Despite the prim and proper feminine ideal of the time, fashions of the Victorian period created an often exaggerated, ostentatious look. Tight corsets, gigantic hoop-skirts, and outrageous bustles make today’s fashion trends look sedate by comparison.
Clothing styles were dictated by propriety, and stylish garments were a sign of respectability. The copious amounts of fabric used in the creation of Victorian dresses usually meant that most women owned few outfits. Detachable collars and cuffs enabled a woman to change the look of a garment for a bit of variety. Of course, wealthier women owned more garments that were made of finer fabrics and used more material and embellishments.
The Victorian period, generally the time between 1837 and the 1890s, is named after Britain’s Queen Victoria (1819–1901), a long-lived and highly influential monarch in an era when women had little power or opportunity.
In those days, women lived at the largess of men—first their fathers or guardians, then their husbands. A young lady was expected to be meek and mild, to acquiesce to her father’s or husband’s wishes. A woman’s intelligence and wit were restricted to social events and amusing conversation.
Employment opportunities were limited to teaching young girls, being a governess, domestic servitude, and later factory or mill work. Of course, rural women had plenty of work if they lived on a farm. Some women earned money from cottage industries, but the the Industrial Revolution put an end to enterprises such as spinning yarn and making lace at home.
The Industrial Revolution created new wealth for investors, industrialists, and merchants. It introduced a new middle class who, proud of their status, displayed their wealth with great ostentation. Women wore their status in fabric, and lots of it—from the mid-century hoop skirts to the bustle later on in the beautiful dresses and styles of the Victorian period.
The Industrial Revolution created a new urbanization as towns and cities filled with workers for the new mills and factories where women worked long hours in grim, dirty, and often dangerous conditions.
1836 ushered in a new change from the Romantic style of dress. Large Gignot sleeves suddenly slimmed and a seam line dropped the shoulder of dresses. A tight fitting bodice was boned and slanted to emphasize the waist. Cartridge pleats at the waist created volume in the skirt without adding bulk to the waist. Women of a higher social class were expected to be demure and indolent as reflected by the restrictive dropped shoulder lines and corsets.
- Dresses in soft colors could be refreshed with detachable white collars and cuffs.
- In the 1840s, extra flounces were added to skirts and women wore a short over-skirt in day dressing. Skirts widened as the hourglass silhouette became the popular look, and women took to wearing layers of petticoats. Bodices took on a V shape and the shoulder dropped more.
- Evening wear exposed the shoulders and neckline, and corsets lost their shoulder straps. Sleeves of ball gowns were usually short.
- Although women wore what we call “dresses,” many of these costumes were actually a separate bodice and skirt.
- Three-quarter length sleeves lasted through most of the Victorian period and some sleeves began to sprout bell shaped ruffles.
- For most of the 19th century, bonnets were the headgear of choice. Styles varied from plain to heavily ornamented.
Women’s hair was generally worn long, caught up in a chignon or bun. In the 1840s, ringlets of curls hung on either side of the head. In the 1870s, women drew up the side hair but let it hang in long, loose curls in back. Crimping became popular in the early 1870s.
Throughout the Victorian period, women wore false hair pieces and extensions as well as artificial flowers such as velvet pansies and roses, false leaves, and beaded butterflies, often combined into intricate and beautiful headpieces.
Makeup was mostly worn by theater people. The look for women in Victorian days was very pale skin, occasionally highlighted with a smidge of rouge on the cheeks.