A mid-Victorian lady would have many outfits for many occasions, such as calling on friends, attending dinners, balls or maybe just lounging around the house. And of course if the lady was in mourning, she’d have to don black (although there are a complex set of rules around mourning depending upon the relationship between the mourner and the deceased).
But no matter what the occasion, her outfit would always consist of many layers of clothes, including complex undergarments in order to achieve the desired silhouette of the period, which called for a narrow waist and full skirts, accentuating the feminine form (not that any man could get close to her for her enormous skirts).
A lady's outer layers for day wear consisted of: a jacket bodice, bell-shaped skirt, high-heeled boots, plus a bonnet and gloves. A mantle, shawl or other additional layer might also be worn for warmth (or style). We'll examine each of these elements in turn.
Mrs Amelia Bloomer attempted some modest reforms to women's dress in the early 1850s, including a simplified version of the bodice that was fashionable at the time, a knee-length, ample dress, and 'bloomers' – baggy trousers reaching the ankle. This new mode of dress was 'sensible and certainly not unfeminine' (Laver, 1973), but it failed to catch on.
Mantles and cloaks were worn for outdoor wear rather than coats at this point in the century. 'There were knee-length mantles with shoulder capes and rich, silk cloaks trimmed with velvet or lace.' (Matthews, 2018:25). Shawls and wraps were also an option for outdoor wear and were worn by women of all classes, although fabric choices varied depending on how wealthy you were. Cashmere shawls from India were the most costly and luxurious of all. Paisley-patterned shawls were also popular in the 1850s.
A lady would never venture into public with her hair down – it would be like going outside now without even brushing your hair. Shrimpton notes that in the 1850s 'Hairstyles grew wider around the ears and bonnets acquired a round shape: worn well back, they revealed the face and front of the head, although the back of the neck was often concealed with a bavoletor curtain of fabric.' (2016: 12). This trend of wearing the bonnet tipped back was inspired by Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III.
Bonnets could be made from a range of materials, from straw to silk. They became more ornamental, rather than helping to shield the lady’s face from the sun (she could always take her parasol with her), and were lavishly decorated. Our lady's bonnet is wreathed in silk flowers and tied witha large, red ribbon.
'Jacket bodices became more varied, a popular mode being a short, 'Turkish' bolero-style garment.' (Shrimpton, 2016: 12)
The basque bodice, which extended down to flare over the hips, proved popular: 'The bodice with basques blurred the waistline, and during the mid-1850s became even more rounded, with less boning.' (Shrimpton, 2016:13).
Just as etiquette demanded that your head be covered when going outside, your hands needed to be covered too. Kid gloves, made from leather such as kidskin (young goat skin) were worn in public for daywear.
As skirts grew wider, so did sleeves. Short, wide 'pagoda' sleeves had developed by 1857, and under-sleeves (engageantes) were usually worn under most open dress sleeves. They were made of white cotton or linen, and attached below the elbow.
Wide, bell-shaped skirts became popular, inspired by Empress Eugenie's super-sized skirts. Trimming the skirts with flounces or tiers was in vogue. Skirts often had a concealed pocket for carrying useful items, such as a handkerchief and a fan.
In the 1850s, ladies wore practical, heeled boots, as opposed to the heelless slippers of the previous decade.
One thing I've learnt is to put on my shoes before my corset when dressing, as bending over is a bit difficult otherwise, and my research suggests that Victorian ladies did the same.
The first synthetic dye was developed in 1856, meaning bright new colours were available for dressing, including: magenta, vivid purple, green, and bold blue, which were popular in Britain.
A lady in deep mourning wore black crepe. She might even decorate her bonnet with black crepe flowers. She'd wear a veil over her bonnet, and black kid gloves over her hands. How long this period lasted depended on the lady's relationship to the deceased. For a deceased parent or child, the period of mourning was one year. For a deceased spouse, it was two years, although the mourner could wear grey or purple, known as 'half-mourning' for the last six months or so. For lesser relations, half-mourning only was appropriate.
Now we've looked at the lady's outer garments, let's examine the complicated underclothing that lies beneath, acting as a scaffold for the dress. This consists of: a chemise, stockings, drawers, corset, and steel crinoline.
A linen or cotton chemise was the base layer, and worn against the skin.
Stockings came to the knee, and could be made of silk or cotton (or wool during winter). They were fastened in place with a ribbon garter.
Knickers hadn't been invented yet, so Victorian ladies wore open drawers, which reached just below the knee, or longer pantaloons which came to the ankle.
As well as creating the desired silhouette of the time, corsets also performed a similar function to modern bras in providing support for the bust.
I know from wearing my underbust corset that a corset forces you to maintain good posture, making it difficult to lie down or curl on the sofa. It also reduces your appetite.
'Stays or corsets in the 1850s-60s were short, lightly boned but often stiffened by cording or quilting.' (The Victorian Web, 2020). Corsets were white or beige in colour.
Petticoats could be made of linen, wool or cotton. They gave the desired shape to the skirt, but as skirts became wider, this meant an increasing number of petticoats had to be worn underneath. This was not terribly convenient, but then a new innovation in fashion technology appeared on the scene...
The steel crinoline frame was patented in 1856, solving the problem of ever increasingly layers of petticoats as skirts became more voluminous. One or two petticoats were worn beneath the crinoline, which was far less cumbersome than five or six! Note that a steel or 'cage' steel crinoline was different from earlier crinolines, which were made of horsehair or some other stiff material. This new crinoline consisted of hooped wires, which were light yet strong enough to support the skirt.
The steel crinoline was not as stiff as it appears, and could actually be quite sexy. It would sway tantalisingly - maybe displaying a flash of ankle! This meant that high winds were an issue...
Thanks to the steel crinoline, the fashion for wide skirts (and the skirts themselves) continued to grow into the 1860s. Crinoline-wearing women would take up a lot of space in a carriage or on a sofa. No gentleman could get neara lady thanks to her enormous skirt! As such, the crinoline was often an object of ridicule in magazines such as Punch, as this cartoon from January 1857 shows.
The main feature of an evening dress or ballgown was a pointed bodice, with short sleeves that sat just below the shoulders. By the end of the century, ladies could wear the same skirt with an evening or day bodice. Both bodice and skirt were often decorated with flowers or ribbons. Ballgowns could be made of many fabrics, with silk, taffeta, and muslin being popular choices. Lighter, pastel shades were favoured for evening wear. Debutantes often wore white to symbolise their purity. Older, married ladies wore darker colours.
Shawls and wraps could be donned for balls. White silk, satin or kid gloves that covered the wrists were always worn. A lady might also accessorise with a simple necklace and bracelets.
As for how to style your hair: 'ladies wore crowns of flowers or headdresses composed of bands of lace or ribbon with trimmings of flowers, ribbon, or other decorative ornaments puffed over each ear.' (Matthews, 2018:24).
- [Anon]. 1857. 'Under the Mistletoe' [Cartoon]. Punch, 3 January, p.10.
- Laver, J. 1973. A Concise History of Costume. [no place]: Thames and Hudson
- Matthews, M. 2018. A Victorian Lady's Guide to Fashion and Beauty. Barnsley: Pen and Sword
- Shrimpton, J. 2016. Victorian Fashion. Oxford: Shire Publications
- The Victorian Web. 2020. Women's Undergarments in Victorian England, 1850-1900. [Online]. [Accessed 25th October 2020]. Available from: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/costume/nunn6.html