The Science of Victorian Women's Fashion
What was the fashion in the Victorian era?
The fashion of the 19th century is renowned for its corsets, bonnets, top hats, bustles and petticoats. Women's fashion during the Victorian period was largely dominated by full skirts, which gradually moved to the back of the silhouette.
Victorian fashion consists of 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 from the 1830s through the 1890s. The period saw many changes in fashion, including changes in styles, fashion technology and the methods of distribution. Various movement in architecture, literature, and the decorative and visual arts as well as a changing perception of gender roles also influenced fashion.
Under Queen Victoria's reign, England enjoyed a period of growth along with technological advancement. Mass production of sewing machines in the 1850s as well as the advent of synthetic dyes introduced major changes in fashion. Clothing could be made more quickly and cheaply. Advancement in printing and proliferation of fashion magazines allowed the masses to participate in the evolving trends of high fashion, opening the market of mass consumption and advertising. By 1905, clothing was increasingly factory made and often sold in large, fixed-price department stores, spurring a new age of consumerism with the rising middle class who benefited from the industrial revolution.
During the Victorian Era, women generally worked in the private, domestic sphere.Unlike in earlier centuries when women would often help their husbands and brothers in family businesses and in labour, during the nineteenth century, gender roles became more defined. The requirement for farm labourers was no longer in such a high demand after the Industrial Revolution, and women were more likely to perform domestic work or, if married, give up work entirely. Dress reflected this new, increasingly sedentary lifestyle, and was not intended to be utilitarian.
Clothes were seen as an expression of women's place in society, hence were differentiated in terms of social class. Upper-class women, who did not need to work, often wore a tightly laced corset over a bodice or chemisette, and paired them with a skirt adorned with numerous embroideries and trims; over layers of petticoats. Middle-class women exhibited similar dress styles; however, the decorations were not as extravagant. The layering of these garments make them very heavy. Corsets were also stiff and restricted movement. Although the clothes were not comfortable, the type of fabrics and the numerous layers were worn as a symbol of wealth.
1830s dress style
During the start of Queen Victoria's reign in 1837, the ideal shape of the Victorian woman was a long slim torso emphasised by wide hips. To achieve a low and slim waist, corsets were tightly laced and extended over the abdomen and down towards the hips.A chemise was commonly worn under the corset, and cut relatively low in order to prevent exposure. Over the corset, was the tight-fitting bodice featuring a low waistline. Along with the bodice was a long skirt, featuring layers of horsehair petticoats worn underneath to create fullness; while placing emphasis on the small waist. To contrast the narrow waist, low and straight necklines were thus used.
1840s dress style
In the 1840s, collapsed sleeves, low necklines, elongated V-shaped bodices, and fuller skirts characterised the dress styles of women.
At the start of the decade, the sides of bodices stopped at the natural waistline, and met at a point in the front. In accordance with the heavily boned corset and seam lines on the bodice as well, the popular low and narrow waist was thus accentuated.
Sleeves of bodices were tight at the top, because of the Mancheron, but expanded around the area between the elbow and before the wrist. It was also initially placed below the shoulder, however; this restricted the movements of the arm.
As a result, the middle of the decade saw sleeves flaring out from the elbow into a funnel shape; requiring undersleeves to be worn in order to cover the lower arms.
Skirts lengthened, while widths increased due to the introduction of the horsehair crinoline in 1847; becoming a status symbol of wealth.
Extra layers of flounces and petticoats, also further emphasised the fullness of these wide skirts. In compliance with the narrow waist though, skirts were therefore attached to bodices using very tight organ pleats secured at each fold.This served as a decorative element for a relatively plain skirt. The 1840s style was perceived as conservative and "Gothic" compared to the flamboyance of the 1830s.
1850s dress style
A similar silhouette remained in the 1850s, while certain elements of garments changed. Necklines of day dresses dropped even lower into a V-shape, causing a need to cover the bust area with a chemisette. In contrast, evening dresses featured a Bertha, which completely exposed the shoulder area instead. Bodices began to extend over the hips, while the sleeves opened further and increased in fullness. The volume and width of the skirt continued to increase, especially during 1853, when rows of flounces were added.
Nevertheless, in 1856, skirts expanded even further; creating a dome shape, due to the invention of the first artificial cage crinoline. The purpose of the crinoline was to create an artificial hourglass silhouette by accentuating the hips, and fashioning an illusion of a small waist; along with the corset. The cage crinoline was constructed by joining thin metal strips together to form a circular structure that could solely support the large width of the skirt. This was made possible by technology which allowed iron to be turned into steel, which could then be drawn into fine wires. Although often ridiculed by journalists and cartoonists of the time as the crinoline swelled in size, this innovation freed women from the heavy weight of petticoats and was a much more hygienic option.
Meanwhile, the invention of synthetic dyes added new colours to garments and women experimented with gaudy and bright colours. Technological innovation of 1860s provided women with freedom and choices.
1860s dress style
During the early and middle 1860s, crinolines began decreasing in size at the top, while retaining their amplitude at the bottom. In contrast, the shape of the crinoline became flatter in the front and more voluminous behind, as it moved towards the back since skirts consisted of trains now. Bodices on the other hand, ended at the natural waistline, had wide pagoda sleeves, and included high necklines and collars for day dresses; low necklines for evening dresses. However, in 1868, the female silhouette had slimmed down as the crinoline was replaced by the bustle, and the supporting flounce overtook the role of determining the silhouette. Skirt widths diminished even further, while fullness and length remained at the back. In order to emphasise the back, the train was gathered together to form soft folds and draperies.
1870s dress style
The trend for broad skirts slowly disappeared during the 1870s, as women started to prefer an even slimmer silhouette. Bodices remained at the natural waistline, necklines varied, while sleeves began under the shoulder line. An overskirt was commonly worn over the bodice, and secured into a large bow behind. Over time though, the overskirt shortened into a detached basque, resulting in an elongation of the bodice over the hips. As the bodices grew longer in 1873, the polonaise was thus introduced into the Victorian dress styles. A polonaise is a garment featuring both an overskirt and bodice together. The tournure was also introduced, and along with the polonaise, it created an illusion of an exaggerated rear end.
By 1874, skirts began to taper in the front and were adorned with trimmings, while sleeves tightened around the wrist area. Towards 1875 to 1876, bodices featured long but even tighter laced waists, and converged at a sharp point in front. Bustles lengthened and slipped even lower, causing the fullness of the skirt to further diminish. Extra fabric was gathered together behind in pleats, thus creating a narrower but longer tiered, draped train too. Due to the longer trains, petticoats had to be worn underneath in order to keep the dress clean.
However, when 1877 approached, dresses moulded to fit the figure, as increasing slimmer silhouettes were favoured. This was allowed by the invention of the cuirass bodice which functions like a corset, but extends downwards to the hips and upper thighs. Although dress styles took on a more natural form, the narrowness of the skirt limited the wearer in regards to walking.
1880s dress style
The early 1880s was a period of stylistic confusion. On one hand, there is the over-ornamented silhouette with contrasting texture and frivolous accessories. On the other hand, the growing popularity of tailoring gave rise to an alternative, severe style. Some credited the change in silhouette to the Victorian dress reform, which consisted of a few movements including the Aesthetic Costume Movement and the Rational Dress Movement in the mid-to-late Victorian Era advocating natural silhouette, lightweight underwear, and rejecting tightlacing. However, these movements did not gain widespread support. Others noted the growth in cycling and tennis as acceptable feminine pursuits that demanded a greater ease of movement in women's clothing. Still others argued that the growing popularity of tailored semi-masculine suits was simply a fashionable style, and indicated neither advanced views nor the need for practical clothes. Nonetheless, the diversification in options and adoption of what was considered menswear at that time coincided with growing power and social status of women towards the late-Victorian period.
The bustle made a re-appearance in 1883, and it featured a further exaggerated horizontal protrusion at the back. Due to the additional fullness, drapery moved towards the sides or front panel of the skirt instead. Any drapery at the back was lifted up into poufs. Bodices on the other hand, shortened and ended above the hips. Yet the style remained tailored, but was more structured.
However, by 1886, the silhouette transformed back to a slimmer figure again. Sleeves of bodices were thinner and tighter, while necklines became higher again. Furthermore, an even further tailored-look began to develop until it improved in the 1890s.
1890s dress style
By 1890, the crinoline and bustle was fully abandoned, and skirts flared away naturally from the wearer's tiny waist. It evolved into a bell shape, and were made to fit tighter around the hip area. Necklines were high, while sleeves of bodices initially peaked at the shoulders, but increased in size during 1894. Although the large sleeves required cushions to secure them in place, it narrowed down towards the end of the decade. Women thus adopted the style of the tailored jacket, which improved their posture and confidence, while reflecting the standards of early female liberation.