was a lot of “hand me downing” going on. Even when I was a child, I remember having “best clothes” (a habit which I still have trouble getting out of) – in Victorian times, best clothes were saved for church on a Sunday, thus referred to as “Sunday best.” Things did start to change after the invention of the sewing machine in 1851, but it was quite some time before clothes became really cheap.
The crinoline was invented in 1856 – prior to this, dresses tended to have a simpler, more Empire line shape – think Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. The crinoline changed all this. In the early days, it was almost like a circular hoop that filled out the whole of the skirt of the dress, although in later Victorian days, it became just a bustle at the back of the outfit.
Despite this, the underclothes remained pretty much the same. It started off with stockings, which were really long socks, not what we would think of as stockings. They stopped just above the knee and were held up with garters. They weren’t elasticated the way mine were at school, they were lace, which by it’s manufacture, conferred some elastic properties. By the end of the nineteenth century, the garters were attached to corsets…. I’m still not feeling it.
The important bit of the undergarments were what were in those days called drawers, which were basically flaps of material without a crotch. I suppose they didn’t feel the cold with a long dress. A sleeveless chemise which came down to the knees was worn over this. This formed the first layer of the clothing.
Next came the corset, frequently strengthened with whalebone, sometimes steel. The corsets fastened up at the front (ribbons were common fastenings) and had draw strings at the back to pull them tighter. The idea was that they’d pull in at the waist and push up the bust – hence the very pert look we so often see in period dramas. I’m thinking there are some benefits to corsets, although some women took it to extremes and tied them so tight they could barely breathe.
The actual Crinoline (the name is a combination of the Latin words for hair and linen, because it was originally made from horsehair) was like a steel cage, flexible enough to collapse when sitting and strong enough to support the skirt when standing. Later on, the crinoline fell from favour and changed to become a bustle, just supporting the back of the skirt, but in the early Victorian days, it was the full thing.
At least one petticoat went on top of this, which would be decorated at the bottom, intended to show under the dress or skirt (it started with one and more became fashionable later in the era). The upper part of the body was covered by a plain chemise although underwear became more decorative as the era progressed.
Finally, we get to the dress, which might have been one or two pieces. Again, as the era progressed, it became more common for women to wear separate skirts and blouses. The dress had all manner of fittings to make it more decorative – collars, cuffs, under-sleeves, etc. Capes, shawls, jackets would be worn over the top, both inside and out.
Early in the period, flat shoes were worn, but gradually boots became more fashionable, and they became longer, as in higher up the leg, as time went on.
Older and married women all wore caps indoors, outdoors, they were either covered by a bonnet or just a hat was worn. By the end of the 19th century, caps were no longer generally worn, but hats were worn outdoors. (I remember my mum always wore a hat outdoors when I was a child, as did my dad, although that changed for both of them by the 1970s.)
Gloves and jewellery, fans and parasols were also important accessories, at least for wealthy women in Victorian times. It was all very proper – and I dare say hot and uncomfortable. I wonder where I can get a full outfit to try for a day?
© Susan Shirley 2017