In today’s world, women follow the ideals of simple and beautiful. In stark contrast, women in the plush Victorian era were subjected to ridicule and mockery if they weren’t dressed in exaggerated bustles, hoop-skirts and ostentatious accessories. Tight corsets and crinolines were the call of the era. Prim and proper were definitely on the cards, but so were monstrosity, etiquette, elegance and class. Garish gowns were quiet the trend back then and today’s fashion trends seem pretty placid in comparison to Victorian clothes. The clothing styles in the past were dictated by ethicality and dignity. The copious amount of fabrics used to make Victorian clothes were a part of the image that went with every damsel. The dresses always came with removable collars, cuffs or bustles that helped in creating a new style for the day. The wealthier women wore dresses and hoop-skirts made of rich, lustrous fabrics like silk with various adornments like intricate beading, lace, gems and jewels. Keep reading for more on the impossibly gaudy yet elegant fashion of this classy era.
Early Victorian Fashion & Makeup
- The Victorian period existed between 1837 to the late 1890’s. This was the period when Britain’s Queen Victoria ruled for a long and happy tenure in an age where women were oppressed and had little or no opportunity.
- Victorian fashion was inspired by Queen Victoria’s look and slowly, women of all classes and stature adopted this romantic style of dress and culture.
- Women in the early 1830’s ushered in off shoulder dresses, low necklines and sleeves that had gotten a lot less puffy. The seam lines for the dresses dropped at low levels, and the bodices tightened around the torso and the waist.
- These dresses were perfect to flaunt minimal skin and a woman’s curvaceous body.
- Soft colours, ruffles and catridge pleats at the waist enhanced the size of the lower body and, at the same time, kept it realistic and not too over-the-top.
- These were teamed with detachable collars and cuffs that could be changed for various occasions.
- Women started adopting the “V-shaped” look, with low, plunging necklines and deeper off shoulders, and corsets with no straps. The gowns also had minimal half-sleeves that were just a tad puffy.
- In the early 1840’s, the silhouette look became extremely popular with extra flounces added to the skirt and lesser petticoats underneath their attires. Evening wear was notably grand with plunging necklines, beading, lacing and bell shaped ruffles.
- Bonnets were the commonly used headgears in the late 19th century; some heavy and others subtle.
- The hair was usually tied in a chignon or ‘bun’ with lazy, messy ringlets sprouting from the side of the head, falling delicately on one side of the shoulder. These were teamed with fancy hair pins, extensions and artificial hair flowers.
- The Victorian women never wore make up. They believed in letting their skin glow in all its beauty with only a tad bit of blush on their cheeks to finish the look.
Important Victorian Attire
Corsets were commonly known as stayer or ‘estayer’, which in French meant support. These undergarment sets were made with the belief that it would support the weaker sex (women) literally and metaphorically. They were made out of Whale baleen in the earlier days and later, replaced by steel. Women would find these body hugging materials uncomfortable as they were exceptionally tight, meant to reform and restructure the body and waist of the women. The ideal woman in the Victorian period was one with a tiny, almost non-existent waist that exaggerated the derriere and the bust line automatically. There was an exaggeration for a tiny waist in the Victorian times, and the women believed with everyday usage of corsets, they would be able to attain the curves they so wished for. However, health practitioners have ridiculed corsets and have blamed them for serious health hazards like cancer, anemia, smaller lung capacity and maternity issues.
In the early 1850s, hourglass shaped skirts were replaced by exaggerated tapered skirts that flared ridiculously at the waist. These were supported by crinoline cages that resembled the heavy domes of cages. They were made out of thick horse hair which made it impossible to clean and maintain. It wasn’t easy carrying a heavy material such as the crinoline around and hence, manufacturers slowly started making hoop skirts that were lighter and definitely more economical. They added massive amounts of volume to the skirts making them look heavy when actually they were very light weight. Women with wealthier stature wore hoop-skirts made with the finest fabric and embellishments. However, this sort of fashion became so economical and popular that middle-class women, maids and even factory workers started sporting this style. The dress was teamed with a tight upper bodice and puffed sleeves. Empress Elizabeth of Austria and Queen Victoria were regular patrons of this style of dress.
The Princess Line
The new Princess Line dress turned out to be a relief for most fashionistas who agreed that Victorian fashion had gone a little overboard with its styling. The Princess Line became popular with girls and young maidens from affluent societies. It was a subtle form of dress, cut out in one piece with different fittings under the bust line and at the sleeves. It produced a slim silhouette and trailed a bit at the back. These dresses came in simple colours such as ivory, white, black, beige, pink and mauve that gave it a sense of sophistication and elegance that made women look younger, yet sober.
Bloomers were ridiculed articles of fashion that were first introduced by a woman named ‘Amelia Bloomer’. She thought of bringing in a welcome change to the flashy Victorian attire. Her idea was to have women wear loose, baggy pants under skirts, for ease of movement. This fashion had a horrific response with people condemning the whole idea and women seen strolling on the streets with bloomers were labeled “tramps” by onlookers. This sort of fashion never lasted and failed to make a mark.
Late Victorian Bustles
The bustle was an inclusion in the Victorian dresses that made the posterior look bigger and fuller. These were usually made out of horse hair or woven wire mesh. The whole idea was to buckle the bustle at the waist and let the gown flow over it, making a woman’s back shapelier. This revolutionized a new kind of concept in women’s clothing but was received with a tepid response. Not many skirts had bustles on them, though there were inclusions to make the derriere look curvy. The bustles came back with a bang in the 1880’s where women saw fullness as a mark of stature. However, these materials started looking a bit awry and quickly got out of the market, though there were other materials that brought out curves in a more subtle way in the 1890’s.
Women preferred a more tailored, elegant look for themselves and with the Victorian era almost coming to an end, a new fashion icon was looked upon; Queen Victoria’s son; Edward. These were more refined conversions of Victorian clothing that brought about a new fetish for the ‘pigeon-shaped look’ and monstrosities in the form of hats. A great example of Edwardian clothing can be seen in the James Cameron blockbuster; Titanic. Although the Edwardian era brought on a smoother transition into the world of fashion, the Victorian era has always been a symbol of haute-couture and a period where fashion was novel, unique and definitely the first!