Victorian Fashion History

Victorian women's fashion

Studying Victorian fashion history for women can be a fascinating task, particularly if style history is one of your passions. This era in fashion ranged primarily from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. It's named for the influential English queen of the time, and her style came to define one of the most memorable periods in modern history.

Queen Victoria's Influence

When Victoria donned the Queen's crown in 1837, she was only 18 years old. Her influence wasn't immediate, as the style of the day was more Regency in tone -- French-inspired and romantic. As her reign progressed, her attitude came to symbolize the entire era. Victorian prudery and decorum were the rules of the day. Fashion, then as now, took its cues from society.

Queen Victoria greatly influenced how women perceived themselves and how men perceived them. A woman's "job" was in the home, as wife and mother. Wealthy women of the time followed Victoria's lead in dress and leisure pursuits. These are typically the women who defined Victorian fashion history, as the poor female laborers had no access to the genteel trappings of the upper classes.

Hallmarks of Victorian Fashion History

Queen Victoria enjoyed a long reign, spanning 64 years. Her fashion influence gradually changed over time, so the end of the era differed markedly from the beginning.

  • 1840: At the beginning of Victorian fashion, women's dresses featured sumptuous shapes -- the bodice fit closely, but the skirt was full and voluminous. Sleeves became slimmer over time. The tiny waist favored during this era was achieved with confining boning, a fashion feature that would plague women until the early 20th century. This early period lasted from about 1840 to 1860. Even during this time, subtle changes to Victorian fashion took place.
  • Mid-1840s: Around the mid-1840s, a style feature actually affected women's movements, which fit right into the severely limited role of women of the time. The sleeve seams lowered, which didn't allow women to freely move their arms. Victorian-era women -- already hampered by society's view of them as helpless, hapless creatures -- were now further restricted by their own clothing! Plus, in contrast to the rich colors frequently seen in the Regency style, Victorian fashion dictated more demure colors to go along with the idea of the weak and vulnerable woman wearing them. Since modesty was a much-valued virtue, women often donned detachable white collars, which could be washed more frequently and easily than an entire dress. Detached collars and undersleeves were detailed with dainty whitework, further enhancing a woman's refinement and place in society.
  • The flounced skirt: During the day, women began to wear short overskirts over their dresses, or skirts with several flounced layers. This widened the bottom silhouette even further, providing a good deal of contrast with the narrower top. Petticoats and crinolines under the skirts enhanced the bell shape even more.
  • Lace and shawls: Delicate lace and shawls worn over the shoulders were a hallmark of Victorian fashion. Because genteel ladies were expected to do little more than mind the home, their children and engage in needlework, lace became a feature on many bodices. This was mainly true for the upper classes, who began to wear more décolleté-revealing dresses -- lower class women didn't wear such garments. Additions and shawls were necessary to provide the modest air that Victorian women were so interested in portraying.
  • 1860s: Around this latter part of the Victorian era, fashion changed due to a couple factors: the sewing machine was recently invented and synthetic dyes created a wider range of colors. Skirts lost some of the volume in the front, but kept it in the back.
  • Princess and bustle skirts: As the 1860s wore on, crinolines fell out of favor because the popular skirt style featured a fuller drape in the back with a straight front. In addition, the colors of underskirts contrasted with overskirts, and skirts contained plenty of embellishments like ribbon and lace. Skirt trains were not only seen on evening dresses, but on day dresses as well by the early 1870s. The bustle skirt became very fashionable, with its large volume in the back, falling into a straight drape.
  • Early 1900s: As the Victorian era wound to a close, the drastic change in women's silhouettes was apparent. Instead of the wide, hooped skirts so popular 60 years prior, women wore slimmer, more elongated dresses all of one piece. They also wore nipped-waist jackets with full shoulders, to balance a wide-brimmed hat, which gradually replaced the more demure bonnet.

End of an Era

Throughout women's fashion history, societal roles had a great impact on clothing. As the Victorian era ended, a new style silhouette quickly moved in, which was more suited to women's burgeoning freedom and new movements designed to secure more rights for them. Looking back at earlier periods can give today's woman an idea of just how far the fairer sex has come.

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Victorian Fashion History